Monday, November 5, 2012

Will the Sassine bomb sway the Christian vote?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

When a car bomb laden with over 60 kilograms of TNT gutted the sleepy residential impasse of Ibrahim al-Munzer St. on October 19, it did not merely kill an intelligence chief, his driver and a luckless bystander. Situated scarcely a hundred meters from the bustling Sassine Square—where dozens of glass panes were instantaneously shattered—the blast also drove chaos and terror into the symbolic heart of Beirut’s Christian community.

Seated on the crown of the Ashrafieh hill and orbited by offices, cafés, schools, churches and a mall, Sassine Square is the social and commercial hub of the district. In terms of political orientation, while a large monument to slain President-elect Bashir Gemayel of the Lebanese Forces (now the leading March 14 Christian party) stands in the Square’s center, it is also often adorned with flags of the rival March 8-aligned Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Indeed, in the most recent parliamentary elections of 2009, March 14 pipped March 8 to victory in Ashrafieh by fewer than 3,000 votes out of a total of 91,000 registered voters.

Such close competition raises the question of what, if any, will be the effects of the bomb on Christian voters in next year’s elections. Assuming the electoral law used closely resembles the 2009 law, as analysts expect it will, then Ashrafieh (technically called “Beirut I”) will once again be a key “swing” district, one of a handful upon which the entire outcome hinges. That the other “swing” districts—chiefly Metn, Zahle and Koura—are also predominantly Christian underscores the paramount importance of Christian voting in determining the overall winner.

For some analysts, the clear loser in this regard following the bomb is March 8. “It is definitely going to realign voting practices among the Christian community, especially concerning [FPM leader Michel] Aoun,” said Charles Chartouni, professor of politics at Université Saint Joseph and the Lebanese University. “I’m not saying voters will necessarily go toward March 14 candidates, but Aoun will definitely lose some voters,” he told NOW Lebanon.

This, Chartouni believes, is due to a perception among Christians that the blast was orchestrated by Aoun’s major allies. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people in Ashrafieh lately, and they are in no doubt that a kind of joint venture between Hezbollah and Syria is behind the assassination. What has hurt people most is that the criminals responsible didn’t care about the fact that these people are living in dense areas and thus the damage can be devastating. If intelligence services want to fight among each other, in a country like ours and in a situation like ours, it’s somewhat understandable, but to forget about civilians and the welfare of people in the neighborhood is considered insulting and disrespectful.”

Key March 14 Christians such as LF leader Samir Geagea and Kataeb chief Amin Gemayel have indeed explicitly accused Hezbollah and Syria of carrying out the bombing. Aoun, on the other hand, has declined to make any accusations, saying,“I will wait for the result of the investigation.”

However, a perusal of the Orange Room, an FPM-affiliated online forum, suggests Aoun’s supporters believe March 14’s reaction to the bomb will in fact work in March 8’s favor. “[March 14] shot themselves in the foot,” said one user in reference to the clashes between March 14 partisans and security forces following the October 21 funeral of the bomb’s target, Internal Security Forces Information Branch head Wissam al-Hassan. “[March 14] Christians are [going to] lose a lot of support,” agreed another. “Islamic flags in [Ashrafieh and Free Syrian Army] flags over [Martyrs Square] is [sic] a big no-no.”

In a similar vein, FPM-aligned Metn MP Ghassan Moukheiber compared the funeral scrap and the subsequent violence in Tripoli and Tariq al-Jdeideh to Hezbollah’s “black shirts” demonstration in 2011. “Storming the Serail and the presence of armed men the day after added ‘black shirts’ of a certain political party confronting ‘black shirts’ of another party. Therefore, there is an equality in the rhetoric of ‘black shirts’,” he told NOW.

However, Antoine Haddad, leader of the March 14-aligned Tajaddod Movement, rejects this equivalence. “The attack on the Serail was a spontaneous one. I’m not reducing its importance here, but it’s not on par with the assassination itself, and it will not have an effect on elections, whereas the link between the assassination and the [Michel] Samaha case will,” he told NOW, referring to the senior Damascus ally who pleaded guilty in August to plotting terror attacks in Lebanon in coordination with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Many Lebanese have speculated that Hassan’s assassination was revenge by Syria for the intelligence chief ordering Samaha’s arrest.

As regards the Islamic flags mentioned on the Orange Room, Chartouni isn’t convinced these will cost March 14. “There is no doubt that Christians are very apprehensive about Islamic militancy. But at the same time this won’t outweigh the fact that assassinations have been committed for seven years now, mostly in Christian areas, in which the victims were always on one side of the divide [i.e. March 14]. And the involvement of Michel Samaha has further confirmed the connection with a Syria-Hezbollah joint venture.”

Of course, this may all prove academic, given that no electoral law has yet been approved for 2013. With tensions already high and the war in neighboring Syria showing little sign of abating, much can change in the next few months. As Haddad put it, “there is a long time yet before the elections.”

Agnes Helou and Amani Hamad contributed reporting.

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