Lebanon braces for violence ahead of key vote

Replacement of assassinated lawmakers Pierre Gemayel and Walid Eido has deeply divided the nation's Christian community.

pierre gemayel 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
pierre gemayel 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Lebanon's security forces were on high alert in anticipation of violence ahead of a vote Sunday to replace two assassinated lawmakers that has deeply divided the nation's Christian community. Sunday's elections will produce successors for cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel, a Christian shot dead in November, and lawmaker Walid Eido, who died in a Beirut car bomb in June, both allies of the current government. The elections could escalate the country's deepening political crisis since Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's Western-backed government called them without the required approval of President Emile Lahoud, who has blocked attempts to replace the lawmakers. Lahoud is allied with the Hezbollah-led opposition, as is Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who has said he will not recognize the results of the contests. Mohammed al-Amin Itani is expected to easily win the contest for Eido's Beirut seat since the opposition did not officially sponsor a candidate. But the vote in the Christian stronghold of Metn for Gemayel's seat is expected to be bitterly contested. Amin Gemayel, president of Lebanon for much of the 1980s, has decided to compete for his son's seat on behalf of the ruling party. He faces off against Kamil Khoury, who is supported by Christian leader Michel Aoun, a former army commander and prime minister allied with the opposition. His party dominated the district in the 2005 legislative elections. Tension has been high in Metn, and several clashes have been reported between Aoun and Gemayel's supporters over the past week. "The army command, Internal Security Forces and all security agencies will not allow any trouble, and the measures will be strict," Interior Minister Hassan Sabei said Saturday after deploying his forces in the two election districts. "This is a free democratic process." All nightclubs, bars and cafes and other places selling alcohol in the Metn region were closed over the weekend by order of Mount Lebanon Governor Antoine Suleiman, who also banned the use of fireworks starting Monday at noon when results will be released. The leader of the Maronite Christian church, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, and his bishops attempted to mediate between the various Christian factions to avoid the bruising election fight but ultimately failed. Gemayel and his government allies have accused Damascus of being behind the assassination of his son Pierre and a number of other anti-Syrian politicians and public figures over the last two years, part of what they deem Syria's plan to end the majority's rule through attrition. With Eido's death, Saniora's margin in parliament was whittled down to only four seats. Syria has denied the allegations. "Metn will not become part of Damascus' countryside. Metn will not become a new field to erect tents for sit-ins," Gemayel said during a Friday rally, referring to an opposition sit-in since Dec. 1 in downtown Beirut outside Saniora's office. The Shiite Hezbollah party, together with its Christian ally Aoun, is trying to force Saniora to form a national unity government that would give them veto power. Aoun has said the Metn elections are "to liberate the country from political feudalism, sectarian intolerance and political bribery," a reference to the Gemayel family's role in Lebanese politics since the 1930s. The vote is the latest episode in Lebanon's worst political crisis since the country's 1975-1990 civil war. The standoff between Saniora and the opposition threatens to tear the country apart and could lead to the formation of rival governments if parliament fails to elect a new president before the November 23 deadline for Lahoud to step down. As Maronite Christians, both Gemayel and Aoun are eligible to run for the position, with the latter already having declared his candidacy.