My experience as a candidate
Is Lebanon a democracy or a compromising mentality?
While growing up in Lebanon in the 60s and 70s I witnessed several parliamentary elections that showed democracy at its best. My family would journey from Beirut back to our hometown of Kfarkatra in the Shouf district of Lebanon to vote. Elections were held on time, the results were announced accordingly, and despite occasional mishaps in the Shouf between the supporters of the late Kamal Joumblatt and the late former President Camille Chamoun, order was always kept and the dignity of the process was respected. The last election before the regional interferences and wars in Lebanon took place in April 1972 and I vividly remember the results: the Jumblatt slate won 6 of the 8 deputies.
After leaving for the United States during the conflict, where I lived for the next 30 years, the recent June 2009 contest marked the first time I ever voted in a Lebanese parliamentary election. It also happened that I was running in the Shouf as an independent candidate so I experienced being a first time candidate and a first time voter all at once.
I decided to run for parliament after my 30 years of advocacy for a free, democratic and independent Lebanon, including my participation in several political achievements for the country. I wanted to take those achievements and help Lebanon internally. It was a very personal and poignant journey back home as I returned to organize and manage my campaign, taking the lessons I had learned from the best democracy in the world.
Throughout my life in the States I have believed that the salvation of Lebanon comes from its emigrants. For the past 35 years, Lebanon has seen unrest and military invasions at different times from Syria, Israel, the Palestinian Fateh Movement and others, the only solution that can fix Lebanon once and for all should come from its sons and daughters around the world. They are its saving account.
I did not decide to undertake this campaign out of a sense of naiveté or to pursue ulterior motives. It was a serious endeavor to me, and I wanted to warn Lebanon’s political elite that we are coming. We, the emigrants, want to participate in the political process and see them as being incapable of moving Lebanon out from the quagmire they caused in the first place. They have shown themselves incapable of making the appropriate reforms toward a better statehood. And they are incapable of preventing others in the region from interfering in Lebanon’s internal affairs. Lebanon’s ruling class is from the past, remains stuck in the past, and is dragging the Lebanese people with it.
I was unsuccessful in my effort. But when I returned to Washington, one of my neighbors, a Lebanese who has played a role in Lebanon’s politics, told me: “the most important thing is, you came back with your integrity intact.” To me, this is a highly significant compliment. I do not want any part of those politicians who put their personal agenda, their political glory and their personal interests above the Lebanese people. I do not want to be among those politicians who turn their jackets and soil their integrity just to prolong their political existence. I do not want to be part of a political establishment that is sinking Lebanon and its people and selling out to regional foreign powers.
I learned quite a bit from this experience. I returned to my roots after 30 years, re-acquainting myself with the beautiful geography of Mount Lebanon, visiting its towns, valley and hills. But I also had a great time meeting its people and learning their needs, worries and hopes. I saw their efforts to improve their communities and listened to their plans to do more to meet urgent needs. I enjoyed meeting the younger generations I met and seeing their determination and dreams for their future. But there is a long way to go to restore the democracy I saw and experienced while growing up in Lebanon. I blame the evaporation of Lebanese democracy on the current generation of politicians who are changing the historical understanding and ideal of public servants who act in the interest of their constituents into an entrenched political establishment who compromises their interests through back room deals, an outdated mentality, and the willingness to allow constant foreign interferences in Lebanon’s internal affairs.
There was great hope for Lebanese democracy and independence after Syria ended its 30-year military occupation in 2005. But my experience as a candidate in 2009 left me greatly disappointed by the shortcomings on the part of Lebanon’s politicians, institutions, and constituency.
1. The March 14 coalitions make terrible mistakes and derailed the 2005 Cedar Revolution. By their own actions, they brought it down to the ineffectiveness we see today. 2. They failed to take advantage of two million mobilized supporters who had demonstrated on March 14, 2005 and did not take advantage of the Bush administration’s emphasis on promoting democracy in the Middle East. 3. The leaders had no strategy at hand and no vision of where to go in their meetings with U.S. officials. They ignored the importance of the March 14 phenomena and could not transform it into a National United Party to prepare for the 2009 elections with primaries. As a result, they won only 71 seats in the parliament instead of an overwhelming majority, and we can see their current inability to form a government. 4. Their hesitation to support United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 openly and publicly, which is the corner stone of today’s Lebanon independence and sovereignty, out of a desire to appease Hezbollah and Amal. If it were not for UNSCR 1559 their would have not been UNSCRs1680 and 1701. 5. They had no long term plan to overcome unexpected regional or internal changes. As a result, one of Lebanon’s most prominent leaders, Walid Jumblatt, shifted his support away from them and put the March 14 coalition in a crossroad of uncertainty and confusion.
