All along the watchtower: Lebanese Elections 2009

June 7, 2009


Elias is often reluctant to discuss politics. He is your typical fun-loving Beiruti, a sucker for beaches and parties, and a good lot of fun to be around. He comes from a lower-middle class Christian family from a village east of Byblos.

The one time we have discussed his political leanings, Elias said that he is pretty worried that Lebanon will turn into an Islamic country. He feels that the rise of Hizbullah represents a threat to his identity and his history, to all those great things, that joie de vivre, that people from all walks of life seem to tumble head over heels for in Lebanon. Elias defines these positive things, from nightclub culture to a professed ideological pluralism, as inherently Christian, and feels that they are threatened by Lebanon’s non-Christian population, who are the majority.

He seems to conceive of Lebaneseness in exclusively Christian terms, like describing Hizbullah as not Lebanese, but Syrian/Iranian. I responded by mentioning that “Lebanese” was, perhaps, a problematic term in itself. Similar to the way that “British” is problematic: who counts as British and why? How is what is considered Lebanese/British linked to certainhistorical narratives, and not others? Who is excluded?  And what do these exclusions say about those who are included and the system that seeks to maintain inclusion at all costs?

He gets my point, but I can tell that I have not convinced him.

Elias is passionate, if slightly naive, in his arguments, citing those famous figures and members of his own family who fought for the independence of Lebanon and whose dreams and lives would be completely wasted should their vision of a Christian Lebanon be compromised.

In Lebanon, it is notoriaously difficult to change the location of your voting registration. Consequently, new generations return to the villages of their ancestors in order to vote, even if they have lived in Beirut for most of their lives. The pressures and expectations that arise from returning to a family context in order to exercise your political rights seem to be a major factor contributing to voting patterns being reproduced generation after generation. Though they may lead a relatively independent social life removed from too much family interference,  young adults tend to feel the weight of tradition when it comes to the ballot box.

Elias will go and vote in his village today, and will most probably vote according to his family’s leanings, somewhere between the right-wing Kata’ib (Phalange) and the marginally more fascist Lebanese Forces. He will vote for what he feels will best protect a country and a life that he really loves.


Another friend, Mustafa, is proud to announce his support for Hizbullah.

Now, Mustafa seems like an unlikely candidate to fill the “Hizbullah supporter” box.  He is about as far as you can get from the stereotypical bearded, kashlinikov-weilding revolutionary member of what most countries in the West define as a “ẗerrorist organisation”. For one, he is an atheist, and is not afraid to say so. For anoher, his mother is Greek Orthodox, and he has spent the majority of his life living amongst the privileged echelons of francophone Lebanon for a large chunk of his life. And he doesn’t have a beard.

Nevertheless, he maintains strong ideological support for Hizbullah’s policies of resistance and social justice. He admires them for their policies of empowering some of the most disenfranchised communities in the country through education and healthcare services. He admires them for their lack of corruption and integrity, in that their actions have been consistent with their principles, unlike most other Lebanese political parties who have been known to change their allegiance at the drop of a hat.

Consistent with his religious ambivalence, Mustafa believes in a secular Lebanon. He is convinced that the only possible avenue for secularism to take foot is through voting in the Hizbullah-led March 8th opposition. I ask him how a self-professed “Party of God”, the “Islamic resistance”, for all its virtues, can ever seriously proclaim to follow a secular agenda. Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

Mustafa responds that the March 8th coalition are committed to combatting sectariansm, no better exemplified by the fact that Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, the Christian component of the opposition, was a vocal opponent of the 1989 Taif Accord. The document that tentatively brought Lebanon’s 15 year-long civil war to a close, the Taif Accord were decisively sectarian, in that they did not break with  Lebanon’s confessional political system which dictates that certain government posts have to be filled only by members of certain religious groups (President: Christian; Prime minister: Sunni; Speaker of Parliament: Shi’a). Rather, Taif merely reshuffled the powers attributed to each of there positions, instead of ridding the system of its religious basis altogether. Aoun took a pro-secular stance way before anyone else (and was even admonished for it by Western powers who supported Taif) and therefore represents a movement that can bring secularism to Lebanon. Not surprisingly, Mustapha did not mention what Hizbullah’s role would be in that process…

Mustapha’s paternal family is from the Bekka valley, and if he wants to vote he will have to effectuate the 4 hour-long  there and back to the village in which he is registered. He is unsure of whether or not he will make the effort, since he is confident that Hizbullah will win in his constituency anyways. I ask him if this certainty does not translate into complacency, and that surely he should do everything in his power to ensure that his ideals are followed through and vote.

