It all started on August 2, when aging parliamentarian Pierre Helou, a veteran politician from a prominent Maronite Christian family, suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage in the middle of a nationally televised interview. Under Lebanese law, the seat of a deceased MP is filled by a special by-election to be held within two months of his death. Such by-elections were once mere formalities, in accordance with a long-standing tradition that allows the seat-holder's next of kin to run unopposed.
Then came last year's by-election in Metn to fill the seat of MP Albert Moukheiber after his death in April. Rather than accepting the candidacy of Moukheiber's nephew, Ghassan, the Qornet Shehwan Gathering of mainstream Christian opposition politicians fielded their own candidate, Gabriel Murr, the estranged brother of former Interior Minister Michel Murr, the Syrian-backed "godfather" of Metn politics. With backing from the FNC and the banned Lebanese Forces (LF) movement, Gabriel Murr narrowly won the election (against his brother's daughter, Mryna). However, the authorities retaliated by closing his television station, annulling his electoral victory and handing the seat to Ghassan Moukheiber.
Most observers initially expected Helou's son, Henri, to run unopposed in the by-election. Unlike Metn, which is predominantly Christian, Baabda-Aley is made up of Christian, Druze and Shiite Muslim voters. Although the seat is reserved under Lebanon's sectarian system for a Maronite Christian, all eligible voters are allowed to participate. Having received the immediate backing of the region's two Druze political heavyweights, Walid Jumblatt and MP Talal Arslan, as well as the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal movements, Helou would easily be able to defeat any opposition candidate even if he received a minority of the Christian votes.
On August 13, the Qornet Shehwan Gathering held a consultative meeting to discuss the issue. Proponents of contesting the election, most notably Gabriel Murr, MP Fares Soueid, Samir Franjieh, Shakib Qortbawi and Samir Abdel-Malak, made a persuasive case. While the election clearly could not be won, they argued, mobilizing large numbers of Christians in the district to go to the polls would bolster Qornet Shehwan's ability to forge electoral alliances ahead of the 2005 parliamentary elections. While a majority of members agreed that the group should field a candidate, most were inspired less by enthusiasm for mounting a serious political campaign than by reluctance to seen as endorsing Helou's political inheritance. "What we want is to hold a referendum to confirm the will of the people," said Abdel-Malak after the meeting. "This is an opportunity for people to speak out against the state." Over the next few days, a loose consensus emerged in support of Qortbawi, a former head of the Beirut Bar Association.
Although Aoun immediately endorsed Qortbawi, the esteemed lawyer immediately came under pressure to withdraw his name from consideration from Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butrous Sfeir, who insisted that a contested election would enflame sectarian divisions. Other key members of the mainstream Christian opposition also expressed their opposition to contesting the election, most notably National Liberal Party President Dory Chamoun, former President Amine Gemayel and his son, MP Pierre Gemayel. On August 18, Qortbawi announced that he would not take part in the race, a decision he said was intended to "protect national accord" in the region.
The FNC Goes It Alone
On August 19, senior FNC officials convened in Beirut and selected Hikmat Dib, a member of its executive council, to stand in the election. The next day, Dib formally announced his candidacy in an address at the FNC's headquarters in Jdeideh. Several Qornet Shehwan members attended the speech, including Gabriel Murr, Soueid, Kesrouan MP Mansour Bone, and Jean Aziz, a leading member of the LF.
The FNC's decision to unilaterally contest the election marked a definitive break in its uneasy relationship with the mainstream Christian opposition. Although both claim to support Lebanese sovereignty and democracy, the fact that Patriarch Sfeir and most traditional Maronite politicians (though not Gemayel and Chamoun) tacitly supported Syria's ouster of Aoun in 1990 and accepted the legitimacy of Lebanon's post-war republic has long been a source of tension. Whereas Maronite politicians have been motivated in part by their exclusion from power and the hope of gaining entry into the political system, Aoun has always challenged the legitimacy of the system itself. At times, the two have worked at cross-purposes. In the previous two rounds of parliamentary elections, for example, FNC calls for a boycott undermined the efforts of mainstream Christian opposition candidates to win election, while their participation in the electoral process undermined the nationalist boycott by increasing turnout.
Since last year, however, the FNC had coordinated more closely with Qornet Shehwan. In throwing its weight behind Gabriel Murr in the June 2002 by-election, the FNC essentially abandoned its boycott strategy and deferred to Qornet Shehwan in the name of opposition unity. Ironically, the government's annulment of Murr's victory did not dampen Aoun's enthusiasm for electoral politics. While the annulment was a blow to mainstream opposition hopes of gaining political entry, the blatantly unconstitutional act served Aoun's goal of delegitimizing the system. It was precisely for this reason that Aoun pushed from the very beginning for a contested by-election in Baabda-Aley. It was only after Qornet Shehwan declined to field a candidate that the FNC acted unilaterally.
