Lebanese Wines

BEIRUT — Lebanon is known for its wines. The Bekaa Valley produces some truly excellent vintages. But what’s the favorite wine of the Gemayel political dynasty? “Michel Aoun won the election with Armenian votes, waaaaah!” (Say it out loud, it’s funnier.)
Yes, Michel Aoun’s candidate Camille Khoury, who no one has heard of before, won the election in the Metn district by a few hundred votes because the [Armenians](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenians_in_Lebanon) strongly backed him. The Maronite Christians, however, backed former president Amin Gemayel by a large margin. This has led Gemayel, the father of [Pierre Gemayel](http://www.back-to-iraq.com/2006/11/pierre_gemayel_has_been_assass.php), the slain industry minister for whose seat the election was held, to complain that Aoun doesn’t represent the real Christians of Lebanon and his election is somehow illegitimate. Newsflash: Armenians are Christians and have been before any other nation could say that, dating back to 301 A.D., before there even *were* [Maronites](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maronite). Gemayel is also calling on the religious authorities and the state to force a recount or even a new election in the Bourj Hammoud district, an Armenian enclave where Gemayel said the dead were voting. As I said before, Bourj Hammoud looks nothing like Chicago.

Continue reading “Lebanese Wines”

Lebanese by-election agonizingly close

BEIRUT — Well, in the words Dan Rather, the election in Metn is as tight “as the rusted lug nuts on a ’55 Ford.” Phalangeist Party officials say they won by a few hundred votes. The Free Patriotic Movement says *they* won by a few hundred votes. Both sides have claimed victory and both sides have said there were voting irregularities.
[Here’s a round up of the various stories from Google News.](http://news.google.com/?ncl=1118537831&hl=en) In general however, it looks like 43 percent of the voters came out in Metn, an astonishingly high number for an off-year election. (How many of those votes were Syrians naturalized as Lebanese and bused in from Damascus is unclear. But the voted for the Aounist candidate.) Today’s contest shaped up as a battle for the right to claim the leadership of the Christians in Lebanon. If Aoun loses, his chance of ever becoming president will be lower than a snake’s belly, channelling Rather again, because his appeal to the Shi’ite-led opposition was that he claimed to represent the Christians. If Amin Gemayel loses, it will be a huge blow for the pro-government forces. (Amin Gemayel is the father of Pierre and a former president. There is much public sympathy because he lost his son.)

Continue reading “Lebanese by-election agonizingly close”

Tomorrow’s by-elections in Metn

flag_of_lebanon_official_big.jpgBEIRUT — Tomorrow’s by-elections have turned into a critical test of political power here in Lebanon and the results will be seen as a bellweather for the influence of either the United States or the Islamic Republic Iran.
Some background on the election is here, in a column I wrote for Spot-on.com. I’ll wait while you read and come back.
All done? Good. Right now, the March 14 alliance, primarily made up of Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces and Amin Gemayel’s Phalange Party (which is related to the LF), is freaking out over the elections. They’re acting like people who are scared to death of losing. Meanwhile, Gen. Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement is acting like a party that’s already won. (Aoun is allied with the pro-Syrian faction in Lebanon and includes Hezbollah, Amal Movement and the Syrian Socialist National Party.)

Continue reading “Tomorrow’s by-elections in Metn”

Ain’t Nothing But a Family Thing

“My latest column from Spot-on”:http://www.spot-on.com/archives/allbritton/2007/08/aint_nothing_but_a_family_thin.html:

