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Articles > Armenians in Lebanon > The pivotal role of Lebanon's Armenian Christians

 

by Gary C. Gambill
 
Lebanon's parliamentary elections demonstrated the growing political significance of the country's seventh largest ethno-sectarian community. Due to a number of political and historical factors, Armenian Christians lined up predominantly on the side of the opposition and helped propel it to victory in Lebanon's largest Christian district. The balance of power in the next election cycle may well hinge on whether they stay this course.

Background

Although small numbers of Armenians have lived in Lebanon for hundreds of years, most Lebanese Armenians are the descendents of refugees who fled Turkish persecution during World War I. A second wave of Armenian refugees came in 1939, after France ceded the Syrian territory of Alexandretta to Turkey. Lebanese Armenians are concentrated in three main areas: east Beirut; Bourj Hammoud, a suburb of the capital in the district of Metn; and the town of Anjar in the Beqaa Valley.

The country's only significant non-Arab minority, the Armenian Christian community, not only preserved its distinctive ethnic and cultural identity, religion, and language over the years, but also functioned as the cultural and spiritual capital of the broader Armenian Diaspora. There are dozens of Armenian schools in Lebanon. Haigazian University in Beirut is the only Armenian institution of higher learning in the Diaspora.

Most Lebanese Armenians feel strong solidarity with the Diaspora, but this conviction does not conflict significantly with their Lebanese identity and exerts little direct influence on their domestic politics today.[1] Armenians are somewhat unique among Lebanese confessional groups in having no landed notability or traditional political aristocracy, as destitution and forced migration proved to be a powerful social equalizer.

The three main Armenian parties in Lebanon - Tashnag (by far the largest), Ramgavar, and Hunshak - are branches of larger Armenian Diaspora parties that pre-date Lebanon's independence and their ideological differences relate mainly to pan-Armenian issues. Tashnag's power derives in part from its organic relationship with the powerful Holy See of Cilicia, one of two Catholicosates that represent Armenian Orthodox around the globe. The Catholicosate left its original headquarters in Echmiadzin, Armenia in 1058 and settled in Cilicia. Although a new Catholicos was elected in Echmiadzin in 1441, the Catholicosate of Cilicia kept operating from Turkey until it was forced out in 1915 and settled in a suburb of Beirut. Armenian Catholicoi are usually elected by a mechanism that involves delegates representing the population, so Tashnag's influence throughout the Diaspora has filtered up into the ranks of the clergy, who in turn grant the party further legitimacy among the relatively conservative Armenian community.

When the Soviet Union, with the endorsement of Hunshak and Ramgavar, gained effective control over the Echmiadzin Catholicosate and threw Tashnag officials out of Armenia, tensions among the rival parties led to violent altercations and even assassinations in Lebanon (and elsewhere in the Diaspora). Following the deaths of roughly a hundred Armenians in Lebanon's brief 1958 civil war, however, they began to exhibit more communal solidarity and intra-Armenian violence has since been relatively rare.

Under Lebanon's communitarian democratic system, ethnic Armenians receive a fixed number of parliamentary seats, presently six out of 128. There is a widespread consensus that Armenians should vote as a bloc, and more often than not the three main political parties have agreed upon a common slate of candidates. They have tended to give electoral support to governing elites, particularly the president, in exchange for policies that advance Armenian communal interests. Prior to the outbreak of civil war in 1975, the Tashnag-led Armenian bloc aligned with Pierre Gemayel's predominantly Maronite Christian Phalange party.

Armenian groups did not play an active role in the 1975-1990 Lebanon war, despite efforts by the Phalangists and later the predominantly Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) militia to pressure them into taking sides. Unfortunately, this lack of protection contributed to a flood of Armenian emigration that continued after the Syrians completed their occupation of Lebanon in 1990. By some estimates, more than half of the 250,000-strong Armenian community left and never returned.

