Thursday, June 28, 2007

Will the “Inheritor” inherit again?

If the USA have the Kennedy’s, then Lebanon has the Gemayel family: both are plagued with death. After getting his parliamentary seat because his uncle died, Amin Gemayel inherited the presidential seat upon the murder of his brother. Now, it looks that the Inheritor might again become a member of parliament if he gets elected to take the place of his murdered son.

His adversaries have nicknamed him the “Inheritor”, implying he only got to high places because of the death of others. It’s a strange accusation coming from a country where the last names of politicians seldom change: power is typically passed on from father to son. The only difference with Amin Gemayel would be the timing. Instead of waiting for his family members to retire, he was forced into positions of power by tragedy.

“Forced?”, isn’t there something as a free will, couldn’t he have said no? That’s a good question and the answer would be “actually, no, you can’t”. There is so much pressure put on sons, brothers and even wives to take over the position of a deceased politician, that it’s next to impossible to decline. They even have a special expression for wives who take over the parliamentary seat of their husbands: the Women in Black.

The old, traditional political families, like the Gemayel’s, or popular new ones, like the Hariri’s, can only survive because of their popularity within their own base. If they would go against the expectations of their direct voters, it would mean the end of their influence. Some say this is pure democracy whereby politicians truly represent their voters, others would call it clientelism. Either way, the people expect the position of head of powerful political families, called zaim or feudal lord, to go from one generation to the next.

This is why Saad Hariri, e.g., couldn’t say no, although he was a successful businessman, had no experience as a politician and most likely had no intention of becoming the number one on Syria’s hit list. Within one day, life as he knew it was over and he became, quite literally, a prisoner, trapped in the expectations of others.

This system of inheritance also has an interesting side effect, namely after the death of a leading politician, images of him and his son will appear almost instantly. It’s like the father wants to demonstrate his approval of his successor. Whereas in the western world it would be held against you to be the ‘son of’, in the Arab world, this is the biggest plus you will have.

A variation to this theme appeared a few days ago in the streets: a picture of the murdered Pierre Gemayel, draped in the Lebanese flag. It’s no coincidence that these pictures started almost together with the decision of holding by-elections to replace him. It seems they went all out with this one: Pierre kissing the Lebanese flag as a sign of his patriotism.

Somehow, this picture is as ironic as can be because the last thing political families think about is the country. Nationalism is something strange to Lebanon, instead people protect the interest of their families, their villages and their faith before anything else. On the list of priorities, protection of the country is somewhere way down.

Not that this stops any side from claiming that they are the most patriotic of course. Only problem is, when two opposing camps both claim to be nationalistic, surely one side must have gotten it wrong. Nationalism in Lebanon is like religion: they all claim to defend the one and only ‘truth’.

That’s why it is always a bit threatening when Hezbollah solemnly promises not to raise their arms against fellow Lebanese, but will only use them to defend the country, leaving unclear what takes priority: the country or the people in it? What if they decide one day that certain Lebanese are harming the interest of the country? Would they use their arms against these ‘traitors’ then?

Anyway, it will be interesting to watch the campaign for the vacated seats. It is an unwritten rule not to contest seats that became available because the seat holder died. Now, however, it seems that this gentlemen's agreement no longer applies. Michel Aoun has already instructed his party to prepare for elections. One wonders why he would even want to win this seat, belonging to a government he deems is illegal. Ah more inconsistency in the daily life of political Lebanon.


Don Cox said...

I think what you say of Lebanese political families is also true of the Assad family in Syria. England had a family called the Cecils which was prominent in politics from about the 1560s to the 1960s.