Lebanon of late has been seized by what, in the West, is a routine function of democracy: a special election. And how the country handles the Aug. 5 event, which has blown up into the latest crisis, is quite telling.
But first, some background. Lebanon’s a complicated political place and its insider politics have wider implications beyond its own small territory. These politics have deep roots, based on dynasties and warlordism, and the old families — which would be called “mafia” in less polite circles — that run this place believe that this democracy business, grafted on somewhat awkwardly after the end of the French Mandate in the 1940s, should ensure that seats to which people are “elected” should be kept in the family.
The election dispute brings this into sharp focus, revolving around the district of Metn, a Christian enclave in the hills north of Beirut. One of its representatives in parliament was Pierre Gemayel, who was assassinated last November by an ambush in the street. He was also the Industry minister, one of the youngest members of parliament and solidly in the pro-Western faction that controls the government here in Beirut. His death was a major blow to the so-called March 14 alliance as the coalition of Druze, Sunni Muslims and about half the country’s Christians has but a slender majority in Parliament and in the cabinet. If just a few more pro-government parliamentarians die or resign, the pro-Westerners will lose their majority in Parliament and the government will fall.
And for many people here in Lebanon, that’s the goal. The opposition forces, led by the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah and supported by Syria and Iran, take a decidedly anti-government, anti-U.S. and anti-Western stance. The opposition also, curiously, includes the Free Patriotic Movement, supported by the other half of the country’s Christians and headed by Maronite Christian and former Gen. Michel Aoun, one of Lebanon’s most controversial figures.
Bear with me on this digression; it’s important. Aoun is by all accounts a national hero, an unbalanced megalomaniac and, if he gets his way, the future president. At the tail end of the vicious 1975-90 civil war, Aoun was appointed prime minister of a caretaker military government by none other than Amin Gemayel, the slain Industry minister’s father, who was the outgoing president then and no consensus could be reached on who should succeed him. Aoun seized the opportunity and in 1989 declared a “war of liberation” against the Syrians then occupying most of Lebanon. By 1990, he had received the support of Saddam Hussein (who bore no great love for the rival Ba’ath dictatorship in Damascus) and this proved to be his undoing. When the U.S. went to war against Saddam in 1990, America let it be known that Syria could have Lebanon if it would ally against Iraq. And so, Syrian jets drove the general from the presidential palace and into a 15-year exile in France. He didn’t return to Lebanon until May 2005, following the retreat of the Syrians after a 29-year presence here.
So who is running to replace the late Pierre Gemayel as the Metn MP? His father, Amin, of course, the very man who appointed Aoun as Prime Minister back in 1988.
In a somewhat unprecedented challenge to Lebanese traditions of “hereditary elected offices,” Aoun — who is sometimes called NapolAOUN” for his messiah complex — is running one of his own candidates, upsetting the apple cart and splitting Lebanon’s Christian community even deeper. “In Lebanon, we don’t have laws, we have ethics,” said the pro-Western son of a prominent Shi’ite politician to me the other night as we discussed the Aoun-Gemayel spat in Metn. “It is not right that he tries to take the seat from the father.”
The Maronite Patriarch, kind of a local-level pope with an almost equal level of influence among Maronite Christians has also called for Aoun not to contest the election and stop dividing the Christians. “The Lebanese are used to letting emotions prevail over legitimate rights in situations like this, particularly tragic situations,” he said.
This casual attitude toward the holding of elections should distress anyone who claims to believe in and desire democracy in general and for Lebanon in particular. And it should really distress the Bush administration, which has pointed to Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution” of 2005 as a win in its desire to promote freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East as an antidote to extremism. But now, the very factions allied to the United States are looking to scuttle a democratic election, all in the name of preventing a further “split” within one of Lebanon’s sects. Well, I’m sorry, but public splits are almost the definition of democracy. And even more offensive is talk from the Gemayel clan that the seat “belongs to the family.” As one columnist for the pan-Arab London-based al Hayat newspaper said, “it is also the kind of village-based attitude that makes others nauseous.”
For while Aoun and his alliance with the enemies of America are dubious, shirking the necessary foundations of democracy — actual, fair elections — for a fake consensus among Lebanon’s Christians does little to resolve any of the real issues of Lebanon or of the Middle East. Democracy is not an add-on to a society, but a fundamental basis for one. For the government — which came to power democratically — to attempt to bully political opponents out of a race shows that Lebanon is not the showcase of progress that Bush thinks it is.
At the same dinner with the Shi’ite scion, another woman told me, “It is this way in the United States, too. Look at Bush and his father. Look at Mrs. Clinton. Soon you will have 28 years of two families controlling America. It is normal.”
No, it’s not. Sure, Lebanon has one of the most robust democracies in the Arab world. It doesn’t have a king or a pharaoh as Egypt does in President Hosni Mubarak. The Lebanese people pride themselves on their sophistication and like to look down on the authoritarian regimes around them as throwbacks to the Arab tribal mentality of the past. But even here, politics ain’t nothing but a family thing. And until that changes, the Bush administration, itself a political dynasty, will have little hope of pressing for democracy here, much less in the greater Middle East.

Packer answers some questions from O’Hanlon

George Packer got Michael O’Hanlon, he of the “infamous”:http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2007/07/31/ohanlon/index.html “op-ed”:http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/30/opinion/30pollack.html extolling the successes in Iraq, and “managed to suss out some details”:http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/georgepacker/2007/08/ohanlon-and-pol.html:

He spoke with very few Iraqis and could independently confirm very little of what he heard from American officials. In eight days he travelled to half a dozen cities — *that’s not much time in each*. The evidence that four or five Iraqi Army divisions, with most of their bad commanders weeded out, are now capable of holding, for example, Mosul and Tal Afar, *came from American military sources*. Pollack found that U.S. officers sounded much more realistic than on his previous trip, in late 2005. He gauged their reliability in answers they gave to questions that he asked “offline,” after a briefing — there was a minimum of happy talk, but also a minimum of dire gloom. The improvements in security, he said, are “relative,” *which is a heavy qualification, given the extreme violence of 2006 and early 2007*. And it’s far from clear that progress anywhere is sustainable. Everywhere he went, the line Pollack heard was that *the central government in Baghdad is broken and the only solutions that can work are local ones*. (My emphasis.)

Yeah, that’s pretty much what I expected. From my time in Iraq, I would often hear from local commanders who would tell me how great and successful their local area was going, but who couldn’t give me a broader picture. (How could they? They were busy trying to deal with micro-level stuff.) The commanders and embassy briefers who offered backgrounders rarely seemed to have feet planted in reality that I could see with my own eyes living outside the Green Zone. (The CPA was the worst, by far. It was better under Khalilzad, who was more of a straight-shooter when he was on background.)
But back to the “op-ed”:http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/30/opinion/30pollack.html. O’Hanlon and Pollack have apparently tried to walk back a bit from their triumphal tone that was probably what riled so many people up. (The headline wasn’t theirs, so cut them some slack on that one.) And they did have some caveats about the political process having “huge hurdles” to overcome. But while they may not have meant to deceive in their observations of what sound like real improvements in security, they should have known that war supporters in the White House and in the media would leap on their piece like it was a life preserver and use it in ways they may not have intended.
I’m surprised at the pair’s naivety in the writing and marketing of this piece. And I’m also surprised at their naivety in taking such a limited collection of data as painting a fuller picture than there is in Iraq.