At stake is whether this small but geopolitically important nation on the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea remains in the pro-Western, pro-Saudi, free-market alliance and continues to attract lucrative business ventures from both domestic and foreign investors. Or will some businessmen tend to think twice before investing in the country? Will Lebanon continue to be the only center of free speech in the Arab world? Will the Lebanese demonstrate that they have learned anything from lessons of the past, or will they continue to place the national interest of foreign countries ahead of their own?
Some analysts fear if the pro-Syrians come into the majority and the country reverts back under Syrian-Iranian influence it could result in possible flight of capital, foreign and domestic, from Beirut banks.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who flew to Beirut for a one-day visit last week intended to show support from the Obama administration for the March 14 Movement, said that he had not come to Beirut to back any one political party, but added that the future of U.S. aid to Lebanon would depend on the nature of the next government in Beirut. In other words, a government with a Hezbollah majority would not be receiving U.S. and/or European aid.
"We will evaluate and shape our assistance program based on the nature and composition of the future government and the policies it advocates," said the U.S. vice president.
"I urge those who would side with the spoilers of peace not to miss this opportunity to walk away from the spoilers," Biden said in a thinly veiled reference to Hezbollah.
Why are these elections so important to the West, and particularly to the United States? Why did the Obama administration find it important enough to dispatch Biden for a one-day visit, the first visit to Lebanon by such a high-ranking U.S. official in 26 years? Indeed, the last time a U.S. vice president went to Beirut was in the aftermath of the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks at Beirut Airport in October 1983, in which 241 U.S. servicemen were killed. At the time Vice President George H.W. Bush represented President Ronald Reagan. U.S. intelligence believes Iran was largely responsible for that attack.
During his brief visit to Beirut and amid extremely tight security, Biden met with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Biden said that the United States did not want to be seen as meddling in domestic Lebanese politics. Yet the very presence of the American vice president in Beirut, less than two weeks before the elections, as well as his statement regarding the fate of future aid to Lebanon, leaves little doubt as to the nature of the visit.
The two principal sides vying for a majority of the 128-seat unicameral assembly are almost equally divided between the pro-Western, pro-Saudi March 14 Movement -- the current majority -- and the opposition, grouped under the March 8 Movement. While it remains difficult to make predictions, most analysts in Beirut believe that the pro-Syrian/Iran alliance will win by a narrow margin.
March 14 is comprised of Saad Hariri's Future Movement, representing the vast majority of the country's Sunni Muslims; the Christians represented by the Lebanese Forces (and various other Christian parties) under the command of Samir Geagea; and the larger of the two Druze clans, led by Walid Jumblatt.
The opposition is made up of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement -- which Washington regards as a terrorist organization -- and the second Shiite group, Amal; the smaller and less influential of the two Druze clans led by Talal Arslan -- though it is worth mentioning that during the last major clashes between Hezbollah's militia and the March 14 group, Arslan's Druze fighters sided with their fellow Druze in the Jumblatt clan, against their supposed allies in Hezbollah.
And last, but by no means least, is the maverick of Lebanese politics, former Lebanese army Gen. Michel Aoun. The former commander of the Lebanese army who started out in politics as vehemently anti-Syrian now finds himself allied to Hezbollah and Damascus. Well, maybe not "allied" as his supporters like to point out; he has a memorandum of understanding with Hezbollah.
So what would a March 8th victory mean? For the Lebanese it would mean that, although it is not expected that Damascus would dispatch troops into Lebanon once more, nevertheless, it would certainly mean that Damascus' influence over Lebanese politics would increase. One of the first casualties of a victory by the pro-Syrians would undoubtedly mean the demise of the special tribunal meant to judge the suspects implicated in the murder of former Prime Minster Rafik Hariri.
For the United States, a victory by the pro-Syrians and pro-Iranians would mean a serious setback for Washington's efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East.
(Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.)
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