The Meaning of the Recent Lebanese Election (and How Hariri Suffered a Stinging Defeat)

While Western media decried Hizbullah’s victory in last month’s election, any notion that the Shi`ite party can dominate Lebanese politics is at best an exaggeration, says As’ad AbuKhalil.

Part One of this article can be read here.

By As`ad AbuKhalil Special to Consortium News

One can’t evaluate the results of last month’s Lebanese elections without understanding the real power of the legislative branch, namely that Lebanon’s bizarre sectarian system is a deformed version of a parliamentary democracy.

The president ruled supreme prior to the 1989 Ta’if reforms, which ended the 15-year civil war and restructured the Lebanese political system. He was able to tailor the results of the Lebanese elections to his liking. This was done either through outright rigging (as Kamil Sham`un did in 1957 with U.S. help) or by gerrymandering.

Furthermore, the Lebanese president (who has to be a Maronite Christian) had absolute power and would often push the parliament in the direction he wanted.

But the Lebanese political system was thoroughly changed after 1989, and the powers of the president were greatly diminished, reflecting the changes in the balance of power between the various warring sects and factions in the war.

New powers were given to the Council of Ministers (the Cabinet), although there is still an unending constitutional debate over whether the Ta’if reforms really shifted the powers of the president to the Council of Ministers or to the office of the prime minister (who has to be a Sunni Muslim). The speaker of parliament (who has to be a Shi`ite Muslim) was awarded an extension of his term from one year to four, although he remains largely without meaningful authority.

The real power in Lebanon’s parliament rests with a handful of key zu`ama’, sectarian  political bosses, many of whom became war lords in the civil war, and not in the committees where draft bills are theoretically formulated. More often than not, the zu`ama meet in private and agree on key decisions and policies. Furthermore, these political bosses all have foreign sponsors, which means that foreign embassies often play a key role in the political decision- making process.

Former Prime Minister Salim Huss told me in 2000 that the U.S. embassy once handed him a draft law on artistic and intellectual piracy and requested that the parliament adopt it as is. The influence of the American-Saudi alliance over their Lebanese clients is arguably greater than Iran’s or Syria’s over theirs: Hizbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah’s influence within his camp can’t be compared to Sa’d Hariri’s in his.

To be sure, Syria exercised supreme control over Lebanese affairs prior to 2005, but often in conjunction with the Saudis and Americans. Ironically it was the Americans and Saudis, with France, that pushed Syria out of Lebanon in 2005, and now the Washington-Riyadh role clashes and competes with the role of the other camp, now headed by  Nasrallah. 

Nasrallah: Increased influence. (Photo by Salah Malkawi/Getty Images)

Thus, Nasrallah is not only acting on behalf of his party, but also of the Iranian-Syrian alliance in Lebanon and beyond. The leaders of the March 14 alliance, which was formed in the so-called Cedar Revolution after the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri in February 2005 and which eventually led to the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon, never had that much decision-making powers in their camp: they were mere obedient tools.

This became clear when March 14 leader Sa`d Hariri was ordered in late 2017 strapped to his chair and slapped repeatedly in Riyadh before being ordered by his Saudi masters to read a resignation letter on Saudi TV. After returning to politics in Beirut, Hariri tried to deny that he was humiliated. He now expresses thanks and gratitude for the “support” he received from his former jailer, Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince.

A Hizbullah Victory

Hizbullah’s fortunes in the May 6 parliamentary election, the first in nine years, attracted the most international attention. It was clear that Western governments and media were invested in the Lebanese elections when days before the vote The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal both wrote features on a lone Shi`ite candidate named Yahya Shamas.

No one—outside of Lebanon—had ever heard of this man (although I am sure he is well-represented in U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration files). He was featured in major U.S. media because he ran against Hizbullah’s list in the Ba`lbak electoral district.

Shamas was convicted of drug smuggling (and jailed) during the years of Syrian political domination, although the conflict between him and Ghazi Kan`an, the head of Syrian intelligence at the time, was over their “share” of the spoils. (Shamas lost, although he—like many other defeated candidates—contested the results and appealed to the constitutional court).

The election results were a victory for Hizbullah, which the U.S. State Department lists as a terrorist organization, but that doesn’t mean Hizbullah will “dominate” the Lebanese parliament as some Western media headlines would have one believe.

Yet how does one measure Hizbullah’s political fortunes from the results? If measured by sheer parliamentary seats, the party won only 14. All Hizbullah candidates won, except for one candidate in Jubayl, and that was because the election there is determined by the majority Christian vote.

