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    Middle East
     Jun 11, 2009
Lebanon’s voters sideline US fears
By Jared Levy

WASHINGTON - The victory of the Western-backed coalition in Lebanon's Sunday elections will likely allow the United States to avoid having to make the tough decisions about how to deal with the country that it would have faced had the opposition, led by an armed Islamist militia, won.

US President Barack Obama released a statement on Monday morning "congratulating the people of Lebanon on holding a peaceful election".

Obama's comments came shortly after Lebanese Interior Minister Ziad Baroud officially declared the US- and Saudi-backed March 14 alliance of Saad al-Hariri victorious in a number of consequential electoral districts, sealing the result of the election in their favor.

Sunday's national parliamentary elections pitted the incumbent

 

March 14 alliance against the opposition March 8 alliance led by Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun. March 14 won 71 seats in the 128-seat parliament while March 8 won 57. The results were somewhat unexpected as most polls had the March 8 movement winning a narrow victory.

March 14's victory provides an unexpected sigh of relief for the Obama administration, which was facing the prospect of dealing with a government led by allies of Hezbollah, which the US considers a terrorist organization.

During his visit to Lebanon ahead of the elections, US Vice President Joe Biden said the administration would "evaluate the shape of our assistance programs based on the composition of the new government and the policies it advocates”.

In his statement Monday, Obama lauded the process of the Lebanese elections, but steered clear of celebrating the result.

However, Obama issued a comment on US support for Lebanon going forward: "The United States will continue to support a sovereign and independent Lebanon, committed to peace and the full implementation of all United Nations Security Council resolutions."

UN Security Council Resolution 1701 calls for disarming all armed groups in Lebanon outside the control of the central government.

Many of the parties that fielded candidates in the election acted as armed militias during Lebanon's civil war that lasted from the mid-1970s until 1990. All have effectively disarmed except for Hezbollah.

Lebanon experts had predicted that a March 8 victory would greatly reduce the scope of US aid to Lebanon, particularly military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Andrew Exum, a former US Army Ranger and current fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), labeled the US Central Command and Department of Defense as winners in Sunday's Lebanese election.

"Both would have faced some really tough questions from Congress concerning aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces if Hezbollah had won," wrote Exum on his blog at the CNAS website.

According to some experts speaking ahead of the elections, a March 8 victory could have led to the US severely curtailing military aid to Lebanon, where the armed forces are considered a unifying institution.

While having put off tough decisions, the March 14 victory likely paves the way for a continuation of the somewhat shaky political status quo in Lebanon.

"It seems as if the only way things could go really wrong here is if March 14 very unwisely tries to tear up the Doha power-sharing agreement which could plunge the country back into chaos," wrote Arab opinion and media expert Marc Lynch on Foreign Policy magazine's blog. "I don't think anyone in Washington or Riyadh is advising them to do that."

Following the Doha Agreement, signed on May 21, 2008, Hezbollah ended its boycott of the government in exchange for a "blocking third" veto power in the cabinet. Now, as the post-election phase begins, the two sides will commence negotiating the makeup of the new Lebanese cabinet. Many commentators question whether the Hezbollah-led opposition will retain their veto power.

Benjamin Ryan, associate director of the US-Lebanon Program at the Aspen Institute, believes there is a chance March 8 will lose its blocking third veto power.

"The opposition will likely lobby for keeping their blocking third, and March 14 leaders have roundly rejected this," said Ryan. "There is a danger that the opposition could again paralyze the government and take to the streets to get their way, but this win on Sunday makes that much more politically difficult for them. March 14 is in a great negotiating position going into this debate, and if they handle this properly they stand a good chance of getting their way."

In his statement on Monday morning, Obama said, "You must respect the rights of minorities and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise. You must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party."

Obama's words can be seen both as a reminder to Hezbollah to keep its vow to abide by the election results regardless of the outcome, and a call to March 14 to remember that it lacks the mandate and might to avoid political paralysis if it attempts to freeze Hezbollah out of the political process.

The Lebanese parliamentary system is exceedingly complex, as political positions and proportions in parliament are determined by sectarian affiliation. The prime minister of Lebanon must be a Sunni Muslim, the president a Maronite Christian and the speaker of the house a Shi'ite Muslim.

The convoluted system makes for strange political alliances. The March 8 Alliance is led by Hezbollah, an Iranian-sponsored Shi'ite militia cum political party cum social welfare organization. Also a member of the March 8 group is the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Aoun, a Maronite Christian who is championed by his supporters as the face of Lebanese nationalism. Among the FPM and Hezbollah's political allies is the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party whose platform holds that Lebanon is part of Syria.

The predominantly Sunni Future Movement of Saad al-Hariri, son of slain former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, leads the March 14 Alliance. Future Movement's partners are the Progressive Socialist Party of Druze chieftain Walid Junblatt and Christian parties Kata'ib and Lebanese Forces, led by Amin Gemayal and Samir Geagea, respectively.

With their victory in the election, the March 14 movement will continue to lead the government. They will also have the lion's share of the say as to who will be appointed prime minister. Current President Michel Suleiman will retain his post. In all likelihood Amal leader and current speaker of the House Nabih Berry will retain his post as well.

(Inter Press Service)


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