Perhaps, he replies. But the most important is that if the resistance ever needs me, I would definitely be there.

I chuckled at his comment, and explained that I thought that the resistance fighter beard would severely cramp his style.


Nadia will not vote because she doesn’t believe that her vote will actually change anything in Lebanon’s confessionalist political system.

Born into a secular Shi’a family in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Nadia self-defines as an agnostic, works in a bar, loves a good party; basically, not your average girl from a Shi’a background in Lebanon. She describes her self as “politically” supportive of Hizbullah, in terms of their emphasis on social justice for the disenfranchised and resistance against Israeli aggression and occupation, but she does not feel that they provide a compelling social vision for her generation. Nadia doesn’t feel like she should have to dress in a certain way or believe in certain tenets in order to be a virtuous citizen, and she laments Hizbullah’s conservative slant on those issues.

So she won’t vote at all. I asked her why she doesn’t vote blank, why she doesn’t use her voice to express her frustration with a polarised political system that does not represent her convictions or future hopes. She says that people like her are a minority, that the vast majority of Lebanese comfortably situate themselves within the boxes offered both by family tradition and by the March 14th majority/March 8th opposition dichotomy. Maybe, I say. But maybe also people who feel like you don’t say it, either because they are afraid to break with tradition, or because, like you, they do not think that their discontent can ever amount to a significant challenge to the status quo.

I continue: can you imagine the potential of a “Blank vote” campaign, which would have united people like yourself around a common cause? Imagine, if, amongst all the nauseating electoral billboards that have been ravaging roadside and countryside in this country spouting shallow principles (“Change” (FPM), “Resistance” (Amal), “Stability” (Kata’ib) etc), imagine if the ideological onslaught was broken by huge, white, blank billboards? Imagine the peace of mind that it would have brought to those doubtless hundreds and probably thousands who are tired of the numbing rhetoric, who are fed up of the spectacle and hollowness and denounce the Lebanese political system for what it is: a pile of dynastic, selfish, sectarian bullshit.

She shrugs: politics has never done anything good for this country, and it wont start anytime soon. And that is it. A bright young mind, a mover and shaker in civil society groups, has been alienated by the political process.

Elections, but democracy?

Lebanese democracy, though definitely a few steps ahead of political systems in other Arab countries, is deeply flawed on many levels. Beyond the staticism provided by Lebanon’s confessionalist system, the entrenched interests of family dynasties and big big bucks are perpetuated in a mafia-like manner. Most of the parliamentary seats, approximately 100 out of 128, are uncontested: they have already been determined according to trade-offs in parliament. The remaining 28 seats are those that will swing the balance.

There will be no surprises, for example, in Beiut III disctrict, which is already known will go to Saad Hariri’s Future Party. On the other hand, the competition is smouldering in Beirut I, where the Christians of Achrafieh are divided between the right-wing parties in the March 14 bloc, namely, Lebanese Forces and the Kata’ib, and the more ‘liberal’, progressive FPM of the March 8th opposition.

The hope is that this competition, in Beirut I or the other contested areas, will not degenerate into violence, which so far, as of 2pm on election day, it has not. Things have been mostly quiet so far, with a few skirmishes breaking out here and there, but nothing more serious.

All along the watchtower

The real test will be how things pan out after the results are announced, as soon as tonight and then onto Monday. To be sure, the government has taken huge measures to ensure that the peace is kept: some 50,000 security personnel have been deployed around this small country of 4 million.

Just yesterday, coming back from a pre-election beach session north of Beirut, we passed a convoy of about 20 tanks riding down the highway at about 50 km/h. Each one was topped with 10 smiling soldiers, a couple of whom were proudly displaying machine guns, winking at passing cars and generally lapping up every minute of their short road trip. In a country where men’s egos tend to be reflected inflated by the size of their cars (hence the popularity of Hummers), these soldiers were obviously revelling in their newly-acquired supa-coolness. They should enjoy it while it lasts. Because these poor blokes are the first line of defence in preserving Lebanon’s precarious order, and will be drawn into any eventual street fighting faster than you can say “There must be some kinda way out of here”.  And then, surely, their stylish khaki and big guns won’t be making them feel so cool after all…

All just another chapter in the tragi-comedy that is the unfolding of Lebanese history.


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