The Monarchical Democracy of Lebanon

For those Arabs who believe in liberal democracy, the Lebanese election is a source of both inspiration and despair. For where else in the Arab world is there an election that will actually produce the government of the land? Where else would you have the type of real suspense that will grip Lebanon on the night of June 7th as the constitution of the new Lebanese government will be determined? Many Arabs can only be buoyed by democracy at work in this way.

Alright, some of you out there will point out that a similar election exists in Iraq. But we must say that there aren’t many in the Arab world who are ready to sing the praises of a fragile democracy that literally came on the backs of hundreds of thousands of lost innocent lives, not to mention that the war in question was brought about by a certain W, whom the world is desperate to consign to the dark corners of the brain’s memory.

On the other hand, there are the details of the Lebanese elections. And in so many of those details Arabs cannot help but find signs of concern.

There is concern that the Arabs are perhaps historically and genetically unsuited to liberal democracy. While it is common to have long-lasting political dynasties in places as far and wide as Argentina, the US and India, the Lebanese have taken the art of political succession to new heights or, more accurately, unparalleled lows!

We are not talking here about one or two political dynasties. In Lebanon, it seems that a large number of the seats in Parliament have turned into family fiefdoms. Father passes on the mantle to the son, or the son to the brother, or the husband to the wife, and on and on. And we cannot help but marvel at how the Lebanese electorate is so ready to align its support in line with wherever the movement of genes takes them.

It has to be acknowledged that many of the political acts of inheritance were brought about after spates of assassinations that have marked Lebanese history since the 1950s. While the human angle to these tragedies is heartbreaking and must be condemned in the clearest terms, it should not serve as a justification for the persistence of a monarchical form of democracy. In fact, it can even be argued that a system that honours legacy over principle is the worst form of memorial for those who gave their lives for Lebanon.

Let us survey some of the leading illustrations of this democratic system of neo-feudalism:

Obviously, world famous Saad Al Hariri has inherited both the business and political leadership of the Lebanese version of Camelot. He controls the 14 March coalition, currently holding the majority of the outgoing parliament. As for the Phalangist party, also members of the 14 March coalition, political powers have been passed on vertically, horizontally and in every other possible direction. First cousins Sami Gmayel and Nadim Gmayel, both sons of former presidents, are running in Matein district and Beirut’s first district respectively. Not to mention that Sami’s father, Amine, is still the leader of the Phalangist party. After a long successful career as university students, supporters and friends, not to mention relatives, have unanimously agreed that the time for Sami and Nadim to bring change to Lebanon has come.

Without any doubt, the star of the 2009 elections is Nayla Tueini, the political child prodigy par excellence. Nayla, 26, is crowning a long and memorable 2-year career as a journalist by running the leading newspaper in Lebanon and by running to succeed her father in Beirut’s first district. If successful, she can look forward to sharing a cozy family experience in Parliament with fellow candidate and grandfather, Michel Al Mur (running in Matein district), and uncle Marwan Hamade, running in El Chouf district.

This political inheritance business is not limited to the forces of the March 14 majority, as it applies in equal measure throughout the list of candidates of the Opposition Alliance. Names such as Suleiman Frangieh (Zgharta), Omar Karami (Tripoli), Ahmad Karami (Tripoli), Raafat Ali Eid (Tripoli), Karim Al Rassi (Akkar), Prince Talal Ursulan (Aley) and Maarouf Saad (Saida) come to mind, all having inherited their political power and right to run from their families. As for Ghassan Rahbani (Matein), he is practicing the arts of asymmetrical political succession. For his authority does not stem from family members long steeped in the world of politics, but from the sound of music.

The list goes on and on. There are no guns or tanks on the streets that impose these hereditary choices on the people of Lebanon. And it is there that the heart of the deadlock lies. The people are voting, with a free will, for representatives on the basis of name and rights of succession.

However, it must also be said that the system in Lebanon has encouraged the perpetuation of such narrow choices. The electoral system, adopted in the Doha Agreement of 2008, served to limit the districts along narrower family and communal lines.

Any observer of the Lebanese political scene would agree that it seems rather utopian to foresee any change of the current status quo in the near future. In fact, any call for a white revolution à la Obama would most likely be labeled as unrealistic or naïve.

Yet history has proven that change will come as soon people will want change. Voices calling for independent choices in Lebanon have always existed. One could only hope that our cynicism will be swept away by 2013.

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3 Comments

  1. Jack Carter
    Posted May 8, 2009 at 5:11 am | Permalink

    The real test for these elections (and the badge of true democracy) is the extent of legitimacy passed to the government. Hereditary ascentions in a democracy must still pass “the Vote”, the assent of the people, and this fact inself distinguishes democracy from monarchy.

    The “W” you slid past is the son of a former US President and brother of a Governor. Family influences are well-known features of politics in democracies everywhere.

  2. Dima Sari
    Posted May 10, 2009 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    I do agree Jack that family influence is a normal phenomenon in democracies everywhere. However, we believe that such influence takes new dimensions in Lebanon as both the electors and the representatives seem unable to move away from the traditional family circles. Our article aimed to analyze the choice of the electors: Why is it that a free electorate would choose to remain within safe family choices? Also, as you are aware, the electoral system adopted in the Doha agreement in 2008 was specifically tailored to suit the needs of the current players making it almost impossible for a truly independant candidate to be considered seriously for the 2009 elections.

  3. Mohamad Itani
    Posted May 17, 2009 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading this article as it vividly describes the political scene around the elections in Lebanon.

    Regrettably, the people who will be elected to the new parliament will try hard to have the 2013 election law tailored to only fit them, their relatives and associates.
    However, one should take heart from the Obama story. Had it not been for the previous administration causing so much damage, Obama’s call for change would have been fainter and less effective.

    Is there a Lebanese Obama in the making?

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