Fear over Syria may hold up Lebanon poll

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The Independent Online
DRAPED down the facade of the Syrian army's seafront barracks in west Beirut is a massive banner symbolising Syrian-Lebanese friendship. Two huge arms, one painted with the red, white and black flag of Syria and the other adorned with a cedar tree, stretch across the material, the giant hands clasped together beneath a map of the two countries.

On the map, however, there is no Mediterranean and certainly no Israel, just a vast yellow Syrian land mass with a little green Lebanon inserted into its western flank. It looks as if Syria is gobbling up its tiny neighbour.

However unwittingly, this crude banner accurately reflects the fears of many Lebanese - especially Lebanese Christians - that Syria's domination of Lebanon will be institutionalised in the country's first parliamentary elections in 20 years; which is why, only four days before the first votes are due to be cast in northern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, the Beirut Government may have to delay the last two-thirds of the poll - or postpone the elections altogether. President Elias Hrawi's cabinet convened yesterday as emissaries sought Syria's permission to defer the election, at least until the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the capital.

Lebanon, of course, is supposed by its inhabitants to be synonymous with democracy, a hypothesis that makes the events of the past few days all the more weird. In a part of the world where the people usually demand elections while governments refuse them, Lebanon has a government which insists on elections which a large proportion of its citizens clearly do not want.

At its simplest, the problem goes back to the 1989 Taif accord which stipulated that Syrian troops would help the Lebanese state - 'with Lebanese gratitude' as the official document cringingly put it - to extend its authority but would, after 'national reconciliation', withdraw from the capital to the mountains between Hammana and Ein Dara.

The redeployment was to have taken place this autumn, but the elections are scheduled to be held while Syrian troops still control most of the country, including Beirut itself. The Syrian vice-president, Abdel Halim Khaddam insists that the Syrian army is only in Lebanon to secure order and that the Lebanese elections have nothing to do with Syria. This, as they say, is a likely story.

In reality, Syria has every reason to influence the outcome of the poll. For it is the next Lebanese parliament which will elect President Hrawi's successor in 1995 - and President Hafez al- Assad of Syria wants a pro-Syrian Arab nationalist president in Lebanon, not a pro-Israeli like Amin Gemayel (who actually agreed to an unofficial peace treaty with the Israelis in 1983) or a rabidly anti- Syrian figure like General Aoun who went to war with the Syrian army in Beirut in 1989.

The Christian community, which is to begin a three-day strike tomorrow, claims that the presence of some 40,000 Syrian troops in the country will intimidate both voters and candidates to produce a puppet government in Beirut and that a new electoral law effectively gerrymanders constituency boundaries in favour of pro-Syrian candidates.

All Syria's old nightmares have been reawoken. Gemayel himself returned to Lebanon for 16 days to rally the Phalange into opposition, then departed hastily by boat after rumours of a death threat. Gen Aoun - still in exile in Marseilles but issuing angry denunciations of Damascus - cannot yet return but his former Foreign Ministry secretary-general, Farouk Abillama, has re-emerged with demands for withdrawal of both Syrian and Israeli forces from Lebanon before an election.

Even the hitherto mild and inoffensive Maronite Patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, has seen fit to demand a postponement of the elections, denouncing candidates as 'false witnesses'.

A columnist in the pro-Syrian As Safir newspaper hinted darkly yesterday that Sfeir was obeying the orders of the Vatican which was plotting, Borgia-like, to set up a separate Christian canton in Lebanon.

Syria's allies have lamented the Christian boycott. Even the pro- Iranian Hizbollah - scarcely a byword for Western-style democracy in the past - is insisting the poll goes ahead and is fielding eight candidates in the Bekaa alone in hope that their successful election will 'humiliate America'.

Billboards in west Beirut show a voting card bearing the symbol of the Hizbollah - complete with Kalashnikov - being stuffed into a ballot box.

Pity, therefore, that loyal friend of Syria, President Hrawi. Nineteen Muslims as well as Christians have now withdrawn their candidature. The Foreign Minister, Fares Bouez - Mr Hrawi's son- in-law - still supports a postponement of elections despite an incident last week in which someone uncharitably threw explosives into a house he was visiting in Kesrwan.

Under electoral law, Mr Hrawi could allow voting to go ahead in northern Lebanon and the Bekaa at the weekend and then indefinitely postpone the ballot in Beirut and the south - thus permitting both sides to claim a half- victory while buying time to persuade the Christians to participate.

He could postpone the poll altogether, though this would be a stunning political blow for Damascus. Or he could force the election to be held in the face of an almost total Christian boycott - thus reopening the sectarian divisions which lay at the heart of the 1975-1990 civil war.