Civil war casts a sinister shadow on Lebanon's election

Michel Aoun has extended his persona to Alexander the Great. This is messianism gone mad

Robert Fisk

The Independent

28 May 2005

Oh for the glorious days of the Lebanese opposition, when Christians and Muslims marched in Beirut together to demand the truth about Rafiq Hariri's murder and the withdrawal of the Syrian army and free elections. The UN is still investigating the assassination, the Syrians have left, but the elections are turning out to be as sectarian and as mean as they always were. They start tomorrow and will demonstrate just how divided the Lebanese are in their new "unity".

True, the Syrians won't be watching. And, despite constituency boundaries gerrymandered by Syria's Lebanese friends in 2000 - President George Bush's demand that they be held "on time" meant that there was no opportunity of making them fairer - the "opposition" will probably control the new parliament. But just how they are then going to defenestrate President Emile Lahoud - one of the last symbols of "Syrianism" in the country - remains unclear.

Back in February and March, it all seemed so simple. Christian Maronite leaders, the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Bahia Hariri - sister of the murdered ex-prime minister - and Rafiq Hariri's son Saad - who is heading the ticket in his father's name - stood together in Martyr's Square to insist on Lebanese democracy. But then old General Michel Aoun returned from his 15-year exile in Paris and growled that he intended to "save" Lebanon. No more sectarianism, he shouted. No more corruption, we must have national values. It sounded good - until you realised that he held the official opposition in about as much contempt as he did the Syrians.

Aoun it was who fought a useless "war of liberation" against the Syrians in 1989 and 1990 which left 3,500 civilians dead. "All's fair in love and war," was his reaction when asked in Paris if he had their souls on his conscience. When he came back to Lebanon, the Maronite ex-army commander who once thought he was the Lebanese prime minister did just about everything a parliamentary candidate could do to spread dissension.

Arriving at Beirut airport, his first words were in true character. To a Lebanese journalist, he shouted: "Shut up." He went to pray at Hariri's grave and then proceeded to put it about that it was not Hariri - whom the Syrians believe inspired the UN resolution which demanded their military withdrawal - who had forced the retreat. It was Aoun, who had supported America's anti-Syrian legislation and who had sat beside Daniel Pipes in Washington when it was being drafted.

Many Lebanese believe the Syrians murdered Hariri, and Jumblatt certainly feared that the Syrians would murder him too after Hariri's death. But Aoun announced last week that Hariri and Jumblatt were as bad as Rustum Ghazaleh, the former head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon - because both had co-operated with the Syrians in the past. This was preposterous, but it helped to ensure that the right-wing Christians would give their vote to Aoun's men rather than the Hariri-Jumblatt coalition. During his hopeless war with the Syrians, Aoun was in the habit of comparing himself to Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle - and once, by extension, to Jesus Christ. Last week, he further extended his persona to compare himself to Alexander the Great. This was messianism gone mad.

Lebanon votes under a complex list system, which approximates to proportional representation but produces a 128-seat parliament which must be divided 64-64 between Muslims and Christians, even though Muslims now far outnumber all the Christian sects. Aoun's complaint was that the gerrymandering of boundaries meant that at least 15 Christian MPs would have to be elected in Muslim areas, men who might be expected to follow Syria's wishes in the assembly. Besides, so many candidates have now stood down that 15 men have already won their seats uncontested; nine of Hariri's 19-member list of candidates are among them, including Hariri's son.

The Hariri-Jumblatt coalition have allied themselves in Beirut with the pro-Syrian Shia Hizbollah party and militia. Ironically, Aoun has allied himself with several pro-Syrians - he is standing in the old Christian heartland of the Metn district.

And of course, the civil war casts its sinister shadow over this election. In the ferocious battles of 1983, Aoun's army and Jumblatt's militia fought each other in the hills above Beirut - along the very line which now marks the constituency boundaries between Aoun's and Jumblatt's list candidates. In the old frontline town of Dour Cheir this week, pro-Phalangist Christians returning to the Bekaa valley after unveiling a statue of old Pierre Gemayel - who founded the Phalange after being inspired by the 1936 Nazi Olympics - threw bottles from the windows of their buses as they circled the square in the town whose Syrian National Socialist Party headquarters are in one of the main streets. Lebanese troops fired in the air to prevent pitched battles and a ricocheting bullet killed a man.

The election results are predictable. Saad Hariri will dominate the opposition in parliament, Jumblatt will dominate the Druze members and the Christians are, as usual, divided. And a fair number of pro-Syrian members - Nabih Berri, for example, the Shia speaker of parliament - will get their seats back. Hizbollah will control the south. But it will be a Byzantine task to winkle Syria's last man out of his lonely presidential palace.