Saturday, March 12, 2005

No one understands Lebanon
One of the things you notice pretty quickly when surveying the press coverage of Lebanon is that not only do reporters and pundits not understand Lebanese politics, they don't even understand Lebanese political institutions. A case in point -- the most recent column from Trudy Rubin, the resident foreign affairs columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I like Rubin, and she's normally pretty sharp, but she doesn't quite seem to get how it works in Lebanon:

Yesterday's demonstrators, however, were challenging U.S. domination. If Lebanese elections are held on schedule this spring, the Islamist, anti-Israel Hezbollah - labeled a terrorist group by the United States - will no doubt be one of the major winners.

Lebanese Shiites - the largest of the country's religious and ethnic groups - aren't against democracy, nor do they necessarily want a long-termSyrian presence. But they admire Hezbollah for its charitable role and for forcing Israeli troops out of Lebanon.

The demonstrators made clear that Hezbollah will play a major role in Lebanon's politics, whether the United States likes it or not. The other Lebanese groups that have been demonstrating - for democracy - will accept this.

If promoting Mideast democracy is to be the major Bush theme, it is crucial that the administration - and the U.S. public - not harbor illusions about what lies ahead.

It may be true that elections free from Syrian interference would give Hezbollah a boost, but it isn't that simple. Seats in the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies are allocated not simply along Muslim-Christian lines, but also according to sect. The Shi'a in Lebanon have been awarded 27 seats in the 128-member parliament, according to the Taif agreement that ended the civil war. That cap is firm. So even if elections were fully Democratic, Hezbullah -- a Shi'a party -- would be unable to fully control parliament without a significant change in the system. Here is the full distribution of seats:

Maronites 34
Greek Orthodox 14
Greek Catholic 8
Armenian Orthodox 5
Armenian Catholic 1
Protestants 1
Christian Minorities 1
Total: 64 Total: 64

Shi’a 27
Sunni 27
Druze 8
Total: 64

Each district is apportioned according to sect. So, for example, in the third Beirut district there must be 2 Sunnis, 1 Shi'a, 1, 1 Druze, 1 Armenian Catholic, and two Armenian Orthodox elected. The most positive thing about this system is that in these mixed districts (they are not all mixed), candidates must appeal to members of other communities, since all voters in the district vote for all candidates, even those from communities other than their own.

It's a complicated system, one that is unique in the world. But people like Trudy Rubin should be able to get it right.


At 3:05 AM, Blogger Stacey said...


While I agree with you, in general, that press coverage of Lebanon is ill-informed (at best), I'm gonna quibble with the details here.

(1) Rubin didn't say HA would sweep the elections, she said they would be among the major winners. It's is undoubtedly true, based on last year's municipal elections at a minimum, that if Syria weren't micromanaging HA-Amal relations, HA would control a much greater proportion of the Shi'a seats.

(2) There is such a thing as the bloc. HA "controls" a small number of non-Shi'a seats, particularly from the Biqa, where two Sunnis and one Christian vote as part of the Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc. The existence of voting blocs that cross confessional lines offers the fruitful possibility of building cross-confessional parties down the line, so I don't think this is something to be overlooked. Right now, those non-Shi'i members of the bloc are really just looking out for their own electoral interests, but still...someday?

So, while I agree that it's complex, it's a bit more complex than the "27 seat ceiling" implies. Peace out. -Stacey

At 11:03 AM, Blogger David Faris said...

Hey Stacey,
You're absolutely right. Hezbullah obviously enjoys some cross-sectarian support, and the informal alliance system in the parliament allows for the building of such gatherings. I just think that the general press tone has suggested the possibility of Shi'a domination of the parliament similar to the control currently enjoyed by the Sistani list in Iraq. Even if they picked up some of Amal's seats and garnered more support from other communities, HA would still be, at best, a small plurality.


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