During the 1990s, the three Armenian parties adopted much the same political strategy as they did before the war. In the 1992 and 1996 elections, they reached agreement on a politically mixed, though Tashnag-dominated, slate of candidates and forged coalitions with the most powerful political barons in their respective districts. In Metn, they joined forces with Greek Orthodox Christian leader Michel Murr, an alliance that dates back half a century. They sided with late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in his electoral stronghold of Beirut. These alliances caused resentment among Christian opposition candidates who ran against the electoral coalitions of Hariri and Murr.

Hariri had a falling out with Tashnag in 1998, when pro-Tashnag members of parliament gave their vote of confidence to a new prime minister favored by Hariri's archrival, newly elected President Emile Lahoud.[2] Consequently, prior to the 2000 elections Hariri demanded that Tashnag commit its candidates to vote in line with his parliamentary bloc (not the standard practice in Lebanon, where electoral coalitions are usually fleeting). When Tashnag rejected these terms, Hariri picked lesser-known Armenian candidates affiliated with Ramgavar and Hunshak, who pledged and subsequently practiced unswerving loyalty.

In an effort to woo Armenian voters away from Tashnag, Hariri showered charitable contributions on the Armenian community, while his Future TV station began broadcasting a 15-minute Armenian language nightly newscast. Because Armenian neighborhoods in Beirut were split into different districts under the 2000 electoral law, Hariri was able to ensure the election of four Armenian members of parliament who the large majority of Armenians had voted against. Tashnag, which forged ineffective alliances with Hariri's enemies, captured only the Armenian seats in Metn and Zahleh.

After the Syrian Withdrawal

Tashnag faced a difficult situation after the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in the spring of 2005, weeks ahead of parliamentary elections. Once again, the late Hariri's Future Movement swept the elections in Beirut, though Tashnag retained control of Armenian seats in Metn and Zahleh, held by Hagop Pakradounian and George Kasarji, by aligning with Murr and Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).

In August 2007, Tashnag again sided with Aoun and Murr in a parliamentary by-election in Metn, which pitted former President Amine Gemayel against Camille Khoury, a virtually unknown member of the FPM. Although the Ramgavar and Hunshak parties supported Gemayel, the roughly 10,000 Armenian voters in the district cast their ballots for Khoury by a margin of more than five to one, enabling the FPM to narrowly win the majority Maronite district by 418 votes.[3]

The FPM victory led to an eruption of anti-Armenian sentiment among March 14 politicians and press outlets. Minutes after the results were released, Gemayel declared that he, not Khoury, was "the true Christian representative," implying that Armenians were not true Christians.[4] "Armenians are outside the Lebanese will" and "are here to create a civil war," said Gabriel Murr on a popular Lebanese talk show program.[5] The pro-March 14 daily L'Orient Le Jour proclaimed the election result "a fake victory" in its headline the following day,[6] while Hariri's Al-Mustaqbal newspaper ran the headline "Two-thirds of Maronites vote for Gemayel, their seat goes to Aoun by 418 votes."[7]

The Armenian community was deeply shaken by these slurs, which brought back memories of Phalangist intimidation during the civil war. "No one should allow himself to attack the honor of the Armenian community," said Bishop Aram I Keshishian, head of the Cilicia Catholicosate. "We understand that some tense and sometimes harmful statements are delivered during and after electoral battles, [but] we do not accept unfounded accusations and offensive comments."[8] Tashnag leaders were less understanding, accusing Gemayel of bigotry and racism.[9] Although Gemayel was quick to proclaim his affection and respect for the Armenian community, his refusal to apologize for his election night rhetoric continues to irk many Armenians.

The 2009 Elections

In the aftermath of the Metn by-election, March 14 leaders made concerted attempts to woo the Armenian community away from Aoun, an effort that would have been futile had it not been for the defection of Michel Murr from the opposition in 2008. Last February, Murr formally announced that he and Gemayel were forming a joint ticket in Metn and hinted that he could persuade Tashnag to switch sides as well.

