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Eli Khoury

Why we should care about the Lebanese elections

IF THE NEXT US presidential election hinges on national security, Americans would be wise to pay attention not only to their own election, but to presidential elections half a world away.

Later this month, the Lebanese parliament is supposed to choose a new president in a region of the world where American soldiers are fighting and where American interests are inextricably tied. (It was a year ago that a United Nations-brokered cease-fire went into effect in Lebanon, ending the Israel-Hezbollah summer war.)

The Lebanese constitution is unequivocal when it comes to laying out a process for its Parliament to determine who runs a country that sits in a rough neighborhood. If a candidate cannot get two-thirds of the vote in the first round of parliamentary voting, the winner is elected by a majority of total parliamentary seats in a second round of balloting. It's simple.

But nothing is simple in Lebanon. The country lives with interference by Iran and Syria, it borders Israel, where conflict continues with the Palestinians and among the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza. It has a strong Hezbollah presence in the south, and an army that is fighting terrorism while also trying to spread its control over the country's territory. Lebanon is a small country with big challenges.

Imagine how Americans would feel if an outside country could dictate who occupies the Oval Office? Lebanon's strategic location in the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the war on terrorism make it a useful target for all kinds of groups vying for regional hegemony. Both Iran and Syria would love to own the country, which neither the US government nor the American people should want. Lebanon should be allowed to be Lebanon. The democratic process in Lebanon should not be hijacked. Democracy, after all, is what the United States insists it wants to spread throughout the region.

Americans complain about our political process and worry about things like the political influence of lobbyists and political action committees. Lebanese voters contend with infusions of cash and arms from Damascus and Tehran, trying to install their own candidates to replace the sitting president, Emile Lahoud, who was already forced into office by them. American politics can be dirty; Lebanese politics can be deadly. Already one prime minister, a minister, and four members of parliament have been assassinated. Cabinet ministers and political figures fear leaving their homes or offices. One method that has been used to change the balance of power in the Lebanese parliament is to kill off members of the majority to reduce their numbers. The system is still heavily influenced by ballots and bombs.

Today, Lebanon stands at a historic crossroads between being integrated into the international community or remaining under the influences of external forces. In one sense, Lebanese citizens have already voted with their feet, demonstrating that they want a stable, pluralistic democracy, at peace with their neighbors and free from radical political factions and foreign interference. In the "Cedar Revolution" of March 2005 over a million Lebanese marched to demand freedom from Syrian domination and control over their political lives. Poll after poll shows that the majority of Lebanese value individual rights, rule of law, and independence. They want a free and fair election that maintains a national unity and a common vision. America and the global community have a vested interest in making that vision a reality.

At any moment, Lebanon could be dragged back into chaos or full-scale war. The parliamentary process could be delayed by political maneuvering or manipulation by any minority party that fears it can't win. Violence and more terrorism may be part of the pre-election cycle.

The United States and its European allies need to support Lebanon and protect the upcoming presidential elections from foreign intimidation, so that a freely elected president can consolidate Lebanese sovereignty, protect Lebanon from regional conflict, and secure Lebanon's fragile democracy. The Lebanese diaspora communities must also work to support Lebanon and its fledgling democratic institutions so that the economic infrastructure is sound. Like any country anywhere in the world, there are bread and butter issues for Lebanese citizens that must be addressed along with security. Roads must be fixed and jobs created. Human lives are at stake.

History and current events show that the people of Lebanon can create a nation. Now, as they face a presidential contest, they must be allowed to behave as a democratic state. In a region of turmoil, the upcoming presidential process is an opportunity for Lebanon to signal to the world that it can play a stabilizing role, something that would benefit American soldiers and citizens. The upcoming election is literally a matter of life and death.

Eli Khoury is a founder of the Lebanese Renaissance Foundation.

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