The number of Hizbullah seats is not big but the party—when it comes to cabinet and parliamentary representation—always settles for far less than its actual political weight perhaps to avoid alarming its enemies in Lebanon and beyond. In fact it allows its junior Shi`ite partner, Amal Movement, to have more seats in parliament and the cabinet.

Amal obtained 17 seats. An examination of the preferential votes obtained by individual Hizbullah candidates versus Amal candidates indicates that Hizbullah is clearly more popular than Amal in predominantly Shi`ite areas, however.

But the ability of the close allies to maintain total political representation of all Shi`ite seats in parliament is always seen—more by Hizbullah enemies than its supporters—as a plebiscite on the matter of armed resistance and the preservation of Hizbullah militias.

The two Shi`ite partners form a joint political presence for the second most seats—29—in the Lebanese parliament. Their chief rival, the Sunni Future Movement (of the Hariri family) obtained only 21 seats, down from 35 seats in the last election.

This was a huge blow to the Saudi camp in Lebanon, and to the Hariri leadership. The Hariri Movement lost much of its popularity for a variety of reasons including the political incompetence of its leader, Sa`d Hariri, and his declining financial powers.

He does not enjoy the same fortune which he inherited from his father, and the Saudi camp (and apparently many Lebanese voters) do not trust him fully after the Saudis humiliated him. Thus Saudi Arabia denied him the largesse it had showered on his movement in the 2009 election.

The setback for the Hariri movement was also the result of a changing electoral system in which proportional representation in medium size districts caused Hariri’s Future Movement to lose Christian and Shi`ite candidates that it used to carry with ease. This defeat put an end to the Hariri political monopoly over Sunni political representation in Lebanon. The Hariri’s decline among Sunnis was due to their Sunni rivals who are allies of Shi`ite Hizbullah mostly because of the latter’s armed resistance against Israel and their opposition to Hariri family economic policies in Lebanon.

In a nation where the national army is weak, Hizbullah is seen, even by some Sunnis, as the best defense against a southern “neighbor” that has several times invaded and occupied Lebanon.  Some Christians have seen Hizbullah of late as a defender of Lebanon’s eastern flank against ISIS and Nusrah fighters in Syria.

Hariri: A thumbs down from voters. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images)

Even in Beirut, the stronghold of the Hariri family, Sa`d Hariri had to share representation of the capital with a rival billionaire (Fu’ad Makhuzumi) and a head of an Islamist organization (Al-Ahbash or the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects), which is aligned with the Syrian regime. To guarantee victory in some districts (namely Akkar and Biqa`) Hariri was obliged to invite to his lists known supporters of the Syrian regime.

The Outcome for Christians

Among Christian voters, the Lebanese Forces (favored by the Saudi regime) improved its representation, obtaining 15 seats (up from 8 seats).

The biggest loser among Maronite Christians was the Phalanges Party, which shrunk from five to three seats. The Phalanges Party now belongs to the history books, where it will be remembered for its particularly brutal role as an ally of Israel in the Lebanese civil war.

The Saudi-backed Lebanese Forces (LF) now carries the mantle of right-wing sectarianism, which was pioneered by the Phalanges. (LF was originally a military organization operating under the Phalanges umbrella during the war).

The Lebanese Forces however had a run for its money by the equally right-wing Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which advocated sectarian and racist stances against Palestinians and Syrians. The head of the FPM, Foreign Minister Jubran Basil, son-in-law of Lebanese President Michel `Awn, disturbed his alliance with Hizbullah by going far in mimicking the Phalanges’ ideology. He even paid tribute to pro-Israel war criminal, Bashir Gemayyel, a senior Phalanges official and commander of the LF who was assassinated in 1982 days after his installation as president by the invading Israeli occupation army.

We can either measure the election results merely by the political parties performances or by their stance toward Hizbullah and their armed forces.

If we take the latter as the criterion, then Hizbullah and its allies clearly won and now control more than half of the seats in parliament (close to 70 seats).  The  commander of the Iranian Quds Force, Qasim Suleimani, was mistaken when he bragged a few days ago that Hizbullah won 74 seats because his count includes opponents of Hizbullah who won on the lists of the Free Patriotic Movement.

But arithmetic calculations alone do not explain Lebanese politics. Deep sectarian divisions, and the willingness of the Saudi camp in Lebanon to engage in blatant sectarian agitation, impose limitations on any political victory by any side in the country.

Hizbullah knows full well that sectarian warfare is the last refuge of political losers in Lebanon. Furthermore, Hizbullah’s narrow religious-sectarian doctrine prevents it from ever being able to rule over all Lebanon, no matter how much support it may enjoy. In other words, Lebanon has not changed much—the results of the elections notwithstanding.

