- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2005

BEIRUT, Lebanon.

The sweeping victory in the third round of the Lebanese parliamentaryelectionsby Gen. Michel Aoun of the Free Patriotic Movement may change the face of this country, whose political life has been one of splintered factions, corruptionandcronyism. Lebanon is like Huey Long’s Louisiana — rich tycoons, crooked politicians and feudalism, all bound up in political patronage. Gen. Aoun’s capture of 21 of the 58 available parliamentary seats in that round was a stunning political achievement that shocked his challengers and the Lebanese establishment. It could propel the former military leader into the presidency and it has a chance of at least loosening the iron grip that corruption holds on every level of Lebanese society.

Gen. Aoun, the 70-year-old Maronite Christian leader who headed the government at the end of the long civil war of 1975-90, was chased from Lebanon 15 years ago by the assassination-minded Syrians. He left for Cyprus on a French Navy ship in the middle of the night and returned to Beirut from Paris for the first time last month. Gen. Aoun leaped immediately into a smart political campaign by establishing a fledgling anti-corruption platform that may shake up the larcenous political establishment. His timing is excellent. Lebanon is in deep debt, perhaps even higher than the government’s admission of $35 billion. Ironically, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, killed by the Syrians and swiftly propelled by death into sainthood status, was responsible for loading much of that debt onto Lebanese taxpayers, as he borrowed money to use, at least in part, to feather his own already plush nest.

Gen. Aoun is a Maronite Christian(bylawthe Lebanese president must be a Maronite, the Prime Minister must be a Sunni Muslim, as was Mr. Hariri) and is strict, confident and tough. He is sometimescomparedto Charles DeGaulle. He famously told an adoring crowd of supporters, who greeted his return from Paris on May 7 with endless shouting and applause, to “shut up” while he was talking.

Lebanon is a land of ripe irony. Gen. Aoun has been, for example, a fierce anti-Syrian — they tried to assassinate him three times, once killing his bodyguard — yet he cooperated in his current campaign with some pro-Syrian candidates. But then so did other putative anti-Syrian candidates. A former senior aide to current President Emile Lahoud told us at lunch in a downtown Beirut Chinese restaurant close to the spot where Mr. Hariri was blown skyward, “The political fact of life here is that every person in the government has been in and out of bed with the Syrians. They have controlled the military, the judiciary, the police, the economy — everything. They used our women as bitches and our men as their soldiers.”

This is a country where almost everyone in authority has his hand in someone else’s pocket. A very rich Lebanese businessman, involved in property development, told us: “You can’t imagine how hard it is to work with government here. You get nothing done without paying money to every person you deal with, from the village mayor on up.” Unlike Gen. Aoun, who actually ran on a platform of specific reform, Lebanese politicians don’t usually campaign on articulated programs.Theyrelyforelectiononpersonal charisma, wheelbarrows full of “walking-around money” to buy votes and intense religiosity.

We visited the powerful Druze leader Walid Jumblatt at his beautiful (and enormous) European-style castle in the mountains an hour’s drive southwest of Beirut. Waterfalls ran across castle stones into a moat, tiny Lebanese deer gamboled in a lovely grassy enclosure; a dozen bodyguards and factotums hovered. Jumblatt is a very tall, thin, balding man with eyes that are hooded like a desert raptor. He has led the Druze religious sect for decades, always as a serious political force. He has reportedly hated Gen. Aoun since the two fought murderous battles against each other in the 1975-1990 Civil War. Gen. Aoun supporters have charged Mr. Jumblatt with personally slitting the throats of Christians. (An amnesty law protects past transgressors from the war.) Mr. Jumblatt calls Gen. Aoun, who is diminutive, “Napol-Aoun.” Mr. Jumblatt did admit that he was “ashamed” that the political opposition to Gen. Aoun hadn’t put together a specific campaign platform as had the general. We had been told that Mr. Jumblatt was angry over his defeat by Gen. Aoun, and humiliated by it, too. That sounded likely, but Mr. Jumblatt wouldn’t agree. “I am not angry,” he said. “The voters get what they deserve.” He called Gen. Aoun a “pro-Syrian extremist,” This was on the same day that Mr. Jumblatt was seen smiling and laughing at a meeting with Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Bekaa Valley-based,Syrian-supported, Iranian-fundedterrorist group Hezbollah.

Richard Carlson and Barbara Newman are co-hosts of “Danger Zone,” a radio show about terrorism. Mr. Carlson is vice chairman of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Miss Newman is a senior fellow at FDD and co-author of “Lightning out of Lebanon: Hezbollah on American Soil.”

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