Presidential Elections (no, not in the US!… here in Lebanon)

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Lebanese Flag. Image by Nicolas Raymond

Today, after two years and a half years without a head of government, Lebanon finally elected a president.

All schools and universities were closed for the day. I had a doctor’s appointment at noon – the clinic called this morning to tell me it was better I stayed home. My husband, whose office is a stone’s throw from the Lebanese Parliament building. worked from home. In Lebanon it is the parliament which elects the president. The parliament itself hasn’t seen elections since 2009. Elections were controversially postponed since June 2103, during which time parliamentarians voted to extend their own mandate until 2017.

Today was the 45th time since May 2014 (when the former president’s mandate expired), that the parliament had met to vote on a president. But it was the first time that there was any expectation of someone getting elected.

Lebanese politics are notoriously complicated. Political affiliation is tied up with religion, in a system called “confessional democracy.” Parliament seats are allocated half to Christians and half to Muslim, making the Christians somewhat overrepresented (there hasn’t been a census since 1932, but Muslims are now estimated to be about two thirds of Lebanon’s population). To divide the pie of power, the Speaker of the Parliament is Shia, the Prime Minister is Sunni, and the President is always Christian Maronite.

There are simplistic summaries of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) that incorrectly describe it as Christian versus Muslim. It was far more complex than that, a grueling and vicious war during which every party allied with and fought against every other party at some point.  If we are going to simplify, let’s say instead that the war was about power and control, with the multiple militias backed by foreign powers.

Although it took nearly twenty years, it eventually became clear that there would be no winners in Lebanon’s Civil War. (If you’ve ever wondered why Lebanon has been so diligent about not getting sucked into the war in neighboring Syria, that is one clue.) The power-sharing agreement was revisited, dialing down the powers of the president and the number of parliamentary seats allocated to Christians, and peace was agreed upon. Warlords became politicians.

The end of the war didn’t signal the end of shifting alliances. I once tried to make a chart of political parties and alliances to post on this blog, but it became such a cobwebbed mess of crossed lines that I gave up.

In recent months, previously sworn enemies (and civil war opponents) have created alliances that finally opened up a path for Michel Aoun to become president. Aoun was a general in the Lebanese Army during the Lebanese Civil war, who also had ties to other Christian militias. And was backed at a certain point by Saddam Hussein.

The parliamentarian vote was televised and we watched the first round of voting. I was surprised to see that it was a pen and paper ballot, rather than electronic. The name of each parliamentarian was called aloud, and a glass box brought in front of each parliamentarian for him (or her – but there are only 4 women of 127 parliamentarians) to drop his vote into.

Aoun needed 85 votes to win in the first round. He got 82. All but two of the other votes were blank. Voting moved to a second round, in which Aoun only needed a simple majority, or 65 votes.

It was then that mayhem ensued. Once ballots were collected and counted, it was discovered that there was one more ballot than voters. Invalid. Start over.

Round three, same thing.

The crowd got rowdy. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri quipped, “We haven’t voted in a long time. We’re learning again.”

It was decided that rather than the glass box coming being brought to each parliamentarian’s seat, he (or she) would have to get up and deposit his or her vote into the glass box now at the front of the parliament, where everyone could see.

Finally, 127 ballots for 127 voters.

I hope that next time they consider using the electronic voting system that they apparently have but chose not to use.

While there were again many blank votes (and even one for Zorba the Great), Michel Aoun soon managed to collect the requisite 65 votes.

I was relieved, because we’d been waiting for the voting to finish before going out to lunch, and it had taken over two hours instead of the originally anticipated half an hour. I was starving. But no more had the votes been counted, then a ruckus erupted.

I live in Ashrafieh, the heartland of Christian Beirut, and the celebratory fireworks were deafening. In Beirut, fireworks are often accompanied by celebratory shooting. Sure, they shoot into the sky, but since what goes up must come down, setting foot outside suddenly seemed like a bad idea.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at home. Fireworks soon gave way to celebratory honking. When we ate dinner at 8 at night, we had to shut the dining room windows to cut down on the noise.

As I was writing this, I thought things had finally calmed down, but now it’s nearly midnight, and I hear a new round of fireworks going off.

 

For a visual chronology of the Lebanese Civil War, check out this site.

For a straightforward explanation of Lebanese government and politics, check out Living Lebanon (be sure to click through on the sidebar links too).

And for anyone who wants to know more, I suggest reading Pity the Nation by Robert Fisk.

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The Never Ending Holidays

Christmas, Epiphany, then Christmas again, then Christmas #3(!), next the Prophet’s Birthday. The holidays never end here in Lebanon.

I like it that way – I love how festive the city feels during the holiday season, whether the streets are hung with lanterns and silver moons for Ramadan or fairy lights for Christmas. Myself I love celebrating Christmas starting at the first Sunday in Advent (four Sundays before Christmas) all the way through the famed 12th day of Christmas (January 6). Also known as Epiphany. few people observe the last day of Christmas in the US, but in Latin America (where we lived for 8 years), it is the day the Three Kings arrived bearing gifts for baby Jesus – children set out their shoes or stockings the night of the 5th for those final Christmas gifts and treats. In Italy (where my husband’s from), Epifania is when La Befana arrives. The Befana is a crotchety old witch who declined joining the Three Kings’ procession when they passed her house on their way to Bethlehem, and in regret, piled her basket high with treats and presents for baby Jesus, and flies on her broom during the night of January 5th each year, leaving gifts for children around Italy (and in Italian homes around the world) in the hopes that one of them might be the special baby.

Today is the 8th, and it seemed time to take the tree down.

I felt sad to see the festive season end. Christmas decorations are still up around the city of Beirut however – because the Armenians (which ethnically make a large number of Lebanese) just celebrated their Christmas on January 6th (and who knew, but apparently that was the date Christmas was celebrated for the first four centuries A.D.) .

“Oh that’s right,” I said to my husband, “It’s the Orthodox Christmas.”

“Well, Eastern Orthodox,” he corrected me. “Greek Orthodox celebrate their Christmas the same time as Catholics and Protestants.”

Ah no, it turns out: Greek Orthodox do celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but Eastern Orthodox celebrate on January 7th. If that weren’t confusing enough, I found out that Ethiopians (of which there are a huge number in Lebanon, working primarily as household helpers, and are a mix of Orthodox and Protestant) also celebrate Christmas on January 7th. I wondered if I should give the day off to the lady who works for our family, so that she could celebrate.

“It’s okay, we are going to celebrate on Sunday [the 12th] since everyone else has to work,” she informed me.

So Christmas celebrations in Lebanon will wind up on the 12th, just in time to get ready for the first Muslim holiday of the year, the Prophet’s Birthday, which falls on January 13. (My kids are really loving all the school holidays!)

I came across this map yesterday, which didn’t really help clear anything up for me, but did make me feel like it was excusable to be a little confused about religion in Lebanon once in a while.

Just look how colorful Lebanon is!

This map is titled “The Levant: Ethnic Composition”. (The Levant is the region encompassing Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel.) As explained in the column of dense text to the right of the map, they use ethnicity to refer to group identity, which includes religion as a factor, and the biggest divisions are identified on this map. The used here divisions are debatable (are the Druze not Arabs? are all Christians in the Levant non-Arabs? the answer to these questions depends on who you ask – for what geneticists have to say about it, see my earlier post here). But this map nonetheless gives an idea of the religious diversity of the region. Think how colorful it would be if it were further broken down from “Levantine (Christian)” to “Eastern Orthodox” and “Western Orthodox”, “Catholic” and “Protestant”.

This map was number 32 in Max Fisher’s collection for the Washington Post of “40 Maps That Explain the World.” Looking at the jumble of color and diversity that this map illustrates, I suppose it comes as no surprise that a battle drawn along religious lines has no end in sight.