PRESSURES & WHAT NOT
These were all part of the masala called National Elections 2009. Not only this; on paper two major groupings --- the first known as March 14 backed by the west and USA in particular and the second the opposition, known as the March 8 --- were caught in a cliff hanger. With the west throwing its weight behind Harari, Hezbollah got support from within the Gulf. The final result: March 14 was ahead but not the clear winner. As Robert Fisk aptly put it, “There will be no Islamic Republic of Lebanon. Nor will there be a pro-Western Lebanese republic.”
But the situation is indeed getting increasingly curious. From mid-June till now, not only are there reports of local community pressures but international pressures too to cobble a cabinet somehow. International pressures, especially from the US and Israel, are more than visible but there are also other pressures from France, European Union and some neighbours. Besides, there are some recent developments. On July 29, it became clear that cabinet formation would be further delayed, due to problematic issues regarding the distribution of ministerial portfolios. Meanwhile, according to a report, tensions ran high in south Lebanon after Israel moved four Merkava tanks from the Arqoub region and deployed them 100 metres from the Hassan Gate in the occupied Kfar Shuba Hills region. It stated, “The tanks’ redeployment was accompanied by Israeli warplanes hovering over the area, before flying above the southern region of Hasbaya and Marjayoun.”
But the question is: Will it be just that? Or, would there be something more through unprincipled compromises? This correspondent was for 21 days in Lebanon, crisscrossing between the north and the south, with stopovers in three cities --- the historic capital Beirut, the port of Tripoli and the ancient city of Byblos. Besides, he spent a day in a village in a valley. Thus he got some interesting insights into what is happening, in a small country ravaged by wars against Israel and internal strife, and often caught in a web of US machinations, French machinations and what not. Even today, all attempts are being made for what some called a government of national salvation, some called a national coalition, while others predicted that it would be a mishmash of vested interests dedicated to a total neo-liberal economy in a terrain where 40 percent are still below the poverty line despite the dazzle of the capital Beirut. In select areas, Palestinians are struggling to make two ends meet in abysmal conditions.
GHOSTS OF PAST & PRESENT
Lebanon --- once a dream of exiled poets and writers, of tourists, some of whom came in search of the Paris of the Middle East, one of the oldest cradles of civilisation, yet a modern country --- is pining for peace and amity after long periods of civil strife.
The election results show the Lebanese are face to face with what an editorial said could be ghosts of the past competing with the present, to bring about some sort of a government with the full backing of foreign powers. In the midst of all this, poverty is on the increase, with even the middle classes barely finding ways to survive and the super-rich hunting for greener pastures. A poignant reminder all over in camps and on the roads are Palestinians in ghettoes, called refugee camps and unidentified elsewhere, with a few rich caught in a web of the very poor. A Palestinian in Beirut was seen saying with anguish: “We are angry, and hungry too.”
It is so in a small country with a big heart, just 4000 square miles in size with 18 religious sects, with 60 percent of the population of Muslims in a total population of around four million. And believe it or not, it was an election with heavy turnout not only from Lebanon but outside. One can’t vote from outside Lebanon. So how did they vote? Indeed, some voters abroad got tickets booked by interested parties before the polls. If you are a Lebanese outside, go and vote in the country. Add to the picture a long list of key politicians, mainly from the US, coming turn by turn to guide the voters on how to vote. Some time ago, Noam Chomsky said in an article titled “Season of Travesties: Freedom and Democracy in mid-2009,” released by Z-net on July 10, 2009:
“June 2009 was marked by a number of significant events, including two elections in the Middle East: in Lebanon, then in Iran. The events are significant, and the reactions to them, highly instructive.”
Reactions were similar throughout the mainstream. There are, however, a few flies in the ointment. He added, “While our thoughts are turned to elections, we should not forget one recent authentically "free and fair" election in the Middle East region, in Palestine in January 2006, to which the US and its allies at once responded with harsh punishment for the population that voted "the wrong way." The pretexts offered were laughable, and the response caused scarcely a ripple on the flood of commentary on Washington's “noble efforts to spread democracy to the Muslim world," a feat that reveals impressive subordination to authority.”
In India, the Frontline alone could afford a few comments. It said Egypt and France seemed to have tilted the scales in favour of the March 14 alliance. The coalition derives its name from the day on which a massive demonstration was held in Beirut in 2005 against Syrian influence in Lebanon, a month after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. The West had portrayed the elections as a proxy fight with Iran for influence over Lebanon. The US had unilaterally designated Hezbollah, which represents the downtrodden Shia populace, as a “terrorist” organisation.
The Obama administration gave a lot of importance to the election’s outcome. Washington sent Joe Biden, vice president, to Lebanon in the last week of May. It was for the first time in 25 years that a US vice president visited Lebanon. Biden tried to show himself to be neutral though he made it almost clear that future American assistance to the country would depend on the composition of the new government. Earlier, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton gave the same warning to the people of Lebanon.
