Lebanon's new beginning held back by history

Robert Fisk in Beirut charts the crazy voting patterns of tomorrow's elections
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The Independent Online
PLUS ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. So, welcome to the Lebanese municipal elections, the poll that will, supposedly, transfuse fresh blood - a phrase to be treated with great care here - into the political system as 200,000 Lebanese vote tomorrow for 7,662 council seats and 2,041 "mukhtars" (village leaders).

The only problem is that every town and hamlet in Lebanon, save for 21 (of which more later), will have to elect a Muslim-Christian council in exactly the same proportion to the old retainers originally chosen 35 years ago.

For such is the infatuation and fear of the sectarian system in Lebanon that no Christian can replace a Muslim, or Muslim replace a Christian, as mayor, mukhtar or majority council member.

The proportion of Christians to Muslims in each town council must remain the same as it was at the last municipal elections in 1963; and so the skeletons of Lebanon's pre-1975-90 civil war social life will continue to dominate the land.

Take Abdul Rahman Skafi, for example, a Sunni Muslim mukhtar from the Sidon area who claims to be 107. Sidon is a Sunni town and will, indeed must, elect a Sunni mayor. Mr Skafi, who remained mukhtar of one rural district for 40 years while the government automatically re-appointed him through the 16 years of civil war, believes he has grown too old for the job. So say all of us. But he's supporting his son Ahmed, to replace him. And Ahmed is almost 60.

Worse still, voters must cast their ballots in the town of their birth. Thus in the 400,000-strong Christian city of Jounieh, only about 20,000 citizens are eligible to vote.

A Lebanese Catholic friend born in Mashgera must vote in his eastern Bekaa valley town, where Christians were 50 per cent of the population before the war. Now they are 5 per cent. Hizbollah guerrillas (Shia Muslim) dominate the town; so it's one of the 21 villages, along with the entire Israeli- occupied zone of Lebanon, exempted from the poll, whose councils will be reappointed by the government with the old 1963 potentates in charge.

Odd things have happened, though. The fiercely anti-Hizbollah, multi- millionaire prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, was flirting with the Hizbollah for a joint list last week against his rival Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament. Now Messrs Hariri and Berri are talking about an alliance. High in the Chouf mountains, where Druze and Christians were slicing each other's throats in 1983, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Christian Maronite leader Dory Chamoun are making common cause to defeat independents and right-wing Christians. The exiled ex-General Michel Aoun (leader of a failed anti-Syrian "independence" war and current place of abode France) is backing a Sunni Muslim lady to support his cause in Lebanon.

Be sure that the results will make no difference. Be sure that enemies and friends will exchange places.

As that great Lebanese poet Khahlil Gibran once wrote: "Pity the Nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation."