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Lebanese Elections: Positive Change or Negative Status Quo?

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Lebanon’s Parliament slated May 6th, 2018 for its first elections in close to a decade.  The country’s constitution mandates Parliamentary elections every four years but due to the turmoil within the nation the last election occurred in 2009.Based on the lengthy delay since the last election and rule-alterations, the upcoming elections have the potential to result in significant changes to the government of Lebanon.  Officials expect a high voter turnout on Election Day for the 976 candidates running for 128 seats, including a record: 111 female candidates.  Conversely, even with the considerable amount of first-time young voters due to the nine-year delay, Iranian-backed Hezbollah may still keep its firm hold on Parliament, resulting in little progress or change.  Thus, the big question: is Lebanon on the precipice of true change or will the results just continue the status quo?

Based on a change to proportional representation, the new voting laws consist of each person voting twice: the first vote is from a list of pre-determined names and then the second vote is for the voter’s preference from the list. The convoluted nature of the voting process, multiple parties, and history of voting along sectarian lines makes it unlikely that the results will end in a major upset for any one group.  The religious diversity and complex political party system contribute to a population that self-identifies more with a specific group rather than as a nation.  The high number of candidates running from political dynasties is not unusual, but one aspect that is unfamiliar and unique to this election is the banding together of several activist groups in an effort to gain votes from all districts.  In a departure from past elections, the two long-established primary coalitions March 8 and March 14 are seeking alliances with other groups in a bid to reach a much larger population of new voters.

The current Prime Minister’s Future Movement Party is diversifying its candidates and including some that were previously viewed as political rivals.  One aspect of the upcoming elections that remains unchanged is the National Pact.  The National Pact mandates  “the President [elected by Parliament, not the voters directly] must be Maronite, the Prime Minister Sunni, and other positions would be reserved for the Shi’a and Druze as well as smaller minorities. A prominent position to note is that of the Speaker of the Parliament.  This role is designated for a Shi’a Muslim, the same religious affiliation as the Iranian-supported Hezbollah party.  The mandate does not guarantee the Speaker will come from Hezbollah, but the probability is high that whoever fills that role will be sympathetic to Hezbollah’s agenda.  The current President Michel Aoun supports Hezbollah and has signed a formal agreement with the group in 2006.  If the new Parliament re-elects Aoun, it further solidifies Hezbollah’s influence overt wo of the three leading government positions.

Stability from both an economic and security perspective are central issues surrounding the vote on May 6th.  In early April 2018, at the behest of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Lebanon received pledges for over 11 billion dollars from several nations to bolster the shaky economy.  The over 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon place a considerable strain on the economy, even with support provided by the international community.  Lebanon is in a tenuous position both geographically and politicallywith the Russian-backed Syrians on one side and Israel on the other, while one of its most influential political parties serves Iran, who also supports Syria and is vehemently anti-Israel.  Saudi Arabia is involved as well and plays a key role in trying to counter the efforts of Iran.  Many nations have an interest in Lebanon but honestly for their own national gain and not the good of the country as an independent nation.  Preventing an economic collapse, which would be followed by the inevitable grab for power, is vital to preventing a messier situation in the region.  Hezbollah still seeks to enact its “long-term goal of the Islamization of Lebanon and the establishment from within of an Islamic republic. While Hezbollah also agreed not to conduct extremist domestic operations when it became a political party, the potential collapse of the Lebanese government post-election provides the perfect opportunity for it to achieve the above-stated goal and would ultimately give Iran a more permanent and critically strategic foothold.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri proposed a plan that would stabilize the economy and create jobs for both Lebanese and Syrian refugees.  Securing the necessary funding a little more than a month before the elections is a victory for Hariri and his Future Movement Party, especially on the heels of his November 2017 unexpected resignation while in Saudi Arabia and subsequent rescinding of the resignation once out of Saudi Arabia.  Whether the resignation announcement was a stunt, done under duress, or a sincere act undid by pressure from other entities is not known.  During his resignation speech, Hariri claimed that Iran and Hezbollah were destabilizing Lebanon and speculation abounds that he revoked his resignation after Hezbollah agreed to not interfere in domestic issues.  Saad Hariri, formerly a businessman, became active politically after his father’s assassination in 2005.  He is also not a political novice, having served as Prime Minister from 2009 – 2011 and his father served as same five times between 1992 and 2004.  Some view Hariri, likely to remain Prime Minister after the elections, as taking a less hostile stance towards Hezbollah.  If true, that gives Hezbollah influence in all three central political billets – President, Prime Minister, and Parliament Secretary.  However, this also positions Hariri between Iran and Saudi Arabia. If he is working both sides it could result in a tragic political ending like his father.

