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Districts in Depth: Jbeil

In reviewing the modern history of Lebanon, one cannot dismiss the importance that families from Jbeil and its surrounding villages have played. From the parliament to the presidency, the district has contributed  a large share of important players over the years.
 
This year, three groups are vying to win the district’s three seats: the majority list, headed by the March 14 coalition’s General Secretariat chief Fares Soueid; the opposition ticket, with candidates backed by the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah; and an independent list headed by Nazem al-Khoury, which is known to be backed by President Michel Sleiman, though he has not publically said so.

Political landscape

The district of Jbeil, which lies north of  Beirut and extends from the coast to the peaks of Mount Lebanon, is predominantly Christian Maronite, though there is also a considerable Shia population. Two of the district’s seats are Maronite, while the third is Shia.
 
According to an updated list of registered voters in Jbeil, 75,584 people are eligible to cast ballots on June 7, but analysts expect only around 47,000 of them to actually head to the polls on election day. Almost 70% of the expected voters are Maronite, 19% Shia and 5% Greek Orthodox.
 
Jbeil is also the name of the biggest city in the district, followed by Kartaba, a stronghold of the Soueid family, Aqoura and Amchit, all of which are Christian towns. The villages of Aalmat, Ras Osta, Hjoula, Bishtlida, Lasa and Mazraat As-Sayyed are mostly inhabited by Shia.
 
Amchit, which is President Michel Sleiman’s home town, is being closely watched by all sides. The president has remained mum throughout the campaign on the list headed by his former advisor, Nazem al-Khoury, and only time will tell whether his influence will translate into a victory for the independent ticket. 
 
The outcome of the elections, analysts say, will be translated as a political and symbolic victory for Sleiman, March 14 or March 8.

People who matter

The March 14 alliance positioned its General Secretariat director, Fares Soueid, at the front of a list of two, alongside former MP Mahmoud Awad, a Shia. Soueid and Awad have not completed the list by adding a third runner, which gives voters the flexibility to choose from more than one ticket.
 
Challenging the March 14 ticket is the list backed by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Hezbollah, which includes MP Walid al-Khoury, a Maronite; Simon Abi Ramia, also a Maronite; and MP Abbas al-Hashem, a Shia.
 
The third list, dubbed the “Independent Decision of Jbeil,” is comprised of Khoury for the Maronite seat; former MP Emile Nawfal, also a Maronite; and Shia candidate Mustafa Al-Husseini.
 
This bloc, which is said to enjoy the president’s support, has not forged an alliance with the March 14 ticket in Jbeil despite efforts to bring the two sides together and in spite of the formation of an independent-March 14 ballot in neighboring Kesrouan.
 
Though Nazem and Walid al-Khoury are paternal cousins and hail from an established political family, as does Soueid, their family is divided along diverging political lines.

What has changed since last time?

In the 2005 elections, Jbeil and Kesrouan were one constituency. The electoral law being instituted this year separated them into two districts, concentrating much of the Shia community in the former constituency.
 
In 2005, the FPM took Jbeil’s three seats, despite the quadripartite alliance at the time between Hezbollah and the March 14 forces. The FPM’s three incumbents were all originally standing for parliament again this year, but General Michel Aoun’s party only endorsed two of them and dropped Chamel Mozaya from its list, replacing him with Simon Abi Ramia.
 
On the other hand, March 14’s Fares Soueid was elected MP in 2000 but lost the race five years later. He was, however, a close runner up, having won over 30% of the electorate. He is, according to political analysts from Jbeil, the strongest single contender this year.
 
What has increased Soueid’s popularity this time around, according to Abdullah Zakhia, prominent lawyer and activist from Jbeil, is the 2006 alignment between Aoun and Hezbollah, which disappointed many Maronites in the district.
 
The reason a joint March 14-independent list was not formed this year in Jbeil as one was in Kesrouan, according to Zakhia, is because Soueid was blacklisted by Hezbollah and Syria, who pressured the independent candidates from allying with him. “People in Jbeil are wondering whether that may indirectly influence the president’s [list],” Zakhia told NOW.
 
