U.S. promotes free elections, only to see allies lose

DUBAI — Political spin masters in Lebanon have been trying in recent days to explain the results of a pivotal special election last Sunday, which saw a relative unknown from the opposition narrowly beat a former president, Amin Gemayel.

There has been talk of the Christian vote and the Armenian vote, of history and betrayal. One explanation, however, that all agree on proved crucial in this race: Gemayel’s support by the Bush administration, and the implied agendas behind such support, seem to have helped doom him.

“It’s the kiss of death,” said Turki al- Rasheed, a Saudi reformer who watched Sunday’s elections closely. “The minute you are counted on or backed by the Americans, kiss it goodbye, you will never win.”

“It’s the kiss of death,” said Turki al- Rasheed, a Saudi reformer who watched Sunday’s elections closely. “The minute you are counted on or backed by the Americans, kiss it goodbye, you will never win.”

The paradox of American policy in the Middle East – promoting democracy on the assumption it will bring countries closer to the West – is that almost everywhere there are free elections, the American-backed side tends to lose.

In part, regional analysts say, candidates are tainted by the baggage of American foreign policy – from support for Israel to the violence in Iraq.

But more important, U.S. support is often applied to one faction instead of institutions, causing further division rather than bringing about stability.

Arab liberals who have embraced America continue to see their influence fade in the region as more conservative and Islamist forces continue to rise, Rasheed said. Voters invariably frown on strength coming from abroad, he said; the only legitimate sources of strength any Arab politician can turn to are either tribal-based or religious-based.

“Last Sunday we saw that even if you are a former president running for a seat in Parliament, in a small area where everybody knows you, you can’t make it with American support,” Rasheed said.

Despite an expected sympathy vote – Gemayel was running to fill the seat vacated by the assassination of his son Pierre – and the former president’s name recognition, Lebanese Christians in the mountainous Metn region, along with a smattering of Shiites and others who live there, appeared to have voted for the most unlikely team: one allied to Hezbollah, seemingly sympathetic to Iran and Syria, and most of all, in opposition to America.

Alain Aoun, a political adviser to the opposition Free Patriotic Movement led by his uncle, General Michel Aoun, said: “We call on the U.S. to learn from this experience; they should not take part in any internal conflict or take sides, They should support all Lebanese.”

For much of the past year, Lebanon has been caught in a major confrontation between the American-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, and the Iranian- and Syrian-backed opposition movement led by Hezbollah and General Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, which has laid siege to central Beirut with a nine-month sit-in that has brought much of the government to a halt and strangled the country’s economy.

Sunday’s vote was widely seen as a bellwether for the country’s political leanings in that confrontation.

“This is a pivotal election because the government would like to show it has the support of the people,” said Laurie Abi-Habib, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Balamand, speaking Sunday afternoon before the results were known.

“If the government loses, it’s a sign to the international audience that everyone is screwing up; that the American plan isn’t working.”

Lebanon’s voters, in other words, appeared to have joined the Palestinians, who voted for Hamas; the Iraqis, who voted for a government sympathetic to Iran; and Egyptians, who rejected the calls of the imprisoned dissident Ayman Nour and the reformist Kefaya movement, in rejecting the U.S. agenda.

“The Americans think that supporting democracy should create positive reactions,” said Nicola Nassif, a columnist for the left-leaning Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar. “No one can be against democracy, sovereignty, independence and freedom. But not if it upsets the internal power balance, not if it empowers one party against the other, especially in a country where supporting one group can lead to violence and even civil wars.”

The problem is not necessarily the support itself, Nassif said, but that it invariably skews conflicts, worsening rather than easing sectarian and ethnic tensions.

“When the U.S. interferes in favor of one party, their interference leads to an explosion,” Nassif said. “The U.S. openly says it supports the Siniora government; but it should say we support the Lebanese government.”

Nassif added, “The March 14 coalition gets their strength from the U.S. and this creates a countereffect for them.”

There was, however, one American intervention that did work in Lebanon, Nassif said.

“In 1958, when the U.S. interfered militarily in Lebanon, it said it was to help Lebanon regain stability,” he said, speaking of President Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to deploy 14,000 troops in Lebanon to help stabilize the government of Camille Chamoun and prevent the united Syrian and Egyptian governments from destabilizing the country.

“Shehab was soon after elected,” Nassif said, referring to the election of General Fuad Shehab, the Lebanese Army commander, as president in 1958, “and no one protested their presence here; a few months later they withdrew.”

In 1982 the Aamericans “interfered militarily again and it ended in a disaster,” Nassif said. “They supported Israel and Gemayel against the Palestinians, who were supported by Lebanese parties. Since then, every time the Americans interfere, it ends in a war or in their expulsion.”

A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 9, 2007 in The International Herald Tribune. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


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