For its part, the March 8 coalition has its own set of failures: 1. Instead of building an independent Lebanese state, they are instead building Hezbollah’s militias and hegemony. 2. Instead of promoting change and reforms, they have prioritized their confrontation with other Christian leaders in the March 14 and the competition for ministerial seats. 3. Refusing to learn the lessons of the past 30 years, they are constantly visiting the Assad regime in Damascus and giving the Syrian a window of opportunity to keep meddling in Lebanon’s internal affairs. 4. They are desperately seeking cabinet positions not to promote the welfare of the minorities they represent, but rather to derail the international tribunal charged with uncovering the culprits of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s murder. 5. Rather than stabilize Lebanon and bring security to its people, they want to fight Israel and leave the illegal border areas with Syria open as a means of increasing their cash and weaponry – all at the expense of keeping Lebanon unstable.
Both March 14 and March 8 received millions of dollars in cash from foreign powers to spend on their parliamentary elections and they are therefore both subject to foreign demands. The two rival groups also cooperated in parliament against allowing the election ballot to be printed and distributed by the election authorities. That effectively eliminating the chances for any independent candidate, such as myself, to win in any district.
Institutional changes needed
1. If the Lebanese people want to real change for the 2013 elections we have to allow the emigrants to vote from abroad, lower the voting age to 18 and allow the army, police and security forces to vote. 2. We have to have electronic voting systems in place in Lebanon and abroad to make the election process more accurate and transparent. 3. The ballots have to be pre-printed by an independent election commission and handed out to voters in the voting centers and only election authorities should be allowed in the polling centers. 4. No campaign workers or candidates should be present inside the voting centers. They should be 100 yards away from them distributing sample ballots to their supporters. 5. Eliminate what the so-called “roaming representatives” from entering voting centers, where they often intimidate voters. 6. Parliament should immediately begin work on a new election law that allows the Lebanese individual have the best representation possible. I believe this means Lebanon’s 128 districts should each have one man, one vote, and one representative.
In some cases, there should also be redistricting. For example, the Shouf – Ikleem district, where I ran, is Lebanon’s largest, comprising 105 villages within a huge geographic area. The Christians in this district feel that they are second-class citizens. They paid a heavy price in the 80s when they were displaced for more than 10 years. Many migrated into other areas of the country and many others outside Lebanon, and they are returning in very small numbers. The neglected Christian towns of the Shouf and the Ikleem need lots of development, but they have no political say and their percentage of participating in the elections is very low.
In my campaign, I challenged Christian leaders in both the March 14 and March 8 coalitions on this issue. If they are truly working for the interest of the Christians, why don’t they come together and change the geographical electoral district of the Shouf and the Ikleem and divide it into two districts with four deputies each? One would be the Shouf with two Druze, one Maronite and one Melkite. The Ikleem district would have two Sunnis and two Maronites. The division already exists in practice. If you travel from the Shouf toward the Ikleem, passing through the town of Gharifey, geographically you are naturally crossing from one area to another. Likewise, when you are traveling the coastal highway after passing the town of Damour, there is a natural boundary for another region. As a precedent, this district was once divided in the 1950s. The result would be that all the inhabitants of both districts, regardless of their community, would be better represented. They also should work immediately and together in returning the Christians of the town of Brih who are still displaced in the suburbs of Beirut. It has been now 26-year displacement for this particular village, enough is enough.
Lebanese need to see the big picture
A big burden lies before you, dear Lebanese people. Wake up and elect representatives that will work for the improvement of your lives, the protection of your country and will provide a healthy future for your kids. When you vote, you are not voting for a particular candidate, you are voting for Lebanon and you are voting for your own well-being. When you volunteer for a candidate and you give them your money and support, you are actually and personally participating in this process and you feel a personal reward and a sense of achievement. Voting is as much a responsibility as it is a right. Do not ask for a car to pick you up and or your family to take you to the polling centers, or ask for fuel coupons to fill up the gas tank. This is your national duty and the price of citizenship. Stop asking for money to vote. It lowers the standard and integrity of Lebanon’s parliament at home and in the eyes of the world. Look and notice what is happening to you. Learn from past mistakes and see how far behind you are vis-à-vis other nations and people. It is up to you to make the changes. You cannot depend upon your present leaders. So, for God’s sake wake up and save Lebanon for your future generations.