In recent years, government crackdowns against opponents of the Syrian occupation have been ineffective in silencing dissent in part because they tended to be uncoordinated and spontaneous - the timing of arrest sweeps were often synchronized less to opposition activities on the ground than to shifts in the regime's internal balance of power, while "target selection" by judicial investigators reflected a multiplicity of local, often frivolous concerns. The latest assault has been not only much more extensive, but more sophisticated. As a result, whereas the August 2001 wave of arrests against anti-Syrian political activists prodded opposition forces to overcome social and political divisions, the current one has led to divisions and defections within the opposition.
The masterstroke of the current crackdown was a November 4 ruling by Lebanon's highest judicial body, the Constitutional Council, that overturned the victory of opposition candidate Gabriel Murr in the June by-election in Metn. The court ruled that Murr, who narrowly defeated the candidate put forth by the Lebanese president and interior ministry (his niece, Myrna Murr) violated Article 68 of the electoral code, which prohibits televised campaign advertising, and Article 66, which prohibits the distribution of campaign leaflets on election day. The ruling, which followed the closure of his television station in September, completed the regime's full-scale assault on one of the most prominent opposition politicians in Lebanon.
The court did not hand the seat to Myrna, for fear that installing an unabashedly pro-regime deputy in the district would unify Christian ranks. Nor did it call for a new by-election, which would have put the regime at risk of another humiliating electoral defeat. Instead, it awarded the seat to the nephew of the late MP who vacated it, Ghassan Moukheiber. The ruling said that Moukheiber, who finished a distant third with only 1,773 of 71,278 votes cast, effectively won the election on the grounds that Gabriel Murr had been disqualified by misconduct, while Myrna Murr had (conveniently) withdrawn her challenge to the results.
Whereas the judiciary's initial move to overturn the election results on a technicality in September provoked a national uproar that forced it to back down, this one skillfully manipulated divisions within the Christian opposition. Whereas Gabriel Murr had been backed solidly by most members of the Qornet Shehwan bloc of mainstream Christian opposition figures, the Free National Current (FNC) of Michel Aoun, and the Lebanese Forces (LF) movement, Moukheiber was favored early on by Maronite Christian Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir. The lay leadership of Qornet Shehwan trumped its religious wing as Moukheiber's campaign never got off the ground.
The 43-page ruling, which cannot be appealed, also exploited another division within the Christian opposition - the tension between political principles and political ambition. Moukheiber, a respected lawyer and prominent human rights activist, was on the steering committee of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE) and had long been an outspoken critic of the politicization of the judiciary. By offering Moukheiber the "gift" of a parliamentary seat in a district where only 1 in 40 had voted for him, by way of a court ruling regarded as among the most blatantly political in Lebanese history, the regime was clearly seeking to demonstrate that the principles of those in Lebanon who advocate democracy are merely a veneer for political ambitions.
The ruling was condemned across the political and sectarian spectrum. After a meeting the next day, the Qornet Shehwan Gathering issued a statement deploring "a politically-motivated decision that ignores the choice of 98% of the voters and effectively installs emergency martial law patterned after well-known dictatorships." The National Liberal Party, headed by Dory Chamoun, called the ruling a "settling of scores and revenge." The Communist Party called it "undemocratic." Mainstream Muslim politicians also criticized the ruling. Former Parliament Speaker Hussein al-Husseini said that it proved that "the judiciary and politics are in an indefinite recess."1
Interestingly, since the purpose of the bogus ruling was essentially to deny a legitimate mandate to whomever occupied the seat, a number of pro-Syrian newspapers and political figures denounced the decision. The Constitutional Council "has lost all credibility by issuing a preset verdict and nobody can believe anymore that it is fulfilling its mission to preserve democracy and citizens' rights," wrote the pro-Syrian daily Al-Safir, adding that the court "has become an instrument of the regime." Al-Diyar, which has been very critical of the opposition, accused the court of "adopting a verdict flagrantly and clearly carrying the fingerprints of the regime." Even some staunch allies of Syria in the government expressed puzzlement. "I'm trying to convince myself of the ruling," remarked Transport Minister Najib Mikati, quickly adding that "it is important to maintain respect for state institutions at the forefront of which is the judiciary."2
Despite nearly unanimous public opinion over the legitimacy of the ruling, splits emerged within the Christian opposition. Gabriel Murr, not surprisingly, called on Moukheiber "not to agree to participate in this masquerade if he really considers himself a democrat and a human rights defender."3 Other members of Qornet Shehwan, such as MP Nassib Lahoud, also called on Moukheiber not to accept the poisoned fruit. The FNC went even further "The people are face to face against the existing authorities that do not respect the will of the people of Lebanon," said Aoun. "The people have to confront this authority through civil disobedience."4 Days later, he issued a statement calling upon the Qornet Shehwan's nine-member parliamentary bloc to resign their seats in protest.
