Thursday, November 29, 2007

Destroying Lebanon for a great sinecure

In late 1994, I interviewed Michel Aoun at his borrowed residence at La Haute-Maison just outside Paris. At the end of our conversation I asked the general why he had not organized his supporters in Lebanon, since the Aounist movement at the time was a disoriented amalgam of people whose principle activity was to be harassed by the authorities. