When, oh when, will the Lebanese Christians stop destroying each other? General Michel Aoun’s Free Democratic Party (colour them bright orange) stood yesterday, along with their pro-Syrian allies, against the Phalangist candidate Amin Gemayel, former president and father of the assassinated incumbent MP, Pierre, murdered – by Syrians? By rival Christians? You name it – last year.
For Gemayel, read authority, the power of the democratically elected parliament, the government of Lebanon and, much more to the point, the US-supported government of Lebanon. For Aoun – who once claimed to be “liberating” Lebanon from Syria in a disastrous 1990 war, but who would now like to be Syria’s president in Lebanon – it was a heady moment. His candidate, Camille Khoury, may not win, but he will reformulate the politics of Lebanon where “pro-Syrian” may become once more a respectable political label.
The issues are deadly serious, in every sense of the word. Pierre Gemayel, son of the putative successful candidate Amin, was shot to death in his car last November, and so a vote in his Christian favour – there are few Muslims in the beautiful Metn hills here – was a vote against his presumed killers, the Syrian security services.
Desperate to avoid the language of civil war -which all of the candidates speak in private – Aoun had earlier addressed a rally in the Beirut suburbs from behind a bulletproof shield, and abused his opponents as “windmills of lies,” adding, spitefully: “I will not call them sons of snakes, but sons of rumours, and rumours are like a rootless weed. Once you pluck it out, it dies.”
If it seemed sinister, try Gemayel’s warning to opponents “the Metn will never be a suburb of Damascus”, adding Syria’s political allies, especially Ali Qanso, of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, supported Aoun. The people of these hills – where his son is in the family crypt in Bikfaya – knew the ex-general was “dragging them to a battle they did not want” and the electoral battle was “dancing over the blood of martyrs”.
Yet again, the Christians are being divided – much, no doubt, to Syria’s delight – and the danger of inter-Christian fighting, which last week took the form of stonings and beatings in the streets of Beirut, has been increased. The sectarian system of voting (courtesy, originally, of the League of Nations’ French Mandate) meant the Armenian Tashnak party is supporting Aoun, a fact that has outraged the party’s supporters in the state of Armenia. What, on earth, has Aoun ever done to acknowledge the 1915 genocide of one and a half million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks?
It all goes back to a simple equation; if the Lebanese would trust each other as much as they trust in Washington, Tehran, Tel Aviv, Damascus, London or Paris, they would be safe, but the sectarian system of politics ensures the de-confessionalisation of Lebanon would destroy the country’s identity. Thus it lives, in the constant penumbra of civil war.