The known unknown at this point is the reaction to and effects of the strikes on Syria launched by the United States, United Kingdom, and France in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on April 7th, 2018.  Of the players with interests in Lebanon, only Saudi Arabia and Israel are not wholly against the United States.  Saudi Arabia could provide Lebanon with much needed financial support and appears to be making overtures of challenging Hezbollah’s Parliamentary seats in at least one region in southern Lebanon.  The potential exists that Parliament may cancel the elections based on the situation and the aftermath of the strikes.  How the people in Lebanon will react if the government decides to cancel the vote is unknown but it could be the catalyst needed to incite an Arab Spring-like protest within the country.  Any demonstrations or unrest internally potentially gives an opening for Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, or any number of other groups to exploit the situation for their own gain.

Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has proven himself a savvy political operative with an astute ability to envision and move the group into an advantageous position without acquiescing to too many concessions. Initially, many thought, the move from terrorist organization to a political party would require Hezbollah to become more mainstream or disarm.  Nasrallah found a way to avoid this, and any “Lebanonization” of Hezbollah, making the transition on their own terms to suit their own end game.  Hezbollah’s only real compromise to gain acceptance as a political party was agreeing not to conduct attacks inside of Lebanon.

Hezbollah from its beginning as a terrorist organization built a reputation of being more stable and helpful than the Lebanese government. So much so that people would go to Hezbollah for essential services before trying to access aid through the government.  This ability to support the people aided Hezbollah’s transition from solely a terrorist organization to a legitimate political party.  The garbage crisis on 2015-2016 led to the “You Stink” movement in Beirut and brings up the question of Hezbollah’s continued influence and capacity to provide services.  If they are willing and able, why allow this garbage crisis to continue?  What did the party gain?  If Hezbollah was unable to resolve the situation quickly, then is this an indicator that the party is not as dominant a service provider as it once was?  This minute detail could be a crack in the façade of Hezbollah that opens the door for other parties to make political headway against it.

Previously, the government canceled elections due to internal unrest.  Thus, Parliament scheduling the May 6th elections is an essential first step in retaking ownership of their nation.  The government’s successes or failures past that point are more dependent on those elected.  It seems unlikely with the election reforms that there will be a strong Parliament able to stand up to surrounding nations’ interference.  Ideally, Parliament pressures Hezbollah successfully to stop working as Iran’s proxy.  On paper, this sounds like a winning solution but the second and third order effects might be more detrimental to Lebanon.  The country’s government and military are not prepared to counter Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, Saudi Arabia, or many other groups if they set Lebanon in their crosshairs.  The next best case is the government develops and implements a plan to use economic aid to bolster the economy rather than to line the pockets of those in power.

Now is not the time or the place for the United States to take the lead in shoring up the government of Lebanon, but it absolutely can and should be part of the international community supporting a nation trying to maintain stability in a historically unstable area. The UNDP Administrator summed it up best, “supporting Lebanese unity and stability will support stability in the entire region, and it will diminish the threats to peace that we are facing today in the world, but we can only achieve this by working together.” One can only hope that after so many years of waiting, the voting electorate shows the world it is ready to step into the spotlight and catapult Lebanon forward as a model of restraint, progress, and emerging democracy. If so, then it would be a much welcome change not only in Lebanon but across the Middle East as a whole.

Dana Ogle has over 25 years’ experience as a United States Marine, providing mission integration in ground, air, and cyberspace operations. She is currently a doctoral student in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University.

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Middle East

Justice delayed is justice denied. I lost my family to Iran Regime’s barbarity

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Mohammad Shafaei’s family- The toddler in his mother’s arm is Mohammad Shafaei

On May 4, over 1,100 families of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Iran wrote a letter to the international community. We called on the United Nations and European and American governments to take immediate action in preventing the regime from further destruction of their loved ones’ graves.

I was one of the signatories. I have lost six of my relatives to the regime’s cruelty. I was seven years old when my parents were arrested for their democratic ideals and activism.

My father, Dr. Morteza Shafaei, was a well-respected and popular physician in Isfahan. He was admired by people because he was extremely compassionate and giving to others. He was brutally executed by the regime in 1981 simply because he sought a democratic future for his family and his compatriots. The mullahs also killed my mother, two brothers, Majid (only 16) and Javad, and one of my sisters, Maryam, along with her husband.

By the age of 8, I had lost my entire family, save for one sister, as a result of the regime’s executions and crimes against humanity.

Mohammad Shafaei

The 1988 massacre stands as one of the most horrendous crimes against humanity after World War II. In the summer of that year, based on a religious decree issued by Khomeini, then-Supreme Leader of the theocratic regime in Iran, tens of thousands of political prisoners were liquidated. Most of the victims belonged to the principal democratic opposition movement Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).