Over the next two months, Tashnag conducted negotiations with both March 14 and the opposition. While there were rumors of disagreement between Tashnag Secretary-General Hovig Mekhitarian and Pakradounian over which side to choose, it appears unlikely that a full-fledged defection by Tashnag was ever in the offing. Tashnag's goal is to build a unified Armenian parliamentary bloc on par with what existed before 2000. Keen on preserving his ties with Hunshak and Ramgavar, Saad Hariri insisted on being able to name most of the Armenian candidates in Beirut.[10] Aoun, on the other hand, was willing to give Tashnag the final say over the selection of Armenian candidates. In fact, during the March 14-opposition talks that led to the May 2008 Doha Accord, he won enormous acclaim from Tashnag by pressing for the establishment of an all-Armenian electoral district in Beirut.[11]

Tashnag urged Hunshak and Ramgavar to join it in a united Armenian front, but its rivals were squarely in the Hariri camp.[12] MP Serge Torsarkissian of the Ramgavar party warned that an Armenian parliamentary bloc dominated by Tashnag "would pose a danger to Lebanon."[13] In addition to patronizing Ramgavar and Hunshak, Hariri is widely believed to have financed the establishment of the Free Lebanese Armenian Movement (FLAM), led by Nareg Aprahamian, a retired army general.

In late March, Tashnag officially announced that it would remain with the opposition, albeit with two minor caveats. In the 8-seat Metn district, Tashnag instructed its constituents to vote for Murr alone, but not for the other candidates on his list. In exchange, March 14 did not field a candidate for the district's Armenian seat, allowing an uncontested victory for Pakradounian. In addition, by prior arrangement, pro-Tashnag candidate Arthur Nazarian and Hunshak candidate Sebouh Kalbakian were elected uncontested in Beirut's second district, in conformity with the Doha Accord.

It is not entirely clear what reasoning lay behind Tashnag's choice. It is difficult to justify the decision purely in terms of narrow electoral self-interest. Although two of its candidates won uncontested victories, the other three - Freij Saboungian and Krikor Calouste in Beirut's first district, and Kasarji in Zahleh - faced difficult electoral battles (and ultimately lost).[14] Had Tashnag aligned with March 14, it would have had a strong chance of winning four seats.

Pakradounian called the decision to stick with Aoun "a response to the [March 14] policy of marginalizing Armenians,"[15] and it is probably true that Armenian resentment tipped the scales. Gemayel did not help matters by publicly warning the party that he would run a "closed list" in Metn (i.e. including an Armenian candidate) if an agreement could not be reached with Tashnag. Aoun smartly avoided so much as a hint of intimidation, and it paid off.

The election was fiercely contested, with both coalitions spending a considerable amount of money on Armenian language media advertising. Due to the opposition's unexpected loss in Zahleh (alongside its expected loss in Beirut I), Tashnag ended up with just two seats, in Metn and Beirut II. Its support for Aoun was critical to the opposition's capture of six out of eight seats in Metn (Murr and Gemayel were the only March 14 candidates elected), though its formidable confessional mobilization may have backfired in Zahleh by provoking Sunnis in the district to close ranks, resulting in an opposition loss there. Nevertheless, as a test of Tashnag's leverage over the Armenian community and ability to mobilize its supporters to adhere to delicate alliances, the election can be regarded as a success for the party.

Not surprisingly, there was much grumbling about Tashnag among March 14 Christian leaders after the vote. Murr lashed out at his former ally, accusing it of threatening his Armenian "friends" to prevent them from casting their votes in his favor and suggested that the "massive" Armenian turnout in Bourj Hammoud was the result of fraud.[16] Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra denounced Tashnag and accused it of behaving as a "colony" in Lebanon, lacking "pure origin."[17] Such comments sparked rebukes within the March 14 coalition from Prime Minister Fouad Siniora[18] and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.[19]

Although formally part of Aoun's Change and Reform bloc, Tashnag's pre-election flirtations with Hariri and Gemayel suggest that it will keep its options open for a possible political repositioning. The party has always been open to alliances with different Lebanese parties on the condition that they acknowledge it as the major political representative of the Armenian community. With the rest of the Christian community more or less evenly divided, it will continue to play a critical swing role and competition for its allegiance is likely to be heated.

Postscript: Every now and then one writes an article only to discover afterwards that someone else has already done an immeasurably more thorough analysis. This is one of those times. For further reading, see Ara Sanjian, Deja Vu: Armenians and the 2009 Parliamentary Elections in Lebanon, Armenian News Network, 29 June 2009.

Notes

  [1] The most notable exception is their nearly universal insistence that Lebanese government institutions officially condemn as genocide the Ottoman Empire's mass murder of Armenians nearly a century ago. For a good overview of Armenian politics in Lebanon, see Ara Sanjian, Armenians and the 2000 Parliamentary Elections in Lebanon, Armenian News Network, 2000.
  [2] Pro-Hunshak MP Yeghig Jerejian and Ramgavar-backed MP Hagop Demirjian remained loyal.
  [3] Khoury won roughly 8,400 Armenian votes, while Gemayel received 1,600. Al-Nahar (Beirut), 6 August 2007.
  [4] "Rival Lebanese leaders claim by-elections as 'victory'," The Daily Star (Beirut), 7 August 2007.
  [5] Quoted in The Metn Fallout, Nowlebanon.com, 14 August 2007.
  [6] L'Orient Le Jour (Beirut), 6 August 2007.
  [7] Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), 6 August 2007. Italics added for emphasis.
  [8] National News Agency (Beirut), 6 August 2007. Translation by BBC Monitoring.
  [9] Ibid.
  [10] "Tashnaq rejects Hariri's proposal, confirms alliance with FPM and Skaff," Nowlebanon.com, 1 April 2009. In exchange, Hariri was reportedly willing to let Tashnag choose the Armenian representative(s) in the cabinet. See "Outcome of Metn polls may hinge on Armenians," The Daily Star (Beirut), 7 March 2009.
  [11] "Analysts say Tueni will beat Aoun's candidate in Beirut race," The Daily Star (Beirut), 19 March 2009. Aoun eventually managed to press for an all-Christian district in Achrafieh featuring two Armenian seats and bargain for an uncontested distribution of two other Armenian seats in another district.
  [12] Tashnag called for "the reactivation of the Armenian bloc, which would include six deputies, one for each party, and the remaining three will be assigned after consensus." "Tashnaq rejects Hariri's proposal, confirms alliance with FPM and Skaff," Nowlebanon.com, 1 April 2009.
  [13] "Suleiman describes ties with Syria as 'excellent'," The Daily Star, 30 March 2009.
  [14] Ibid.
  [15] Lebanese Armenians and the 'Madness' of Political Alignment, Al-Sharq al-Awsat English, 18 April 2009.
  [16] Michel al-Murr, Nowlebanon.com, 17 July 2009.
  [17] Zahra: Tashnag Armenian Party Behaves as Colony in Lebanon, almanar.com.lb, 10 June 2009.
  [18] "We are hearing increasingly that so-and-so made it parliament because of the Sunni vote, or the Shia vote or the Armenian vote. What is this language we are using? Are the Sunnis, Shia and Armenians not Lebanese?" said Siniora on June 19. Nicholas Lowry, Armenians after the vote, Nowlebanon.com, 19 June 2009.
  [19] Jumblatt condemned those "who are describing the Armenians and the Tashnag party as outsiders." Quoted in "Sfeir: Poll result averted takeover by Iran, Syria," The Daily Star (Beirut), 12 June 2009.

Source: "Tayyar", Beirut, 18 September 2009
http://www.tayyar.org/Tayyar/News/PoliticalNews/en-US/128977503500794308.htm


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