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New to Politics But Not to Loss

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Sunday's election will determine 128 members of parliament and define its ruling majority. Several of the candidates, featured here, are the children of prominent Lebanese politicans. Video by Alia Ibrahim, edited by Francine Uenuma/The Washington Post

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By Alia Ibrahim
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 6, 2009

BEIRUT -- Sami Gemayel's name alone may have made politics his destiny. His grandfather was a leader of almost feudal power in Lebanon's Christian community. His uncle and father were presidents. But the outspoken 27-year-old never envisioned running for parliament, especially not as one of the youngest candidates.

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His plans changed Nov. 22, 2006, the day his older brother, Pierre, then a government minister and lawmaker, was assassinated. His is a story told often in Lebanese politics, with its tendency to settle political scores through violence, thrusting sometimes unlikely personalities into the spotlight, as they seize the legacy of their slain forebears.

"Most likely, I wouldn't have been running for elections if Pierre was still alive," said Gemayel, one of the election's most assertive candidates.

On Sunday, Lebanese go to the polls in one of the most decisive elections in the troubled country's history, with a potpourri of new faces still playing by the old rules of a sectarian system that had dominated the country in war and peace.

Voters will choose a 128-member parliament that will probably again enshrine the division of politics into two seemingly irreconcilable camps that have vied for control of the country since 2004. That contest has revolved around politics -- Lebanon's posture toward the West, Israel, Syria and Iran. But no less important, it has drawn on the delicate balance of a country with 18 religious sects, whose identity and sense of vulnerability still color so much of Lebanese life.

Gemayel has a good chance of making his way into parliament as a candidate for what is known as the March 14 coalition, drawing its name from the date of a sprawling protest against Syria's longtime presence in Lebanon in 2005 and backed by the United States and France. The alliance, which won a majority of seats in the 2005 elections, is competing against candidates supported by a coalition known as March 8, the date of a counterprotest that was almost as large. It is led by the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah but counts as supporters the followers of a powerful retired Christian general, Michel Aoun.

To many, the vote appears too close to call, with each side expressing confidence that its victory will serve as a decisive break with the past deadlock. "There are those who tell the Lebanese there is going to be a crisis of governing, but we see an end to the crisis," Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah lawmaker, said at a rally Friday.

The conflict between the two camps has crippled state institutions, effectively shut down parliament and left the president's office vacant for six months. It reached a climax in 2008, when Hezbollah took over parts of Sunni Muslim Beirut after what it viewed as a provocation by its opponents. An agreement reached in May 2008 in Doha, Qatar, brought the groups back from the precipice and offered a formula to organize Sunday's election, though it left unresolved the root causes of the tension.

Under that formula, demographics make the outcome of races in 17 of the 26 electoral districts predictable. Each will go to a candidate backed by either Hezbollah or the March 14 coalition's Sunni leadership. But it is the result of the vote in Christian-dominated districts like Gemayel's that will determine which camp wins a majority in the next parliament, with the power to choose the prime minister.

Moving between the rooms of the office of the Phalangist Party, Sami Gemayel looked confident as he passed posters of his brother; his father, former president Amin Gemayel; and his grandfather Pierre, the party's founder. He greeted comrades -- most of them older than he.

"The more happy and proud I feel of him," Sami's father, Amin, said, after a long sigh, "the more scared I get. This is how Pierre got killed."

The young Gemayel's family story is not all that unusual in this election. His cousin Nadim, 27, is running for a seat in the district of Ashrafieh. He, too, is the son of a former president, Bashir Gemayel, who was assassinated in 1982 during Lebanon's civil war. Nadim's mother, Solange, is a member of parliament.


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