In an interview with NOW Lebanon, Soueid confirmed this. “There will be no coalition between March 14 and the independents. [The independents] were under pressure from Syria and Hezbollah not to unite with me,” he said.
 
It is because of this FPM-Hezbollah alliance that Rabih al-Haber, a pollster close to March 14, expects the estimated 5,000 Shia voters set to head to the polls this June 7 will choose Aoun’s candidates.
 
But some disagree. A source in Jbeil told NOW that an under-the-table deal between Hezbollah and Nazem al-Khoury may see Hezbollah partisans casting their ballot for the latter, thus failing one of FPM leader Michel Aoun’s candidates but ensuring that Nazem al-Khoury does not align with March 14’s Fares Soueid.
 
When asked whether this rumor is true, Soueid told NOW, “Perhaps the price of my exclusion from the [independent] list was receiving March 8 votes.”
 
Nazem al-Khoury denies any such deal. “Hezbollah has nothing to do with our decision to run for parliament independently. We never consult Hezbollah, nor are we influenced by it,” he told NOW.
 
The opposition’s Shia candidate, MP Abbas Hashem, also refuted the covert deal saying, “Nazem al-Khoury did not consult Hezbollah, and Hezbollah does not apply any pressure on Khoury,” adding that Hezbollah and Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement do not interfere in elections in Jbeil. They support Aoun and would never give their votes to Soueid’s or Nazem al-Khoury’s lists, Hashem said.

What could affect the outcome?

Despite calls on Soueid and Nazem al-Khoury to quit the race in order to boost the chances of either March 14 or the president’s bloc, neither succumbed to the pressure.
 
Soueid said that he would not withdraw because the battle is political. “Who is opposing Hezbollah and its ally [FPM leader] Aoun in Jbeil?” he said.
 
If Nazem al-Khoury had taken a clear anti-Hezbollah stance, there wouldn’t have been a conflict over withdrawing candidacies in the first place, he said. “This is a confrontation that only March 14 has taken up,” he told NOW.
 
Nazem Al-Khoury said that he will maintain his independence in the race. “The independents in Jbeil constitute a considerable bloc and a choice people are making against the traditional political lines of March 14 and March 8. We are not allying with March 14. If they want to support us within our independent line, they are welcome to do so,” he told NOW.
 
But Soueid said that the independents should not expect support from the March 14 bloc and that he and Awad, in return, are not anticipating any backing from the president’s bloc.
 
With three lists competing, Haber and Kamal Feghali, a pollster close to the opposition, say that chances are the FPM’s side, and Aoun’s list will again take all three seats.
 
This cannot be a good thing for the president, according to Marwan Sakr, a Lebanese lawyer close to Carlos Eddé’s National Bloc and a professor of Law at the Université Saint-Joseph. He noted that the National Bloc will be supporting March 14 but is also close to Nazem al-Khoury.
 
Aoun’s focus in the district, Zakhia said, is to heighten his attack on the president in his hometown, something the current political landscape may facilitate.
 
“The president’s interest lies in withdrawing his independent candidate because he is the president of the entire country,” Zakhia said, adding that Sleiman should not exert his influence on anyone, nor focus his efforts on Amchit.
 
Nazem al-Khoury, however, dismissed the idea that the president plays a large role in his campaign. “I was an MP before Michel Sleiman became president of the republic,” he said. “I was MP long before I became the president’s advisor… My family has been involved in the political scene for over 70 years. I’ve contested political campaigns; I’ve won at times and lost other times. [If we were not to make it] it would further prove that the president does not interfere in the elections.”
 
But despite expectations of an opposition victory, Soueid remains optimistic. “People’s reaction to Hezbollah’s dominance of the area will be expressed [at the polls] on June 7,” he said.
 
Whether a Maronite retaliation against the FPM-Hezbollah alliance will be strong enough to tip the scale toward March 14 can only be determined on June 8. But experts say the scenario is highly unlikely, especially with the third bloc’s pulling power unknown, even if topped by presidential blessings.