As’ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Lebanon (1998), Bin Laden, Islam & America’s New ‘War on Terrorism’ (2002), and The Battle for Saudi Arabia (2004). He also runs the popular blog The Angry Arab News Service. 

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16 comments for “The Meaning of the Recent Lebanese Election (and How Hariri Suffered a Stinging Defeat)

  1. robin
    June 18, 2018 at 06:47

    But for the term : ” Syrian REGIME ” I enjoyed the article .

  2. Jeff Harrison
    June 15, 2018 at 20:29

    Thank you very much for cluing me in on Lebanese politics. It’s also a primer on why religion should not be allowed in government. Yet all the governments in the Middle East are theocratic to one degree or another. I think the world would be far better off if we simply shipped all these bozos off to the dark side of the moon where they could be given enough territory so that each sect and flavor of religion could have their own volume of the moon (as Heinlein pointed out, we would live in and not on the moon). They could all live in splendid isolation and not have to worry about being infested by infidels.

    • Piotr Berman
      June 15, 2018 at 22:25

      This comment represents “common wisdom” in some circles, but all too often, what passes for common wisdom is quite common, but not exactly wise.

      Even today, most European states lack separation of religion and politics, although this is not particular problem when the majority is non-religious. Even so, Ireland was divided according to religion, and political parties in Northern Ireland can be easily identified as Catholic or Protestant. And what did the West do after the fall of Berlin Wall? Helped to separate Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Muslim in former Yugoslavia. For all separation of Church and State in USA, politics there is quite related to religion, even if “religion” may seem strange to someone coming from the other side of the ocean, e.g. is 2nd Amendment on the list of 10 commandments and is Ayn Rand a major theologian?

      More importantly, not allowing religion in politics backfires when it goes against electoral majority because it is enforced by military and eventually builds popular association of secular politics with violence and corruption. Upon closer inspection, this idea should reduce ALL Middle Eastern nations, including Israel, to colonial status. As a rather recent attempt in Iraq shows, this would fail in all possible ways, including the distancing of religion from politics.

      Since trying to “solve the religion problem” leads to colossal failures, one should concentrate on issues that can be addressed constructively. In Lebanon one such problem is the corruption of “sectarian leaders” by other states that delays or prevents the solution to many common problems of all groups in Lebanon.

      • Tim
        June 16, 2018 at 05:32

        A very important idea to balance the largely knowledgeable article. We have to wonder what would happen if Israel really negotiated a lasting peace with the Palestinians. But then this would require a comprehensive peace in the whole of the Mid-East, and that would have the Western powers, especially the United States, to disengage their historic control of electoral outcomes and oil resources. The US only wants free elections if it gets the candidates it pays for-the best system money can buy.

      • Sam F
        June 16, 2018 at 13:17

        Jeff’s observation that religion must be kept out of politics may be impractical in theocratic cultures, but It is not an unwise “common wisdom.” It is the informed judgment of the founders of the US, and has worked very well. Religion in politics does not reduce violence or corruption: it tends to tyrannical leaders and attacks on freedom of thought and on other religions.

        While sending religious fanatics “to the moon” does not solve the problem, the Mideast is effectively there. Had the US not involved itself there, its security and oil supply would be far more stable than it is today.

        • Piotr Berman
          June 18, 2018 at 17:45

          I meant that imposing ideas from outside makes the “local ideas” a matter of national pride and backfires. One should also appreciate that quality differs a lot between individual democracies and theocracies. Two examples:

          Governor of Texas asked the clergy of all denominations that would volunteer to pray for rain during a very severe drought. Total flop,

          Iranian soccer team won the first game during World Cup in a manner that I can’t explain short of divine intervention.

    • Antiwar7
      June 19, 2018 at 17:14

      The difference between the groups aren’t religious in essence. Those are just the cultural markers of self-identity in the various hereditary groups in the society; one’s nationality or tribe,in other words. What one “is”, by virtue of being born or married.

  3. jsinton
    June 15, 2018 at 20:01

    I’m looking for the important contextual info that Mr. AbuKhalil fails to mention. Like the extended campaigns of political assassinations of Lebanese politicians, who was killed, who benefited, who did it. Or perhaps we could have a mention of the STL, the investigation into the Hariri bombing? But what he really misses is how Israel regards Hezbollah as an existential threat, and by extension Lebanon. Lebanon has allowed itself to become essentially the forward base of the Iranian Quds Guard. Hezbollah, the non-state military actor, expressing total loyalty to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, claims to have 100,000 missiles pointed at Israel. You can bet the next time Hezbollah decides to shoot missiles at Tel Avi, Lebanon will get pulverized into rubble..or worse. So much is missing in the picture Mr. AbuKhalil draws.

