By Anthony Elghossain
Special to The Daily Star
WASHINGTON: One year after the Lebanese clashed with each other in an eruption of violence that cost the lives of some 200 individuals, the country tensely awaits parliamentary elections on June 7. One month from now, the Lebanese will take to the streets again. This time, however, the battle is for ballots. Unfolding in a playground open to the ambitions of regional and international powers alike, the Lebanese election is likely to impact American policy with respect to Syria and Iran.

To make clear the consequences of a Hizbullah victory, some State Department officials have stated that American aid to Lebanon hinges on the election results, although there are some murmurs that Lebanon will not be isolated like Gaza, regardless of the electoral outcome in June.

The struggle in Lebanon has been framed as part of a regional stand-off pitting the United States, Sunni Arab regimes, and Israel against Syria, Iran, and various non-state actors (including Hizbullah). Much is true in this view the region, but the Lebanon’s fate now lies elsewhere. For all the emphasis on democrats and despots, moderates and extremists, and Sunnis and Shiites, rival Lebanese Christian factions now hold the political cards in the Levant. Christians and Muslims receive equal representation in Lebanon’s Parliament, making Christians politically significant even after relative political decline. In Lebanon, internal unity is a prerequisite for effective communal politics: Shiites have coalesced around Hizbullah and Sunnis have united behind the Hariri family, but the Christians remain divided. An ideological rift over Lebanon’s orientation toward the West and the Middle East has combined with a barebones struggle for internal supremacy to severely hinder Christian cohesion in Lebanon.

On the one hand stands former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel’s Phalange party and former militia leader Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces (LF). Both parties are hostile to Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs, and are currently part of a coalition supported by the United States and the West. On the other hand stands a camp that revolves around former General Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). At a crossroads, the FPM advocates for Lebanese sovereignty and a Christian voice in the political system, but has allied with Hizbullah, which receives Syrian and Iranian support. 

Rivalry between these factions has divided the Christian community since the late 1980s, when Geagea and Aoun disagreed over negotiations to end the Civil War and struggled for power in an autonomous Christian enclave. The dispute culminated in a "war of brothers," which resulted in the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese Christians and allowed Syrian troops to enter the Christian enclave. This remains a bittersweet moment in the Christian psyche for, although Syrian involvement ended the Civil War, it also brought a 15-year-long occupation.

Aoun’s subsequent exile and Geagea’s imprisonment (both arguably orchestrated by Syria) silenced Christian opposition to Syrian tutelage in Lebanon in the 1990s, but common cause led to cooperation between the parties. Two decades after the end of the Civil War, with Syrian troops out of Lebanon, the rivalry has renewed.

In 2005, Aoun returned to Lebanon and swept the Christian vote (Geagea was released from prison after the elections). Surprisingly, Aoun’s FPM assembled a large parliamentary coalition without support from other major parties. Shortly thereafter, the growing rift between Aoun and other Lebanese leaders led him to sign a controversial memorandum of understanding with Hizbullah.

Whatever Aoun’s motivations for realignment were – indeed, there are valid claims that the anti-Syrian coalition shunned him to check his growing influence – the FPM’s move is at the heart of Christian uncertainty in the country. Cooperating with Hizbullah has clearly cost the party support, but this has not necessarily translated into affirmative gains by the other factions. 

Much of the Christian electorate remains (publicly) undecided; though Aoun’s FPM is still the largest Christian group in Lebanon, a large measure of its success in 2005 was due to alliances with local politicians. Some alliances have faltered, and those that survive may actually hinder Aoun this time around.

In the pivotal Metn region, for example, local boss Michel Murr left the FPM’s umbrella coalition last year. Murr’s hold on municipal authority and close ties to the crucial Armenian swing vote make him a kingmaker in the area. In what would be a crushing blow to Aoun’s political prospects, Murr is on the brink of forming a coalition with the Phalange.

Elsewhere, in the town of Zahle, local chief Elias Skaff continues to support Aoun. However, Skaff is at the center of a controversy surrounding last year’s shooting of two Phalange party members. The opposing parties are still trading accusations and ramping up support, and it remains to be seen whether the Phalange and LF can defeat the FPM-Hizbullah bloc in this historically anti-Syrian district.

Finally, Aoun’s troubles were made worse by an uproar over Hizbullah’s presence in Kesrouan, a staunchly nationalist district in the Christian heartland. Hizbullah has triggered insular Christians’ suspicions by placing outposts in the area, which lies north of Beirut, and failing to explain how such activity fits with its external fight against Israel. Aoun may have swept Kesrouan in 2005, but his allies’ actions have moved the district back into play.

Of course, Aoun’s FPM may very well triumph in the elections, particularly if a year-long political truce has blunted Christian indignation over a May 2008 Hizbullah offensive on Beirut (Sunnis, who bore the brunt of the fighting’s consequences, remain bitter). Importantly, though, close contests exist where none did before. With the Shiite, Sunni, and Druze seats a foregone conclusion, only the Christian corridor running through Lebanon’s center is up for grabs.

Christian division may have contributed to a fall from grace, but it has also carried the seeds of new relevance. With Lebanon’s other communities squarely in one regional camp or another, Christians are the sole wildcard. Those playing games in the Middle East had better take notice.

is a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School and a former journalist for The Daily Star.

Anthony Elghossain