Moukheiber was clearly taken aback by calls for his resignation and must have cringed when his colleagues in LADE issued a statement accusing the Constitutional Council "of ignoring the choice of the voters" and calling upon the public to "oppose the burial of what is left of democracy in Lebanon." Although he declined to announce a decision during the first few days, having hinted in an interview prior to the ruling that he might consider accepting the seat,5 it came as no surprise that his meetings with Sfeir and the Greek Orthodox clergy produced no resignation. Of course, he went out of his way to pledge loyalty to the opposition and even reiterated his support for a Syrian withdrawal, but this was precisely what the regime wanted - to show that those who take democratic and nationalist positions are playing the same game as those who accept Syrian patronage.
Significantly, while sharply condemning the ruling, the Qornet Shehwan bloc did not issue a statement calling for Moukheiber's resignation. The Council of Maronite Bishops, while called the ruling "proof of the inconsistency of the democratic system in Lebanon," declined to reject the outcome of the ruling.
On the same day as the Constitutional Council ruling, the opposition received another blow. The leader of the National Bloc, Carlos Edde, announced that the group was withdrawing from Qornet Shehwan. Edde, who assumed leadership of the party in 2000 following the death of his uncle, Raymond, was reportedly promised a parliamentary seat in the 2004 elections by Interior Minister Elias Murr earlier this year in return for supporting President Emile Lahoud and withdrawing from Qornet Shehwan.
His decision to withdraw not only underscored the regime's power to strategically co-opt key figures in the opposition, but was a glaring illustration of the institutional weaknesses that lie beneath the veneer of opposition organizations. In response to Edde's announcement, the three senior National Bloc officials who are members of Qornet Shehwan - Samir Abdelmalek, Shakib Qortbawi, and Salim Salhab - immediately announced their resignations, saying that Edde had not even discussed the issue with them, much less put the question before a vote by members of the party he inherited from his uncle.
Demonstrations of Disunity
The opposition failed another test of unity over the issue of demonstrations. Mainstream political figures and the Christian clergy have long shied away from organizing demonstrations and at times implored their supporters not to attend those organized by the FNC or the LF - in part because they tend to provoke crackdowns by the security forces, and crackdowns tend to shift public support away from traditional leaders to the nationalist camp. Some members of the Qornet Shehwan gathering have argued that organizing or endorsing demonstrations would give the coalition more credibility. In addition, the security forces may be less inclined to brutally disperse demonstrations if they are attended, or at least endorsed, by mainstream political and religious figure - this would also attract more participants and generate "safety in numbers." An October 13 memorial service for the hundreds of Lebanese soldiers killed during Syria's 1990 invasion of east Beirut was attended by over 1,000 people, but attracted almost no opposition politicians. Would the security forces have arrested two dozen people if mainstream public figures had been in attendance?
The moment of truth came in late October, when Qornet Shehwan joined the FNC in calling for a demonstration against the closure of Murr Television (MTV) in September. After the government issued a decree prohibiting the march from taking place, mainstream oppositions figures backed down and canceled it, while the FNC organized its own march originating at the Lebanese University's Faculty of Science in Fanar. Normally, the authorities wait until student demonstrators try to march from the campus before dispersing it, but this time they cracked down as around 1,000 students were just getting started. Four fire trucks converged on the scene and fired water at the crowd as baton-wielding riot police arrested 60 people and injured at least twelve.
A similar disconnect between the establishment and the "street" was evident when journalists tried to organize a demonstration against the closure of MTV in early November. Although both the Press Federation, which represents the owners of media outlets, and the Journalists Union had earlier condemned the closure, each refused to give permission for a demonstration on its premises. Instead, the organizers circulated a petition, which has gathered over 1,000 signatures from media employees across the country.
A similar dynamic has become evident within the mainstream opposition camp. In September, Prosecutor-General Adnan Addoum announced that the judiciary, in conjunction with security agencies, were investigating opposition leaders for alleged ties to Israel and other foreign powers. Since then, Addoum has carefully singled out those opposition leaders who denounce the closure of MTV, or the anulment of the by-election results, a bit more loudly or more frequently than their colleagues. While all members of the coalition support democracy and rule of law, their willingness to sacrifice other personal and policy goals in pursuit of these objectives or in defense of their colleagues varies greatly. This inability to speak with one voice denies opposition leaders "safety in numbers" and exposes the more strident voices to punishment by the regime.
In part because of the mainstream opposition's failure to rally around Gabriel Murr (e.g. by calling for Moukheiber's resignation or holding an unauthorized demonstration), the judiciary and security agencies have begun to target even the traditional Christian political leadership. On November 18, Addoum declared that investigators have uncovered evidence that former President Amine Gemayel has engaged in "suspicious activities abroad that exceeded ordinary political activities . . . and are related to collaboration with Israel."6. On November 20, he announced that Dory Chamoun, the eldest son of another former president, was under investigation for "incitement" against Syria.
1 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 7 November 2002.
2 Al-Safir (Beirut), 5 November 2002; Al-Diyar (Beirut), 5 November 2002; Al-Nahar (Beirut), 7 November 2002.
3 Agence France Press, 4 November 2002.
4 Al-Siyasa (Kuwait), 7 November 2002.
5 Al-Diyar (Beirut), 3 November 2002.
6 The Daily Star (Beirut), 19 November 2002.