Obama's overtures to the Muslim world come as the Middle East is poised for two important elections in the next week - one in Lebanon on June 7th, the other in Iran on June 12th.
Analyst Rannie Amiri explains that "due to the Lebanon’s complex, sectarian-based political framework, understanding the mechanics and dynamics behind its upcoming parliamentary vote is more complicated" than that of Iran's presidential election. There are two main political coalitions in Lebanon, dubbed March 8 and March 14. Amiri clarifies:
The March 8 Alliance is named after the date of a massive 2005 Beirut rally organized by Hezbollah that expressed opposition to its disarmament, support for Syria, and resistance to Israel. The coalition is primarily comprised of Hezbollah, Nabih Berri’s Amal party, and the secular Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of General Michel Aoun. Unlike Nasrallah and Berri who are Shia Muslims, Aoun is a Maronite Christian and thus draws support from this and other Christian constituencies.While the March 8 coalition wields veto power over cabinet decisions as part of the power-sharing agreement reached through the May 2008 Doha Accord and holds 58 seats in Lebanon's National Assembly, the March 14 alliance has 70 seats. Whereas Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah has encouraged a stable, unified Lebanese government that represents the will of the people, saying, "...it is in the interest of Lebanon and its stability that there is understanding and partnership among Lebanese in running their country's affairs,” his opponent, Parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri, remarked coldly, "We will not take part in the government if the March 8 Alliance wins the elections..."
The March 14 Alliance is also named after the date of a huge 2005 Beirut demonstration, but one decidedly anti-Syrian. It occurred exactly one month after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and heralded the beginning of the “Cedar Revolution.” This ultimately led to the withdrawal of all Syrian troops from Lebanon after 29 years. March 14 is the current Western-backed, ruling coalition and is principally comprised of Sunni, Druze, and Christian parties. It is led Saad Hariri, billionaire son of Rafiq, and his Future Movement forms its largest bloc.
It is suggested that there are only about 30 contested seats, and therefore, "March 8 need only win an additional seven to gain the parliamentary majority." Were this to happen, it would be a frustrating turn of events for the United States, Israel, and their Middle Eastern allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, further shifting popular representation in Lebanon against Western influence and toward continued imperial and colonial resistence.
As such, the stakes are high for the Obama Administration. In the past few weeks, both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden have dropped by Beirut in order to lend their support to the March 14 faction and assure the Lebanese voters that the United States will not interfere with the upcoming elections. Oh, the irony. Clinton called for an election "fair and free of outside interference" and the White House explained that Biden's visit was meant "to reinforce the United States' support for an independent and sovereign Lebanon."
Hezbollah stated that the surprise visits by the top ranking US officials raised "strong suspicion and amounted to a clear and detailed interference in Lebanon's affairs." This fear appears to be well-founded considering the US view that continued financial and military assistance to Lebanon would be contingent on which Lebanese political faction wins on Sunday.
After meeting with Lebanese president Michel Suleiman, Biden stated, "I assure you we stand with you to guarantee a sovereign, secure Lebanon, with strong institutions" and that "the election of leaders committed to the rule of law and economic reform opens the door to lasting growth and prosperity as it will here in Lebanon." Nevertheless, Biden said that the US "will evaluate the shape of our assistance programs based on the composition of the new government and the policies it advocates."
Parliamentarian Hassan Fadlallah, who is aligned with Hezbollah, was clear about his party's feelings regarding the Biden visit. "It appears that this visit is part of a US bid to supervise the electoral campaign of a Lebanese party which feels threatened politically...in light of the expected outcome of the legislative vote," he said.
Not suprisingly, neither Clinton nor Biden mentioned the numerous arrests of pro-Western Lebanese MPs on charges of spying for Israel, as well as the widespread use of voter fraud to tip the scales against Hezbollah. As American journalist Franklin Lamb reports,
Longtime Hezbollah Shia opponent, Ahmad al-As’ad has set up an anti-Hezbollah Shia organization called the Lebanese Option Gathering and has fielded 19 candidates against Hezbollah. He openly admits getting a large quotient of Saudi support to compete against Hezbollah in the south and the Bekaa and is thought to be allied with the pro-US Hariri team. As’ad knows his group cannot win and that the overwhelming number of Shia will vote for Hezbollah. His goal is not so much to get voters to vote against Hezbollah, but to keep them from voting for Hezbollah. Then when the votes are counted, Israel and the anti-Hezbollah centers can declare that “Hezbollah is losing support among its base, because it got fewer votes than in 2005 etc...”Meanwhile, in Iran, tensions are mounting as the country gears up for its tenth presidential election next week. The four candidates were vetted from a staggering 475 registered applicants - 433 men and 42 women - by the twelve member Guardians Council, tasked with scrutinizing the qualifications of candidates and approving their ability to handle the country’s affairs. While the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Secretary of State Expediency Council and former chief of Islamic Revolution’s Guards Corps Mohsen Rezaei are running on conservative and traditionalist platforms, former Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi is being promoted as a "moderate" reformist candidate. The only real challenge to Ahmadinejad's re-election comes from former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who is campaigning as a “reformist who upholds the principles“ of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
To make this happen, As’ad operatives having been “renting” Voter ID Cards for up to $1000 each. The cards are turned over in exchange for $1000 and are to be returned on Monday June 8 after the votes are counted.
