Lebanon’s Election: Free but Not Fair

May 22, 2005

Every week, my husband and I take a rickety old taxi to Hezbollah country. The emerald city of downtown Beirut, with its glittering luxury towers, drops away behind us; ruined buildings, their shell-shocked hulks festooned with laundry, loom ahead like ghost ships.

We soon leave Beirut proper and reach the dahiya — the dense and sprawling Shiite crescent, half suburb, half slum, that cradles the city’s southern borders. In the dahiya, home to my in-laws and a large swath of Beirut’s population, the recent anti-Syrian protests that became known as the Cedar Revolution seem like a fairy tale. “As an area, as dahiya, we’re not concerned about what’s happening in downtown,” one college student told me in March while demonstrations raged in Martyrs’ Square. “We regard what’s happening as a joke.”

Around the world, however, the candy-cane banners and multilingual college kids of the uprising caught the imagination of millions. Holding parliamentary elections on time, free of Syrian influence, became democracy’s new rallying cry. President Bush cautioned against delaying the poll, scheduled to run on four consecutive Sundays beginning May 29.

But Bush and other well-meaning Americans are ignoring a fundamental problem: With Syria gone, Lebanon’s elections will be free, but they won’t be fair. In Lebanon, Muslim votes, especially Shiite votes, count less than those of Christians. Literally.

This inequality dates back to 1943, when the French handed Lebanon over to the country’s French-speaking Maronite Christian elite and founded what is called the confessional system, with parliamentary and executive offices parceled out among the major religious sects. In theory, it provides a balance of religious power; in practice, it’s an entrenched im balance — and a writhing rat’s nest of corruption, with outside influences like Syria easily playing one sect off another.

Lebanon’s election law creates a byzantine web of provinces and districts, exquisitely gerrymandered to give each of 18 sects a certain number of seats in parliament. The number of seats each sect gets bears little relation to its current weight in the population. The U.S. State Department estimates Lebanon’s population at about 70 percent Muslim and 23 percent Christian. (Estimates vary, because Lebanon hasn’t held a census in 73 years, but few question that Muslims are a majority, with Shiites outweighing Sunnis. ) Yet to this day, the parliament must be split equally between Christians and Muslims. During the last election, in 2000, politicians running in the primarily Muslim south had to get three times as many votes to win a seat as those running in some Christian areas.

In order to maintain this political skew, Lebanese electoral law requires all voters to return to their family’s ancestral home towns to cast their ballots, regardless of where they actually live, or even where they were born. Shiites have to travel to a “Shiite area” to vote for mostly Shiite candidates, and so on. Thus my husband’s parents, who have lived in the dahiya for more than 40 years, will have to travel to Bint Jubayl, almost to the Israeli border, if they want to vote. They’re old and frail–most likely, they won’t bother to make the two-hour journey, just to elect somebody who won’t even represent them. “Nobody deserves it!” scoffs my mother-in-law, setting down plates of savory stuffed zucchini and hand-rolled grape leaves.

Another of the many ironies of the system is that Lebanon’s preeminent politician can’t ever be president; he’s barred from running for prime minister; and he isn’t even eligible to be speaker of parliament. Why? Because that politician — opposition leader Walid Jumblatt — is a Druze Muslim. The confessional system mandates a “troika” of leadership, where the president has to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim — regardless of who has the best qualifications for any job.

This state-sponsored discrimination extends all the way down to the lowest levels of the public sector, where government functionaries choose civil servants, from cops to college professors, by how they pray.

Our friend, science professor Mahmoud Faraj, experienced this firsthand. With a French doctorate and 18 academic publications to his name, Mahmoud is well qualified to work in any Lebanese university. But one of the colleges he applied to already had its quota of Shiites. “We’re going to try to smuggle you in,” the dean told him, “but don’t tell anyone.” Smuggle him in? Mahmoud was disgusted. “You don’t really belong to this country,” he says. “You belong to your sect.”

In America, where he lived for 17 years, Mahmoud worked for a Fortune 500 corporation and voted — twice — for George W. Bush. In Lebanon, if he goes to the trouble of voting, he’ll have little alternative to Hezbollah, the armed Shiite militia, because that’s who dominates the slate in his ancestral village. He’s thinking about casting a blank ballot.

In America, Mahmoud felt as though his vote mattered. Here, he doesn’t. “I’m 50 years old, and I’ve never voted in my own country,” he says, with a sad laugh. “With this system now, I think my votes will be insignificant.”

I see the results of this disenfranchisement every week. In the summer, when Beirut’s seaside breeze turns to a steamy blast, the Electricite du Liban stops bringing electricity to the dahiya, as it does every summer. The people turn to ishtiraq, literally Arabic for “subscription”: You pay a fee to some neighborhood Croesus who owns a generator. Look up, anywhere in the dahiya, and you’ll see the sky through a snarl of electrical wires that siphon ishtiraq from one concrete-block building to another.

Enter Hezbollah — a political machine for people left out of the political system. The party’s special status as an armed faction is the Shiites’ de facto consolation prize for being disenfranchised. For Lebanon’s underrepresented Shiite plurality, guns are the great equalizers: Arms and money flow through Syria from Iran, which is believed to finance the militant group to the tune of millions of dollars per month. In the dahiya and southern Lebanon, Hezbollah has become a powerful shadow government, building a network of schools, hospitals and charities.

The consensus outside Lebanon is that Hezbollah should disarm, as required by United Nations Resolution 1559, and take its place in Lebanon’s evolving democracy. But the question is, how? In the endless horse trade of Lebanese politics, Hezbollah will want something in exchange for surrendering its arms. If the party stops being Iran’s gun-for-hire against Israel, it stands to lose not just political power, but millions in subsidy. Hezbollah won’t consent to giving all that up while Lebanon’s political deck is stacked so heavily against Shiites.

The Bush administration seems to be waiting until after the elections to address the Hezbollah issue. But the upcoming elections are a rare opportunity: If Bush wants to help Lebanon disarm Hezbollah peacefully — and if he wants to deserve his reputation as a liberator of the Arab world’s downtrodden Shiites — he’ll encourage Lebanon’s Christians to give up their special privileges. And if Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah is the pragmatist he’s reputed to be, he’ll accept ballots and a census in exchange for his rocket launchers.

The Taif Accord, the 1989 agreement that has governed Lebanon since the civil war, requires the country to abolish the confessional system. So far, very few politicians have made any sincere attempt to do so. But the Lebanese people feel differently. A recent Zogby poll showed that 63 percent wanted to abolish the troika, and 69 percent wanted the president to be elected in a one-person, one-vote poll, instead of being chosen, as he is now, by parliament. Not surprisingly, Maronites were divided on both questions, while Muslims clearly preferred a secular system. A new Lebanese civil society group, Hayyabina (meaning “Let’s go”), recently called for a referendum to end religious affirmative action. The Bush administration and the United Nations should support them — not only because it might help disarm Hezbollah, but because it’s the democratic thing to do.

Meanwhile, politicians are plastering their grinning faces all over most of Beirut. But in the dahiya, few bother: Most people who live there can’t vote there anyway. Many of them plan to sit out the elections — my mother-in-law included.

Would she vote if she could do it close to home, in Beirut? She can’t quite believe the question: “What do you think this is?” she asks sardonically, picking up our dishes. “America?”