Ain’t Nothing But a Family Thing

“My latest column from Spot-on”:

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.