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Brace yourself for Aoun’s frustration

Monday 2 June 2014



It has become obvious in recent days that much of the speculation about whether Saad Hariri would order his parliamentary bloc to vote for Michel Aoun was unfounded.

Part of this speculation was heightened by politicians who have no desire to see Aoun become president. Their tactic, it seems, was to draw the general down into the pit of presidential disputation, when Aoun had sought to remain above the fray, and in that way provoke and intensify negative reactions to his possible election, further eroding his chances.

That’s why even Samir Geagea’s revelation that Hariri had raised the possibility of Aoun as a consensus candidate could conceivably have been a coordinated effort to neutralize the general, while also preserving Hariri’s ties with the Change and Reform Bloc. Geagea’s statement that Aoun, given his past, could not be a consensus candidate added impetus to the argument that Aoun fails to embody Lebanese unity, a president’s primary constitutional role. It also created the impression that Geagea has veto power over whether Future shifts its support to presidential candidates other than him.

Aoun’s election was always a long shot, but he played his cards as well as he could have. By not entering the campaign early on, he kept his hat in the ring, buying time for a possible regional consensus to build around his presidency. That wasn’t to be, but the general had few other options.

Aoun may feel that Hariri led him on, but he should really look closer to home, at his own allies. While Hezbollah did what it had done in 2007-08 by hinting that it supported Aoun, the reality is that the party’s favorite candidate remains Gen. Jean Kahwagi, the Army commander. Aoun’s unofficial candidacy was and is a useful facade allowing the party to eventually slip in someone better able to advance its agenda.

Some observers have astutely pointed out that the real battle is not over the presidency, but over who will lead the Army. In light of this, Aoun’s victory would very likely mean that his son in law, Shamel Roukoz, would succeed Kahwagi, and it appears that Hezbollah is not keen for this to happen. Aoun and Roukoz have their own networks within the officer corps, independent of Hezbollah’s, therefore the leeway to make decisions involving the military of which the party may disapprove.

What are Aoun’s options now? Some media outlets have speculated that if no consensus is reached over a president, the general will force the issue on his candidacy either by taking his ministers out of the government or by blocking its performance.

There are no indications that this is true, but given Aoun’s past performance, it cannot be ruled out. And yet, the worst thing Aoun can do is resort to a strategy of blackmail. This will not only hinder the state at a particularly sensitive time, it will also disturb Hezbollah, which does not want an open-ended vacuum in the presidency. The party is keen to consolidate its position in Lebanon this year, in parallel to Bashar Assad’s gains in Syria, and bringing in a president with whom it is comfortable is one half of its strategy. The other is to secure, with its allies, a parliamentary majority in elections scheduled for November.

Hezbollah does not want anything, or anyone, to interrupt or delay this process, even if it will manage relations with the general carefully so as to preserve their alliance during and after the parliamentary elections. Lebanon moves primarily to the rhythm of Sunni-Shiite relations today, and Aoun’s obstructionism would come across as a vain effort to reaffirm Christian priorities in a system that has transcended this.

Moreover, the formation of Tammam Salam’s government revealed a shared desire by Hezbollah and Hariri, backed by Iran and Saudi Arabia, to contain the threat of sectarian conflict in Lebanon. That imperative is as relevant today as it was several months ago, and any effort by Aoun to undermine it is likely to upset both Hezbollah and the Future Movement.

But will this be enough to dissuade the general? Very unlikely. There was not much he could do in 2008, when a consensus behind Michel Sleiman in Lebanon and the Arab world helped bring him to office. But in 1989, Aoun plunged Lebanon into a fresh state of conflict once he felt the Taif Accord would be used to sidestep him for the presidency. Before long, he was caught up in a war with the Lebanese Forces that devastated Christian-controlled areas and Christian political fortunes in general.

In this context, if Aoun decides to throw a political tantrum, two Maronites in particular could be asked to intervene. The Maronite patriarch, Beshara Rai, has been irrepressible when it comes to politics. But if Aoun decides to impede the work of the government, Rai has a duty speak out and insist that this would not only harm the state, it would also marginalize the role of Maronites and further divide Christians at a critical juncture.

The second Maronite is Sleiman Frangieh. As an ally of Hezbollah and Aoun, his refusal to go along with a project that effectively paralyzes the government would have an impact, especially on members of Aoun’s bloc close to Frangieh. Among them is Gebran Bassil, who has a stake in remaining in office while the auction for oil and gas contracts takes place.

One can understand Aoun’s frustration. But for him to hold Lebanon hostage to his political ambitions is no solution. It will not alter the presidential equation, but it will show, during a time of near-existential vulnerability in the country, that certain individuals cannot break free from their egoism. Lebanon merits better than to face the consequences of this again.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.


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