The Washington Diplomat
Expat Tries to Run Clean Campaign In Lebanon’s Fractious Elections
Washington, DC - Michael Coleman
Walid Maalouf — a former U.S. diplomat and current candidate for the Lebanese Parliament — has a message for influential Lebanese expatriates in America, and especially those in the Washington region, who refuse to get involved in Lebanon’s upcoming national elections this month.
“You are standing on the sidelines and you are not participating in making a real change in Lebanon,” Maalouf said in a lengthy telephone interview with The Washington Diplomat from the Chouf District in Mount Lebanon, southeast of Beirut, where he was busy campaigning in advance of the June 7 elections. “I hope they will stand up instead of sitting in their Potomac mansions and criticizing something they should be a big part of.”
Maalouf — an ex-banker who served as the public diplomacy director for Middle Eastern affairs at USAID from 2004 to 2009 — returned to Lebanon last fall to mount his uphill campaign. He served as the alternate U.S. representative to the U.N. General Assembly in 2003, becoming the first American representative to deliver a speech at the United Nations in Arabic. He is also the author of “How Many Times… I Told You — Reflections, Memories and Hope for Lebanon.”
The former diplomat said he’s spent decades advocating for Lebanon in the United States, but last year decided he could do more by returning home to seek elective office. His wife and two children remain in the Washington area.
Maalouf said that although he’s running as an independent for just one seat in Parliament, he’s trying to convey the importance of the overall elections to Lebanon’s future. He said the country of 4 million desperately needs a new batch of elected officials who can inject fresh ideas into a political system he describes as mired in a paralyzing stalemate.
“We have to elect independent candidates in order to have true change and true reform,” he said. “Since Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, all politicians did not deliver any new ideas and did not make any changes and did not make any reform in Lebanon’s institutions.”
He also urged the nation’s citizens to only vote for Lebanese candidates who “support Lebanon’s freedom, independence” and the implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1680, which basically call for Syria to stop intervening in Lebanon’s internal politics and to respect the country’s sovereignty.
“Support only the government institutions and its army, and the internal security force, which will bring political stability and total security for its citizens. Otherwise Lebanon will go into the unknown,” Maalouf warned.
Maalouf’s campaign is just one in a frenetic nationwide parliamentary election that in a sense pits Western-friendly candidates against Hezbollah and its allies. Under Lebanon’s sectarian national unity system, the Parliament consists of 128 seats, with 64 reserved for Christians and 64 for Muslims. Sunnis and Shias have 27 seats each, with eight for reserved for Druze and two set aside for Alawites. The Maronites boast the largest parliamentary bloc with 34 seats on the Christian side, and the other 30 seats are split among the rest of the Christian sects. Maalouf, a Catholic, is seeking a Melkite-Catholic seat in Chouf, the largest electoral district in Lebanon.
In late May, political prognosticators were predicting that the so-called March 8 coalition would rack up more victories than the U.S.-backed March 14 alliance, though the latter could still maintain a majority. The March 14 group, named after the date of the Cedar Revolution, is a coalition of pro-Western, anti-Syrian political parties and independents in Lebanon, whereas the March 8 alliance refers to the rally organized by Hezbollah supporting the Syrian presence in Lebanon, which prompted the March 14 response.
Currently, Sunni Muslims, Druze and micro-Christian parties comprising the pro-West March 14 coalition hold a 70-58 advantage over the Hezbollah bloc in Parliament. Shia and Sunni votes are divided between the two camps, but the Shia Hezbollah and Amal party’s alliance with Michel Aoun’s Christian Maronite forces has gained political momentum in recent weeks, and experts say the election’s outcome will likely be determined by the Christian Maronite swing vote, which consists of 34 seats.
Yet because of Lebanon’s complex division of powers, it’s difficult for any one party to have a monopoly — which conversely often leads to stalemate because practically everyone has a veto say.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are warily eyeing which way the political pendulum swings. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stopped by Lebanon in late April and said the United States hopes “moderate voices” will prevail. But the United States seems hesitant to voice too much support for the pro-Western parties, because that strategy could easily backfire and benefit anti-American groups. Nevertheless, it’s clear the elections will have an impact on bilateral relations, considering that the United States has given more than $1 billion to the moderate-led Lebanese government over the past three years.