POLICIES, DEBT AND COLLAPSE
Amid this international situation with all eyes on Lebanon from West to the Gulf, and totally in shreds, the country is caught in neo-liberal policies with the result that it has one of the largest debts in the world at 180 per cent of GDP and massive dependence on Gulf money in the middle of collapse of Lebanon’s productive sectors. As has been pointed out in the press in this regard, the re-election of key March 14 leaders to power represents, from a policy perspective, the likely resumption of nearly two decades of unchecked neo-liberal, free market ideology tailored to suit the big business and characterised by the blurring of public and private commercial interests. We can expect that the project of divesting Lebanon’s public assets and natural resources into private hands that began in the 1990s, but stalled during the last few years of political instability, will proceed with renewed vigour. The Opposition’s likely return as a junior partner in the upcoming cabinet does not change this equation much, as both Hezbollah and General Aoun accept neo-liberal logic.
In sum, as Karim Makdisi, a political scientist in Beirut, put it in a signed article, “while Lebanon’s June 2009 elections might have been internationally praised as ‘free and fair,’ it represented a step backwards in terms of long-term, socially progressive reform for the Lebanese themselves. On the one hand, it has re-entrenched sectarianism, deepened rifts and mistrust between Sunni and Shia communities, and brought out the chauvinist tendencies within the Christian elite.”
He added, “On the other hand, the elections returned to power politicians committed to crony capitalism and dependency on regional patrons. There are no socially progressive elements in either camp, and there is little hope that the newly elected parliament will address the inherent structural problems in Lebanon’s sectarian system that lead inexorably to conflict.”
Civil society, indeed, played an important role in the technical aspects of the elections. There was a lot of excitement and a lot of heat but there was always an attempt to whip up depoliticisation. In fact, there was a big charity bonanza visible connected with massive “NGO-isation,” and infatuation with western donors.
The situation today is that the US is wooing Lebanon as never before. As Marie Nassif-Debs, responsible for external relations in the Lebanese Communist Party, said in an interview to us, “Some perceive in these socio-economic and political indicators and declarations, precursory signs for a regrouping within a new political alliance which would include in addition to Saad Hariri and Walid Junblatt the centre right. The distinguishing feature for such an alliance would be “moderation” following the example of the alliance which was advocated for, and then reasoned, by the previous secretary of the state Condoleezza Rice between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.” She told us farther that Obama would be pursuing a more hidden but a cloak and dagger policy in the Middle East.
Quoting from a report of the Lebanese Communist Party, she added the following:
1) These elections witnessed the use of various methods for unlawful intimidation and corruption, both external and internal. More than 100,000 Lebanese immigrants were brought into the country, some of whom were even unable to speak Arabic. Votes were bought and positions of power were abused. In addition, the United States was highly engaged in trying to influence the result by sending various delegations headed by both the US vice president and the US secretary of state. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria also played a role in influencing the result of the elections. All the above actions were targeted at influencing the results in the 28 remaining electoral seats which had not yet been determined.
2) The first implications for these elections were manifested by the escalating security situation, particularly inside the capital Beirut. This election round, and what preceded it in electoral campaigning, slogans and practices, have increased the vertical, religious and sectarian divisions within society,
3) In addition to the escalation in the security situation, it should be recognised that there are ongoing attempts to reshuffle the political divisions with the aim of creating a third coalition backed by the president of the republic and including the head of parliament Nabih Berri (March 8) and Walid Junblatt (14th March). Another theory being circulated is about reinstating the concept of troika in power, which means that the president of the republic (Maronite), the head of parliament (Shia) and the prime minister (Sunni) should replace the executive and legislative powers. There is also increasing rumours about an imminent compromise, backed by the renewed entente between Syria and Saudi Arabia.
4) Regarding the status of the Lebanese Communist Party during those elections, the highly sectarian and religious tensions led to the party losing a large number of its voters. In addition, some of its members resorted to ‘tactical voting.’
WHERE AFTER THE LAST FRONTIERS?
Progressive circles see a new American strategic project, evolving which would be a continuum of the Bush era in a more masked manner and, after the spy rings were caught before the elections, Israel can be expected to unleash something more from its hidden armoury. The next few days could see more pressures for a government comprising all and sundry, with foreign powers giving an extra role to Lebanon through a variety of talks already on. Meanwhile, the cry for peace is on inside Lebanon. Rumours abound and there have been sporadic clashes too, called celebrity gunfire, in which people have lost their lives. The elections were enthusiastic; the people are by and large looking for a better deal. Lebanon, with its history of agony and ecstasy, boom time and crash times, foreign wars and civil wars, is now yearning for peace. The leadership unfortunately is composed of “orphans and ghosts of the martyrs past,” as the Lebanon magazine Executive put it. Interestingly, the same issue has a “Lebanese guide to buying an election.”
The electoral advertising rates by various media companies make interesting reading; electoral law violations by media have also been there. The common joke is that there is a big charity bonanza going on (bingo), and a bigger charity bonanza could come any time, for the country is flooded with NGOs --- with the good, the bad and the ugly operating in one name or another.
The attitude to the Palestinians seems to be of little concern, whether it be in the camps or in the roads. The desire to fight is still alive in their hearts, with the desire to exist. There is burning anger too, yet the ruling parties have shunned the issue in an election sworn off issues. The blank looks of some of the Palestinians with no ‘homes’ to call their own and no identity in Lebanon is a case in point. This reminds us of the lines of famous Palestinian poet Mohmoud Darwish:
Where should we go after the last frontiers,
Where should the birds fly after the sky?
note:This article took from the PeoplesDemocracy Written By S K Pande