Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Lebanese strike a blow at US-backed government

by Robert Fisk

They've done it again. The Arabs have, once more, followed democracy and voted for the wrong man.

Just as the Palestinians voted for Hamas when they were supposed to vote for the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, so the Christian Maronites of Lebanon appear to have voted for a man opposed to the majority government of Fouad Siniora in Beirut. Camille Khoury - with a strong vote from the Armenian Tashnak party - won by 418 votes the seat that belonged to Pierre Gemayel, murdered last November by gunmen supposedly working for the Syrian security services.

While the Maronite vote had increased against Gemayel's showing in 2005 elections, the result was a stunning blow to the American-backed government - how devastating that phrase "American-backed" has now become in the Middle East - in Lebanon and allowed Hizbollah's ally, ex-General Michel Aoun to claim that "they cannot beat me". Mr Aoun is a candidate in presidential elections later this year.

True, the voting figures showed huge support for Pierre Gemayel's father Amin - himself an ex-president- who was standing for the parliamentary seat of his murdered son. Although he was a weak and fractious leader - Amin paid a state visit to Damascus to re-cement "fraternal" ties after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon - he proved himself a brave man in the aftermath of his son's murder, calling upon Lebanese to support the government rather than submit once more to the domination of Syria.

Khoury's score in the Metn hills above Beirut - and a 418 conquest out of 79,000 votes is hardly a crushing political victory - yet again emphasises the divisions among the Christians of Lebanon who have traditionally fought each other - rather than their more obvious enemies - throughout Lebanese history. The Crusaders fought each other in Tyre when Saladin was at the gates of the city; in 1990, Mr Aoun's own Lebanese army fought the Christian Phalangist militia while still trying to defend themselves from the Syrians. They lost both battles.

Amin's father Pierre - grandfather of the MP murdered last November - founded the Phalange in 1936 after being inspired by the Nazi Berlin Olympics. "I thought Lebanon needed some of this order," he admitted to me shortly before his death; the original Phalange dressed in brown shirts and gave the Hitler salute. But they had turned themselves into a neo-respectable right-wing party by 1982 when they were enthusiastically supported by the invading Israeli army which hoped that Amin's brother Bashir would be elected president. Alas, Bashir turned out to be less pro-Israeli than the then-defence minister, Ariel Sharon, hoped, and was himself murdered in a bomb attack shortly before his inauguration.

Old Pierre of Olympics fame is long dead - he did not even know his own age when I last spoke to him - and Amin's brother and son were both assassinated. For the government, there was one electoral light yesterday: the victory of Mohamed Itani in Beirut, a Sunni Muslim who scored 85 per cent of the vote for the seat of Walid Eido who was himself blown up by a bomb in June.

One begins to wonder, in Lebanon, whether the election results are more surprising than the means by which MPs are liquidated.