LEBANON: Fears of fresh instability as elections held to replace slain MPs
Security was tightened amid fears of violence and further instability as by-elections took place in Lebanon on 5 August to replace two anti-Syria MPs who were assassinated last year in Beirut in separate incidents.
The by-election in Metn, a majority-Christian community in the mountains north-east of Beirut, is the more critical and potentially more volatile of the two votes, specialists say. It pits Camille Khoury, a candidate from opposition Christian leader Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) party, against former President Amin Gemayel, the father of slain minister Pierre Gemayel who previously held this seat.
Pierre Gamayel was killed in a bomb blast last November.
The election is not only seen as a key test of support for the government among the Christian community, but also as a yardstick for the upcoming elections, beginning in September, to replace President Emile Lahoud – a Christian whose term was extended in 2004 at the behest of Damascus, observers say.
Amin Gemayel is considered a candidate for the presidency, as is General Aoun, whose alliance with Hezbollah and their nine-month campaign to topple the government has divided Christians in what has become Lebanon’s worst political crisis since the end of its ruinous 15-year civil war in 1990.
President Lahoud, who is allied with the Hezbollah-led opposition, has said the elections are unconstitutional, as he did not authorise them, while parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, also a key member of the opposition, has said he will not recognise the results.
“The situation is disgusting,” said Nicole Jreij, a Metn resident, who said she would not be voting because of security concerns. “All politicians think about is themselves and they forget about us, the youth. I’m not voting because I’m too afraid something will happen, like riots.”
Extra security for elections
General Ashraf Rifi, head of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, announced on 2 August that an extra two army brigades would be deployed around Metn and in Sunni-majority West Beirut, where the ruling coalition candidate is expected to easily win the vote to replace Waleed Eido, who was killed in a car bomb in June 2006.
Supporters of Gemayel’s Phalange Party and Aoun’s FPM have clashed over the past few days in towns around Metn.
In January, supporters of Gemayel and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, a Christian, clashed with Hezbollah supporters in Beirut, sparking off sectarian clashes across the country that killed at least three people and injured dozens.
“I’m praying nothing happens. No beating with sticks or the use of weapons. Christians really do not need further divisions,” said Noura Yousef, who is voting on 5 August in Metn.
Thousands go to the polls
Thousands of people turned out to vote with queues forming outside more than 300 polling stations. The mayors of Beirut and Mount Lebanon ordered all bars, restaurants and cinemas closed between 4 and 6 August in an effort to keep people off the streets.
The vote also takes place against the backdrop of the Lebanese army’s struggle to end an 11-week-old battle against Fatah Islam Islamic militants, who are holed up in the devastated northern Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared.
In an effort to reduce the number of guns carried by citizens, Defense Minister Elias Murr ordered a freeze on the issue of weapons permits across Lebanon starting 31 July until further notice.