    • John P
      June 15, 2018 at 23:14

      jsinton, Hezbollah grew from the Israeli invasion or 82. There was no reason for the invasion which Israel put down to the attack on their embassy in London England. In fact it was by Black September, enemies of Arafat. Zionists consider Lebanese territory south of the Litani river part of greater Israel, they wanted it in the original partition plan. That occupation and the natural resistance it created amongst the Lebanese was fertilizer for the growth of Hezbollah. When Israel was finally thrown out, the Israeli air-force laced southern Lebanon with miniature bomblets, (illegal by the way,) Many children and farmers were killed or maimed by them.
      Outside of war, Hezbollah had not performed any missions outside of Lebanon until, and the year slips my mind, they attacked Israeli soldiers on the border which they wanted for ransom for the release of Hezbollah prisoners who had been held for an inordinate amount of time. The Israeli determination to prevent that became a firefight and an Israeli soldier got killed and the situation went down from there. More wars, death for what?
      So why don’t Zionists look at the evil of their political ambitions and the normal, explainable reactions of the indigenous people they try to displace in this modern day and age. As the late Alan Hart called his series of books, “Zionism: the Real Enemy of the Jews”. how true. It’s time for Zionists to look inside themselves critically.
      All this talk of Russian involvement in the US election what about Israel and the Zionist influence. They were so upset with President Carter and his peace initiative, they formed an alliance with the Republicans and Reagan, gave arms to the Iranians on condition they held the hostages at the US embassy until the elections were over. Carter of course lost, and on the day he left, the hostages were released. That was considerable foreign and domestic intrigue. And why were the hostages taken in the first place? Because Britain and the US were upset with the elected Iranian government in 52 which was going to nationalize its petroleum industry as they were only getting a pittance for their natural resource. The evil Shah was installed in the government’s place.
      There have been accusations of Hezbollah terrorism in other parts of the world, Europe and South America but none have stood up to scrutiny but have been used to deface an opposition that Israel wants removed for reasons of Zionist ambitions.

      • Piotr Berman
        June 16, 2018 at 08:40

        jsinton’s question could be addressed more open-mindedly: what organizations perpetrated murders in Lebanon?

        Israeli intelligence perpetrated some of them, and is suspected in others, and the same can be said about organization. Every leader in Lebanon has some murdered predecessors. However, in the recent years there were no notable murders, so the importance of this “analysis angle” is not obvious.

        • Piotr Berman
          June 16, 2018 at 08:41

          something botched during editing, “same can be said about many organizations”.

        • Piotr Berman
          June 18, 2018 at 17:58

          I implied that one can try to explore assassinations in Lebanon, but apart from certain Mossad assassinations it is hard to conclude anything for certain so this exploration has little to explain. How that makes me zionist fascist, I do not know.

    • Tim
      June 16, 2018 at 05:47

      Lebanon has opted for practical survival instead of pie-in-the sky theories. The Ottoman Turks began to meddle with a largely peaceful country, and since then we have the strings of political influence attached to all of the fragmented groups there.

    • robin
      June 18, 2018 at 08:03

      Looks like you are lacking knowledge of that 2006 War . It is not Hezbollah who threatens Israel , but Israel that is trying to steal Palestinian and Lebanese gas and oil .
      Here for you. Israeli War on Lebanon and the Battle for Oil. —
      “We reiterate our firm and unequivocal position in decisively confronting any aggression against our oil and gas rights, defending Lebanon’s assets and protecting its wealth,” Hezbollah told Newsweek in an email statement.

    • Guy St Hilaire
      June 24, 2018 at 12:25

      Hezbollah will not send missiles into Tel Aviv unless they receive same from Israel .And Israel will not start and skirmish with Hezbollah because they know that some Israelis would get killed .They consider their blood sacred more so than anyone else’s .
      Israel can only go after defenseless people like in Gaza etc.

  4. Piotr Berman
    June 15, 2018 at 19:13

    I would be happy if AbuKhalil offered a bit more information and opinions. Is it projected that given more clear majority, the government will be formed in reasonable time (after the previous elections, there was a very long period without new cabinet)? Are there indications in which direction does the wind blow in Lebanon, which could be approximated from statements of Walid Jumblatt? Any hopes for a better solution of the trash problem that is an indicator of the functionality of Lebanese political system — or the lack of it? Wasn’t Jubran Basil a rather good foreign minister, standing up against Gulfie domination in Arab League? I could add a ton of other questions to AbuKhalil, an expert from Lebanon that I appreciated for a number of years. In short, I will wait for Part 3.

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