Have outside powers manipulated Lebanon’s Christians?

By Adnan El-Ghoul , Daily Star ,  May 21, 2005

BEIRUT: Following his visit to Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, former Lebanese Ambassador to Washington Abdullah Bou Habib said that, instead of Bkirki crying for help, “We see the world’s greater powers asking Sfeir to help them.”

One couldn’t agree less with Bou Habib’s statement, nor help but wonder how he could see this type of relationship as anything other than a one-way street opposite the give-and-take principle, telling the Christian opposition to accept indefinite marginalization.

After being forced to send the Bishops’ Council a “strong warning,” Sfeir was further forced to ask Qornet Shehwan members to accept a “waiting list” status while the big electoral coalitions vacated a seat here or there. These coalitions, which “borrow” a Christian candidate from the opposition and sacrifice one of their own, can satisfy the Christians neither ethically nor substantially.

Moreover, Saad Hariri’s Future Movement cannot repeat its sacrifice of Ghattas Khoury for the controversial Solange Gemayel in Beirut by sacrificing Jean Obeid in Tripoli without risking serious a Sunni backlash.

Despite asserting their neutrality in the elections, it was thanks to France, the U.S. and even Saudi Arabia that Lebanon was “cornered by time limits” to accept the 2000 electoral law designed to keep pro-Syrian politicians in power.

This policy seemed puzzling.

Was holding elections on time more important to Washington and Paris than bringing the Christian opposition to power? Will a Hariri-Jumblatt majority bring the change long sought by the Lebanese?

Even inside the opposition many politicians have spoken of replacing one outside interference with another. Consequently, they say the election law that served one power could easily serve its successor under the same conditions that allow powerful coalitions to “manipulate or buy” electoral tickets.

Saad Hariri is convinced the opposition will win 80 to 90 of Parliament’s 128 seats, in which the Christians stay marginalized. The question is what change this opposition can bring to the country. Moreover, if changes do occur, will they match the ones U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman desires, particularly when many Lebanese still see “predicting change” as foreign interference?

The other side of that coin is the insistence by foreign powers that they are not interfering in the elections – saying they do not care who runs for what seat or how candidates choose their alliances – while most are convinced of their interference, and worse, they seem happy about the predicted outcome.

Following a meeting between Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun and Feltman, positive signs began to emerge from negotiations between the FPM and the Future-Jumblatt coalition.

Sources close to Jumblatt claim (without independent confirmation) the two negotiating parties did not only agree on electoral coordination but also on a post-election political program, as Aoun has insisted all along.

But soon after news of the deal broke, Aoun renewed his attack on the opposition, accusing them of betrayal and “leading an unfair election” that will bring back the same pro-Damascus faces. Moreover, Aoun extended his criticism and attacked U.S. policies for electoral interference.

Feltman is said to have tried to mend the rift between Aoun and Jumblatt, but has denied playing such a role, insisting on his neutrality. However, Hizbullah has not stopped accusing the U.S. of trying to manipulate the vote in preparation for the post-election era, in which the implementation of UN Resolution 1559 will top the international community’s agenda.

Local and international observers agree present electoral coalitions will not necessarily lead to political alliances, and the anti-Syrian opposition has lost momentum.

However, Hizbullah and the U.S. are approaching the vote without losing sight that their confrontation is inevitable. The two parties can easily define their goals and follow a strategy for the next political and diplomatic confrontation – if all goes well – in the near future, and try to win a new Parliament that would make each party’s mission more or less applicable.

It is not difficult to predict that the U.S. will have the upper hand in event of an opposition majority, even if it is a Muslim-dominated majority.

When local opposition parties could not agree on a program for change, or at least on Aoun’s proposed guidelines, should the Lebanese wonder who is leading the push for reforms?

Presently, political parties can only “support” or “oppose” Hizbullah’s resistance without any legislative or military power to tell the resistance it is time to dismantle its fortified division.

Accordingly, will the new Parliament succeed where the present one has failed? Or are the Lebanese supposed to stay idle, see their country’s fate decided by outside agendas and settle for the empty promise that the polls will lead them on the road to independence?