But the March 8 opposition has plenty of its own cash — which critics say is largely funneled by Iran — along with a strong campaign organization on the ground, according to published reports.
In fact, cash is apparently being thrown all over the place in what the New York Times recently called one of the most expensive and “the most corrupt” elections in years — yet another barrier to Maalouf’s shoestring campaign.
“Votes are being bought with cash or in-kind services. Candidates pay their competitors huge sums to withdraw. The price of favorable TV news coverage is rising, and thousands of expatriate Lebanese are being flown home, free, to vote in contested districts,” the New York Times reported in late April. “The payments, according to voters, election monitors and various past and current candidates interviewed for this article, nurture a deep popular cynicism about politics in Lebanon, which is nominally perhaps the most democratic Arab state but in practice is largely governed through patronage and sectarian and clan loyalty.“Despite the vast amounts being spent, many Lebanese see the race — which pits Hezbollah and its allies against a fractious coalition of more West-friendly political groups — as almost irrelevant,” the article said.
The political bribery poses another obstacle to Maalouf, a gregarious and accomplished Lebanese expatriate who says that buying political support is not an option — even if he had the resources to do so. Instead of handouts, Maalouf urges voters to view him as an employee, someone they will hire to advocate for them in Parliament.
“I am refusing to pay a penny for any vote,” Maalouf told The Diplomat. “I’m not here to buy my seat either. They are either convinced I am a good representative of theirs or they should not vote for me.”
Maalouf also complained that while he can generally get favorable coverage for his campaign in the Western media, it is much more difficult in the country where voters actually need to be informed about his platform. He said media want money for coverage.
“For an honest broker like Walid Maalouf who is running a clean campaign in this corrupt society, I am having a hard time because no media is interviewing me or making me known to society unless I pay them money,” he said. “I will not pay money for interviews. It is unethical and ridiculous.”
Deen Sharp, a Lebanese political commentator who runs a web blog said another handicap for Maalouf is that he has decided to run as an independent and is not on the March 14 alliance list. Maalouf’s decision to sidestep the coalition “makes it highly unlikely that he will be elected,” Sharp said in e-mail to The Diplomat from Lebanon. “In Lebanon, if you are not on one of the electoral lists of the two big coalitions, your chances of being elected are slim to none.”
Maalouf said he chose not to align himself with the March 14 slate because it is “a feudal system and a dictatorship” that does not promote candidates based on democratic ideas. “If the United States wanted true democracy in Lebanon and true representation, then March 14 should have primary elections.”
But Sharp added that Maalouf’s return to the country after years in the United States is not necessarily a hindrance to getting elected. “I don’t think not living in Lebanon is necessarily a problem for the Lebanese, especially the Christian community, because it is such a mobile community,” Sharp said. “The fear of the Christian community disappearing through emigration is a feature of this election and one of Maalouf’s central platforms: With your vote, you will return the emigrants.
“So, people such as Mr. Maalouf coming back to Lebanon is seen in some regards as a positive step and could turn into votes.”
So what is Maalouf’s platform, and how is he getting the word out? Basically, he’s running a secular campaign with the promise of economic development and political reform.
He has, for example, pledged to help revitalize Lebanon’s once-thriving agricultural sector with daily airlifts of Lebanese fruits and vegetables to Europe, Africa and the Americas. He also wants to improve basic infrastructure throughout the nation — and above all reform the way Lebanon’s government is run. He argues that the president should wield more power and members of Parliament should be elected based on merit, not clannish loyalties. “It was never done before for my constituencies,” he said. “They have never seen this before.”
Maalouf said he’s gratified to be home, even after all those years away. But he’s saddened by what he sees as societal stagnation. The 2006 war in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah paramilitary forces was partly to blame, Maalouf said, but it’s more than that.
“I am very happy to get back to my roots … and to be visiting these historical areas and communities that I have not been in touch with since I left,” he said. “I am proud of the taxi drivers and the shopkeepers and to see all of the people who are suffering to bring back their towns and stand on their feet with nobody helping them. I hope I can make a difference.”