The choice of Dib to represent the Aounist movement was politically astute, as the contrasting backgrounds of the two candidates brought into sharp relief the FNC's message. Dib was a veteran student activist who has been arrested and tortured several times, while the elder Helou was a cabinet minister who remained silent during the harsh August 2001 crackdown against the nationalist movement. While Henri Helou has repeatedly proclaimed himself to be in the "opposition," his father's relatively brief stint in government (as minister without portfolio) marks him as pro-government in the eyes of most voters.
Although two independent candidates also entered the race (businessman Imad Hajj and Mounir Bejjani, a former army general), the by-election campaign was seen by local commentators as a two-man contest between opposition and government. The FNC has also sought to portray it as a vote for or against the monopoly of prestigious families in Lebanese politics. The reluctance of many Qornet Shehwan members to endorse a challenger to Helou is largely due to their tacit unwillingness to question the validity of political primogeniture. Those who have most vocally backed Helou or criticized the FNC during the campaign, such as Chamoun and the Gemayels, are from prominent political families.
Helou made an early gaffe by dubbing his opponent (who is not from a political family) a "second rate candidate" - a remark that caused such an uproar that he was later forced to issue a statement saying (in the royal plural favored by Lebanese politicians), "We hold the person of candidate Dib in high esteem."
Chamoun attacked Aoun indirectly for fielding a candidate, warning that "some parties are looking to provoke a confessional confrontation in the Shouf and in the mountain." While few other prominent Qornet Shehwan members have been so direct in expressing their feelings on the matter, most have met publicly with Helou or otherwise hinted at where their allegiances lie. Aoun, for his part, has condemned those "who criticize the government on television, yet grant it their vote of confidence."
However, Dib obtained a few significant endorsements. Nadim Gemayel, the son of the late President-elect Bashir Gemayel (Amine's older brother), declared his support for the veteran activist. Nadim, whose appearance and speech are strikingly similar to his father's, has adopted a higher political since he turned 21 and met with Aoun in Paris earlier this year. While Nadim denied any "personal differences" with his cousin, he was quoted by Al-Nahar as saying, "My politics are based on principles, while others' [an oblique reference to his cousin] are inspired by personal circumstances and calculations." In addition, a senior official of Amine Gemayel's opposition faction of the Phalange, Elie Karami, has expressed support for Dib.
The banned Lebanese Forces (LF) remained split over whom to back in the election. Setrida Geagea, the wife of imprisoned LF leader Samir Geagea who unofficially heads the movement in his absence, expressed support for Helou on August 10, but has since distanced herself from that position. Her early endorsement of Helou is said to have reflected a desire to maintain good relations with Sfeir, who has interceded with the authorities in the past to plead for the release of her husband. However, some key figures in the movement, such as former LF leader Fouad Abu Nader, Jean Aziz, Assaad Abou Raad, and Salman Samaha, the head of the LF's student organization, objected to her decision and expressed support for Dib.
In any event, Dib's electoral strategy did not hinge on endorsements by prominent public figures. The FNC, an extremely effective grassroots organization, recruited over 2000 volunteers to campaign in Baabda-Aley and Dib conducted an American-style campaign, stopping in villages and towns throughout much of the region.
Dib also received the backing of far leftist student organizations, which have coordinated with the FNC in recent years to organize protests against the Syrian occupation. This alliance was infused with new vitality by the electoral campaign, as Lebanon's patrimonial political tradition has long drawn the special ire of leftists. Close coordination between the two raised the stakes in the election, as leftist youth leaders have been prone to nihilistic slogans that make traditional elites cringe. "Helou, Gemayel, Jumblatt and Arslan are all feudal families and we should do anything to replace them in the parliament with new blood," said Houssam Nassif, a member of the American University of Beirut's No Frontiers student organization, in a recent interview. Although FNC officials avoided such provocative statements, they clearly encouraged student leaders to air them at joint gatherings.
Although Dib lost the election, the final results astonished most political commentators: 28,597 votes for Helou, 25,291 for Dib, and 2,835 for Imad Hajj. Despite the fact that Helou was supported by all major political heavyweights and most mainstream Christian opposition figures, Dib won 73% of the Christian vote and hundreds of Druze and Shiite votes. Moreover, the final results showed Helou winning a suspiciously large percentage of the votes in some districts (e.g. 99.6% in Btater) that reeked of foul play.
In going it alone, the FNC put its strength among Christian voters to the test. Winning a majority of Christian votes in the district would demonstrate once and for all that the FNC has more public support than the mainstream opposition and is therefore entitled to set the agenda in relations with the authorities. The Baabda-Aley by-election results are likely to significantly reshape Christian politics in the years to come. Moreover, the FNC's show of political strength makes it an attractive ally for estranged factions of the Muslim political elite - there is already talk of an FNC alliance with MP Talal Arslan to eliminate Jumblatt's political supremacy in the Druze community. If the secular nationalist current gains more strength through such strategic alliances, the political order in all of Lebanon may begin to crumble.
 The Daily Star (Beirut), 14 August 2003.
 The Daily Star (Beirut), 19 August 2003.
 The Daily Star (Beirut), 26 August 2003.
 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 26 August 2003.
 The Daily Star (Beirut), 30 August 2003.
 The Daily Star (Beirut), 16 September 2003.