Mousavi has been gaining support in urban areas while Ahmadinejad has rural backing locked in his favor. Mousavi has stated his commitment to the Iranian Constitution while also promoting increased access to information and a more conciliatory foreign policy. In a recent televised broadcast, he said that Iran "should move towards a state in which the government is bound to provide the citizens with any information - Military and security information should be the only exceptions," continuing that Iran's hopes for further development "is not possible without the freedom of the media and the press."
On the foreign policy front, Mousavi has held firm that the Iranian nuclear program will proceed lawfully, promising that "all the achievements, approaches and progress that have been made should not be abandoned." He articulated his desire for international diplomacy over the nuclear program, stating, "There are two issues regarding our nuclear program: the first is the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, which is in our national interests and thus cannot be abandoned. The second issue is what some countries say about possible diversions in our nuclear program. This is what we are ready to discuss with other countries."
With respect to Iran's tense relationship with the United States, Mousavi sees the new Obama Administration to be a departure from the aggressive rhetoric of the Bush past. "The US has changed its tone," he said. "Starting relations with the US is not a taboo, should they practically change their stance." This statement is consistent with the messages of Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who have both called for the US to act differently in the international arena, rather than just talking about it. Mousavi showed his tempered approach to foreign affairs - a contrast to the consistently confident posture of Ahmadinejad - by saying, "Iran is not a friend of the US, but America is an influential country in the world with great economic and military capabilities. It is right that we are a powerful nation, but our power should not lead us to act unreasonably. We can not face the US alone."
Ahmadinejad, too, has advocated for diplomacy during the campaign. "Washington's political echelons have relentlessly signaled their willingness for a dialogue with Iran's government officials," he said in late May, adding, "If the talks are held on an equal footing, we have no objection. We would like to discus a whole range of international issues." Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad was proud to mention the fact that he never resorted to "currying favor with Western countries" in order to succeed in his goals as the Iranian executive.
As debates and campaigns heat up, violence has also been introduced to the election environment. The Washington Post reported that "Five people died Monday in an arson attack on an Iranian bank in the southeastern city of Zahedan, where a suicide bombing in a Shiite mosque last week killed 25 people." The Iranian government has said that the Islamist separatist group Jundullah, which claimed responsibility for the mosque bombing and regularly carries out attacks and kidnappings in the region, receives support from the United States and is linked to al-Qaeda.
Khamenei called for stability and solidarity in the face of such needless violence. "Shiite and Sunni brothers, various ethnic groups and political and social currents should observe unity in matters related to elections or matters not related to elections," he said Monday, adding that the bombing "is awash with Israeli and US fingerprints." Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was quoted as saying, "The extremist groups in the region are linked with some foreign forces in Afghanistan," while Jalal Sayah, deputy provincial governor of the Sistan-Baluchistan province that borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, said that at least three people have been arrested with regards to the terrorist attacks, adding, "According to the information obtained they planted the bomb at the behest of the United States and its allies."
So what does all this Western interference in upcoming Middle Eastern elections have to do with Obama's speech in Cairo?
In one of the strongest parts of his speech, Obama discussed democracy and his belief in the value of self-determination. He stated his commitment "to governments that reflect the will of the people," and claimed that "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election." He continued,
...I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere...America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments - provided they govern with respect for all their people."Obviously, the United States did not recognize the legitimacy of the crushing Hamas win over Fatah in the US-backed and closely monitored 2006 Palestinian elections. Ever since its parliamentary victory, Hamas has been isolated and demonized by the West. If the operative word in Obama's statement seems to be "peaceful," he should also turn his sights on Israel.
The far-right Israeli government, lead by Netanyahu - and made more dangerous by the appointment of fascist Avigdor Lieberman as Foreign Minister - is not subject to Obama's dictates. While Hamas is told to "play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people" by putting an end to violence, recognizing past agreements, and recognizing Israel's right to exist, the same is not demanded of Israel. The billions of dollars in US aid to Israel is not in jeopardy of being cut off depending on who runs the so-called "Jewish state." The support of the United States, militarily, financially, and diplomatically will not be re-evaluated due to Israel's continued aggression against Palestinians, threats to Iran, denial of Palestinian rights (both within Israel and in the Occupied Territories), refusal of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state, and clear contempt for international law that prohibits all settlement activity on occupied land, collective punishment, discriminatory laws, and the construction of the Apartheid Wall that separates Palestinian communities from their own land.
So, while President Obama promotes representative government in a region severely lacking in democracy, American officials, operatives, and proxies are attempting to undermine the integrity of two elections. Their efforts to influence the political outcome in both Lebanon and Iran in order to wind up with more pro-Western leadership seem to be anathema to Obama's own feelings about following "the will of the people."