So, Michel Aoun’s candidate won. If the general knew any better, he would realize that Camille Khoury’s victory doomed any chance he had of becoming president of Lebanon. That’s because Aoun went into the election seeking to fulfill three aims, all of which have fallen through.
Aoun’s first objective was to score a victory that would compel Hizbullah to endorse him as president, something the party had carefully avoided doing. His second was to show that he remained the most powerful Maronite politician around. And Aoun’s third goal was to come across as the unavoidable president by proving himself a figure of national import. Yet so narrow was Khoury’s triumph that Hizbullah can continue to waffle on Aoun. So severe was Aoun’s rejection by Maronites that the general can no longer really claim to speak for his own community. And so polarizing was his decision to enter the by-election, so sour his rhetoric against his Christian rivals, but also the Sunni and Druze communities, that no one can seriously describe Aoun as a unifier, which is what the Lebanese are looking for in any new leader.
The Syrian leadership is pleased with the results. Aoun neither won nor lost; Gemayel didn’t win; the Christians are more divided than ever; Hizbullah’s margin of maneuver on the presidency is as wide as before; the balance in Parliament is unchanged; the option of holding by-elections as a weapon against political assassination was proven to be as profitable for the opposition as for the majority; and we may all be heading in the direction of a Syrian gambit on the presidency, where we will either have to embrace Syria’s candidate or accept a political void.
As the Syrians watch the United States and Iran negotiating, as they survey the progress in the Hariri tribunal (despite recent efforts by some states, under the stewardship of Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, to delay its formation), they are caught in a race for time. The Syrians threaten Lebanon with a vacuum, but a vacuum might be to Damascus’ disadvantage. It won’t stop the tribunal and the American-Iranian dialogue from going forward. What the Syrian regime needs above all is not so much a vacuum in Beirut, but a president and government it can manipulate in order to shape events in the coming months, before the tribunal is formed and before the regional situation possibly shifts to Syria’s disadvantage. That’s why there are some March 14 figures who prefer to hold off on a presidential election for the time being.
Aoun failed to grasp that the Metn by-election was always intended to undermine his presidential bid. The general was not going to come out of the battle looking better than he did in 2005. Now he looks much worse. He took the seat of a murdered man in the name of declaring the by-election illegitimate; he branded his campaign a fight against the traditional political families, when far better men than Aoun have failed to eliminate such families, let alone one like the Gemayels that is popular among Christians; and Aoun won on the basis of an Armenian vote which, though thoroughly legitimate, was the result of the parochial calculations of the Tashnag party rather than any yearning to make Aoun president.
Tashnag committed what could become a historic mistake. The party may have partly been playing hardball with Saad Hariri, in order to get the Armenians two seats back in Beirut in the 2009 elections. But what their support for Khoury effectively did was trash two principles the Armenians always adhered to in the past: siding with the Lebanese state, whatever the cost; and maintaining good relations with a majority of Christians. Now Tashnag finds itself on the side of the Syrian-backed opposition, propping up a man who will surely never be president, and doing so against the current of Christian public opinion in the Metn. On top of that, the party has turned Amin Gemayel into an angry enemy. All for what? To get the unknown Camille Khoury into Parliament, in an election process whose legitimacy Aoun didn’t even recognize?
And what of Aoun himself? The general’s aura is now bright only to those still part of his obtuse cult. Take away the calculating Armenians, the naturalized Lebanese bussed in from Syria to vote for Hassan Nasrallah (before realizing that he wasn’t a candidate), and the pro-Syrian parties in the Metn, and what you have left is a situation where only about a third of Metn voters see their salvation in the general. That’s not negligible, but it’s also far from the numbers that make one a valid political messiah.
As the election confirmed once more, Aoun is a casualty of his deepest hatreds. The man is built on a scaffolding of resentment. Ultimately it was his humiliation at the hands of the Gemayels, the fact that he was not allowed to present his condolences to the family after Pierre Gemayel’s assassination, that seemed to motivate him to push Khoury into the race. Aoun is someone who feels as threatened by the dead as by the living. He could never forgive Rafik Hariri for having been so spectacularly killed, when all Aoun could show for himself was a sprint to the French Embassy on October 13, 1990; he could never bring himself to say anything nice about Gebran Tueni when it was Gebran’s turn to be eliminated; and throughout the Metn campaign, Aoun’s contempt for how Pierre’s death was being used against him provoked thinly-veiled contempt for the victim himself.
Wave a red rag at Aoun and he will charge. Place that rag at the edge of an abyss, and the general will go over the side. Aoun won his Metn seat but he’s well on his way down. His parliamentary bloc still allows him to be kingmaker, never king. But Aoun wants to be king, only king. So Lebanon will continue to pay for his vindictive, destructive egotism until those opposed to Lebanon’s independence toss him away, his work done.