Ballots Over Bullets

Posted in Broader Middle East | 12-Jun-09 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: New York Times

An election official counts ballot slips in Beirut after polling stations closed for Lebanon's parliamentary election June 7, 2009.

I confess. I'm a sucker for free and fair elections. It warms my heart to watch people drop ballots in a box to express their will, especially in a region where that so rarely happens. So I came to Lebanon on Sunday to watch the Lebanese hold their national election. It was indeed free and fair - not like the pretend election you are about to see in Iran, where only candidates approved by the Supreme Leader can run. No, in Lebanon it was the real deal, and the results were fascinating: President Barack Obama defeated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

O.K., I know. Neither man was on the ballot, but there's no question whose vision won here. First, a solid majority of Lebanese Christians voted against the list of Michel Aoun, who wanted to align their community with the Shiite Hezbollah party, and tacitly Iran, because he viewed them as being best able to protect Christian interests - not the West. The Christian majority voted instead for those who wanted to preserve Lebanon's sovereignty and independence from any regional power.

Second, a solid majority of all Lebanese - Muslims, Christians and Druse - voted for the March 14 coalition led by Saad Hariri, the son of the slain Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. This U.S.-supported coalition sees Lebanon's future as a state independent of Syrian and Iranian influence and committed to its pluralism, modern education, a modern economy and a progressive outlook.

Saad Hariri, with 71 out of 128 seats in Parliament, is likely to be the next prime minister. He knows that his cabinet will have to include significant elements of the Aoun faction and Hezbollah. But to the extent that anyone came out of this election with the moral authority to lead the next government, it was the coalition that wants Lebanon to be run by and for the Lebanese - not for Iran, not for Syria and not for fighting Israel.

Alas, Lebanon is still far from having a stable government, and Hezbollah remains a powerful, armed force outside the Lebanese state. Nevertheless, something important happened here: The Lebanese mainstream, armed only with ballots, not bullets, won.

"They voted for their country and way of life," said the Lebanese historian Kemal Salibi. "There was a doggedness. It was a triumph of hope and courage."

Ballots were the only weapons the March 14 coalition had against an Iran-Hezbollah-Syria alliance that is widely suspected of having been involved in murdering Rafik Hariri, as well as six progressive members of the last Parliament and two of Lebanon's best journalists - Gebran Tueni and Samir Kassir - for having insisted on their country's independence. And yet, the allies, sons and, in one case, daughter - Nayla Tueni - of these slain activists still stood for election and won.

I watched the voting at a school in the mountain village of Brummana. People came by car, by wheelchair, by foot - young, old and sick. One very elderly lady walked in hooked up to a small oxygen tank. The tube was in her nose helping her to breathe. A young man was carrying the silver oxygen canister on one side of her and a young woman was holding her steady on the other side. But, by God, she was going to vote.

"People never turned out like this before," Sebouh Akharjelian, 29, a businessman in the voting line said to me. "The stakes are very high. It is either surrender to Ahmadinejad or be in the pro-Western camp."

It was striking to me how conciliatory the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, was in the concession speech on Monday. All the fiery rhetoric and threats of the previous weeks were gone. I have no doubt that he will do whatever Iran dictates. But he can no longer pretend that he has some mandate to drag Lebanon into war with Israel again. It tells you that there is a power in all those people, all the little old ladies, who voted against him, and he seemed to know it.

While the Lebanese deserve 95 percent of the credit for this election, 5 percent goes to two U.S. presidents. As more than one Lebanese whispered to me: Without George Bush standing up to the Syrians in 2005 - and forcing them to get out of Lebanon after the Hariri killing - this free election would not have happened. Mr. Bush helped create the space. Power matters. Mr. Obama helped stir the hope. Words also matter.

"People in this region have become so jaded by the ability of their states to dominate everything and hold sham elections," said Paul Salem, analyst of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "And mostly the world never cared. And then here came this man [Obama], who came to them with respect, speaking these deep values about their identity and dignity and economic progress and education, and this person indicated that this little prison that people are living in here was not the whole world. That change was possible."

Again, you don't want to exaggerate what happened here. But in a region where extremists tend to go all the way and moderates tend to just go away, seeing moderates stand their ground and win somewhere - with ballots, not bullets, no less - well, that's worth applauding.