It is believed that the regime massacred at least 30,000 political dissidents that year in the span of a few months. This much was confirmed by the designated heir to the regime’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri both in his published memoires and leaked audiotape in 2016, in which he condemned the ongoing crime against humanity in August 1988 during a meeting with high-ranking regime officials.

Those officials continue to serve the regime today in high-ranking positions. Ebrahim Raisi, for example, who was a member of the “death committees” in charge of rounding up and killing the political prisoners, is currently occupying the highly sensitive post of the Judiciary Chief. He is expected to announce his candidacy to run for President during the June election. After the June 2009 uprising, he said, “Moharebeh (waging war on God) is sometimes an organization, like the hypocrites (MEK). Anyone who helps the MEK in any way and under any circumstances, because it is an organized movement, the title of Moharebeh applies.” According the Islamic Punishment Act, the punishment for Moharebeh is death.

For years, the clerical regime has been systematically and gradually destroying the graves of the victims of the 1988 massacre in Tehran and other cities. As the world learns more about the killings and the international outrage grows, Tehran’s mullahs are scrambling to clear all traces of their crimes against humanity.

Most of us have forgotten where exactly our loved ones are buried, many of them in mass graves. The campaign for justice for victims of 1988 has gained greater prominence and broader scope. International human rights organizations and experts have described the massacre as a crime against humanity and called for holding the perpetrators of this heinous crime to account.

Paranoid of the repercussions of international scrutiny into this horrific atrocity, the Iranian regime has embarked on erasing the traces of the evidence on the massacre by destroying the mass graves where they are buried. The regime has tried to destroy the mass graves of massacred political prisoners in Tehran’s Khavaran Cemetery in the latest attempt. Previously, it destroyed or damaged the mass graves of the 1988 victims in Ahvaz, Tabriz, Mashhad, and elsewhere.

These actions constitute the collective torture of thousands of survivors and families of martyrs. It is another manifest case of crime against humanity.  

The UN and international human rights organizations must prevent the regime from destroying the mass graves, eliminating the evidence of their crime, and inflicting psychological torture upon thousands of families of the victims throughout Iran. 

Moreover, the Iranian public and all human rights defenders expect the United Nations, particularly the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet, to launch an international commission of inquiry to investigate the massacre of political prisoners and summon the perpetrators of this heinous crime before the International Court of Justice.

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Middle East

Can Biden Bring Peace to the Middle East?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

As the fierce fighting between Israel and the Palestinians rages on, the Biden administration’s Middle East policy has been criticized for its relatively aloof, “stand back” approach that has resulted in the absence of any pressure on Israel to re-think its harsh mistreatment of the Palestinians, vividly demonstrated in the recent police attack at al-Aqsa mosque and the attempted eviction of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, viewed by the Palestinians as part of Israel’s “ethnic cleansing.”

Consequently, a UN Security Council draft resolution on the crisis has been reportedly held up by US, which has prioritized the familiar narrative of “Israel’s right to self-defense” ad nauseam, without the benefit any nuances that would reveal any fresh thinking on the problem on the part of the Biden administration.  As in the past, the new crisis in Israel-Palestinian relations has sharpened the loyalties and alliances, in effect binding the US government closer to its Middle East ally under the rainstorm of Palestinian rocket attacks, highlighting Israel’s security vulnerabilities in today’s missile age.  Determined to crush the Palestinian resistance, the mighty Israeli army has been pulverizing Gaza while, simultaneously, declaring state of emergency in the Arab sections of Israel, as if there is a military solution to an inherently political problem.  What Israel may gain from its current military campaign is, by all indications, bound to be elusive of a perpetual peace and will likely sow the seed of the next chapter in the ‘intractable’ conflict in the future.  

Both sides are in violation of the international humanitarian laws that forbid the indiscriminate targeting of civilian population and, no matter how justified the Palestinian grievances, they too need to abide by international law and consider the alternative Gandhian path of non-violent resistance, notwithstanding the colossal power of Israeli army.

As the editors of Israel’s liberal paper, Haaretz, have rightly pointed out, the problem is the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is highly unpopular, unable to form a government, afflicted with a corruption case, and who has been appeasing the extremist elements in Israeli politics who have no qualm about the illegal expropriation of Palestinian lands.  Israeli politics for its own sake needs to move to the center, otherwise the Israeli society as a whole will suffer, as more and more educated Israelis will leave the country, Israel’s recent gains through the Abrahams accord with the conservative Arab states will be essentially wiped out, as these states will need to cater to the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiments at home or face serious legitimation problems, and Israel’s regional rivals led by Iran will continue to harvest from the present crisis.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any political will in Washington to spur a political shift in Israel that would secure better results in terms of the elusive Middle East peace and both President Biden and the Democratic Party establishment are concerned that their Republican opponents will seize on any tangible US pressure applied on Israel.  In other words, domestic US priorities will continue for the foreseeable future to hamper a much-needed corrective Washington influence on an ally that receives 4 billion dollar military aid annually and, yet, is unwilling to allow the White House to have any input on its handling of the Palestinians at home and the West Bank and Gaza.  

