Lebanon's oasis of freedom turns into a mirage

Electors are backing Syria's friends, writes Robert Fisk

Beirut - General Mustapha Tlass had described Lebanon as "an oasis of freedom and democracy" in the Middle East. The general - Syrian minister of defence, no less, as well as an admirer of numerous Miss World title-holders and Princess Diana - was reassuring the head of Lebanon's newspaper editors' union of his faith in the Lebanese parliamentary elections. Better still, Syrian Vice-President Abdul Halim Khaddam publicly pledged that Syria, which has 22,000 troops in Lebanon, would not interfere in the election process. All the Lebanese had to do, it seemed, was to vote for the candidate of their choice.

Lebanon, it should be added, has never been anything so exotic as an oasis of democracy. Pre-war governments were regularly packed with stooges and the retainers of the country's leading families. When parliament was asked to elect a president back in 1970, the speaker's call for a fourth ballot, which might have kept old Sulieman Franjieh from the presidency, prompted Franjieh's bodyguards to threaten the speaker with sub-machine guns. When he called up the incumbent president for help, the worldly Charles Helou gave this advice to his parliamentary speaker: "My information authorises me to tell you that if you persist [in the fifth ballot] there will be no survivors among those present in parliament." Franjieh won.

So mourn not, readers, for Lebanese democracy. Oasis or otherwise, not much has changed here. Accusations of fraud, intimidation, bribery and electoral abuse are par for the course in Lebanon; and, half-way through the staggered six-week polling for the 128-seat parliament, the country's electors are already giving their votes to Syria's loyal friends and allies in the government.

Nasib Lahoud, the most authoritative figure in the Christian opposition - who was elected - has accused the Interior Minister, Michel Murr, of "threats and coercive measures" against the electorate, while Mr Murr, also elected in the allegedly flawed polling in the Mount Lebanon constituency, accused Mr Lahoud of buying votes; to be exact, just over pounds 79,000 worth. Mr Lahoud then called Mr Murr a "gangster" and a habitual briber.

"Democracy has been defeated," the daily An Nahar announced on its front page after the first round of elections, while the independent Lebanese Association for the Democracy of Elections complained of fake electoral lists, false identity cards and threats against newly-naturalised Lebanese citizens; Lebanese who had just acquired citizenship, it seems, were told they would lose it if they voted the wrong way.

Already, Fares Bouiez, the Foreign Minister, Druze ministers Walid Jumblatt and Marwan Hamadeh, the Electricity Minister Elie Hobeika and Mr Murr have been elected - all good chums of the Syrians. The Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, is sure to be elected this weekend in Beirut. Albert Mokhaibur, an ally of Mr Lahoud and a fierce opponent of Syria's presence in Lebanon, lost. And so, oddly enough, did at least one of Hizbollah's candidates. For the old militia war between the pro-Iranian Hizbollah and the equally Shia, but nationalist, Amal movement - both allies of Syria - has resurfaced in political form with the two would-be guerrilla movements at odds over who should represent the electors of southern Lebanon.

The parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, chairman of Amal, invited Hizbollah to join his list - knowing they would not accept - and wished God's mercy upon Hizbollah when they refused. The elections are therefore likely to end with as much ill will as when they started.

When candidates challenged a law which divided the Mount Lebanon governorate into six constituencies, while keeping the other four governorates as single constituencies - a device intended to secure election for the Druze leader Mr Jumblatt amid the predominantly Christian Mount Lebanon - the country's constitutional court ruled that the law would, "in the national interest", stand for this election only.

The Christians - typically, and tragically, the most divided community in Lebanon - were split over whether to boy-cott the poll. Christians living abroad, and supporters of former General Michel Aoun - the messianic army officer who declared war on Syria before slaughtering many of his own Christian countrymen, and who was driven out of the presi-dential palace in 1990 - urged a boycott. Mr Lahoud and his allies gave opposite advice.

Prime Minister Hariri, who loathes the Hizbollah, declared the elections a battle "between pragmatism and extremism", while the Hizbollah leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, insisted that his movement would "not join any government list anywhere in the country".

But it also pays to be young and handsome. In Tripoli this week, 34-year- old Misbah Ahdab, the local honorary consul of France, picked up more than 73,000 votes, outdistancing even the old family squire Omar Karameh. A bronzed Adonis amid a sea of silver-haired retainers, poll officers believe he was given the vote of almost every female elector in northern Lebanon. So this is what an oasis of democracy means.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory