As the Lebanese approach a crucial election on June 7th that could alter not only internal Lebanese politics but also Lebanon’s relations with the world, much of the focus has been on predicting the outcome or the likely coalitions that could emerge. Equally important, however, are the expressed opinions of the Lebanese public, many of whom will be going to the ballot box. In many ways, the attitudes of the public on core foreign and domestic issues will be critical to the type of government that could emerge. During the campaign, some important issues of concern to the United States were discussed in the course of the political debate. For example, the current Hizballah-led opposition sought to assure the public that Lebanon would not become an Iran-like theocracy. The United States, for its part, made its intentions clear, through visits by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice-President Joe Biden, both of whom registered their support for the current ruling coalition.
Whether or not these steps will make a difference remains to be seen, but some things are clear: On many issues, majorities of the Lebanese public remain very much at odds with American foreign policy, even as they express somewhat positive views of President Obama. What’s also clear is that on many issues, all the major communities in Lebanon (Shi’ah, Sunni, Christian, and Druze) are united. A critical reason for this is that, quite strikingly, large majorities of each group see themselves as Lebanese above all else. In this way, expressed Lebanese views are more “statist” than the other countries polled in the Arab world (Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates). One issue on which the Lebanese public largely agrees is that of Iran’s nuclear program; a majority opposes international pressure on Tehran to stop its nuclear project.
At the same time, however, the Lebanese public disagrees on several important issues. Some differences are predictable: Few Shi’ah identify Iran as one of the two biggest threats they face, whereas 45 percent of Druze, 29 percent of Sunnis, and 23 percent of Christians do. Other differences are somewhat surprising: While 11 percent of the Shi’ah polled express support for al- Qa’ida’s methods, 20 percent of Christian Lebanese express similar approval.
Not surprisingly, the Arab-Israeli issue is seen as the central issue through which most Lebanese evaluate American foreign policy. But what is striking is that the second most important issue is economic aid, which is significantly different from what publics in other Arab countries state. Whether or not an assessment of the likely economic consequences of the elections will be a factor on voters’ minds remains to be seen, but it is clearly an important issue to them (one that Vice President Biden may have tried to play on when he spoke in Beirut about the unlikelihood of continuing aid if the Hizballah-led coalition wins a majority).