But, assuming for a moment that the Biden administration would somehow muster the will to stand up to Netanyahu and pressure him to cease its massive attacks on Gaza, then such a bold move would need to be coordinated with a deep Arab outreach that would, simultaneously, persuade the Palestinian groups led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to go along with a US-initiated cease-fire, followed by related efforts at UN and regional level to bring about the groundwork for a more enduring peace, such as by holding a new international peace conference, similar to the Oslo process.  

At the moment, of course, this is wishful thinking and the protagonists of both sides in this terrible conflict are more focused on scoring against each other than to partake in a meaningful peace process.  In other words, an important prerequisite for peace, that is the inclination for peaceful resolution of the conflict instead of resorting to arms, is clearly missing and can and should be brought about by, first and foremost, a capable US leadership, sadly hitherto missing.

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Middle East

Israel-Palestine Conflict Enters into Dangerous Zone

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Palestinians react as Israeli police fire a stun grenade during clashes at Damascus Gate on Laylat al-Qadr during the holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem's Old City, May 9, 2021. /Reuters

Since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in mid-April 2021, tension has escalated, with frequent clashes between police and Palestinians. The threatened eviction of some Palestinian families in East Jerusalem has also caused rising anger. But when Israeli security forces entered and attacked the unarmed Muslim worshipers, damaged the property, and humiliated the families, the situation turned into conflict.

Since the irrational and illogical creation of the Jewish State in the middle of the Muslim World, the tension started and emerged into few full-fledged armed conflicts and wars like; 1948–49, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2006 wars/ conflicts. Tensions are often high between Israel and Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Gaza is ruled by a Palestinian group called Hamas, which has fought Israel many times. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank complain that they’re suffering because of Zionists’ expansionist actions. Israel’s severe violations of human rights and extreme atrocities against Palestinians left Palestinians with no option other than protest and agitate. But Israel suppresses them and uses all dirty tricks to keep them silent.

It is worth mentioning that the United Nations Security Council has passed several resolutions to settle the Israel-Palestine issue peacefully. But Israel has not implemented either of them and kept using force to push them out and settle Jews in their land.

The State of Israel has been enjoying undue supported by the US, irrespective of who is president, but all of them support Israel unconditionally. Israel is the most favored nation of the US and the largest beneficiary of American aid, assistance, and support.

Ex-President Donald Trump helped Israel establish diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Donald Trump favored Netanyahu, dramatically moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His daughter and son-in-law were the facilitators for his support to Israel.

Till last news, at least 56 Palestinians have died under an array of aerial bombardments of the Gaza Strip. Five Israelis were killed too. Rockets, bullets, and rocks are flying around Israel and the Palestinian territories with catastrophic intensity in the latest wave of violence that periodically marks the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Palestinian protesters run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli security forces amid clashes at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound on May 10, 2021, ahead of a planned march to commemorate Israel’s takeover of Jerusalem in 1967 Six-Day War.  Security forces have set on fire the centuries-old holy Mosque. Serious communal violence has broken out within Israel between Arab citizens and Jews. Fires were lit, a synagogue burned, a Muslim cemetery trashed, police cars set aflame, and an Arab-Israeli man killed. The mayor of Lod termed it a “civil war.”

The ferocity of the fast-escalating conflict might be extremely dangerous as Israel uses hi-tech, advanced, lethal weapons. A week ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed close to losing power after the climax of four inconclusive elections. The outbreak of hostilities has allowed him the opportunity to make his latest appearance as a tough guy and ended coalition talks by rival politicians. He might politicize the conflict in his favor.

There is a severe danger of spreading this conflict to a large-scale war, which might engulf the regional countries. There already exists tension among Israel and few regional powers. The recent Israeli attacks on Russian bases in Syrian may also widen the conflict.

Any war in the middle-East will have dire consequences globally. It is appealed to the UN and all peace-loving nations and individuals to speed up all-out efforts to stop the conflict at this initial stage and avert further bloodshed. It is demanded that the Israel-Palestine issue must be settled according to the resolutions passed by UNSC. Wish immediate peace, sustainable peace, and permanent peace in the Middle East and globally.

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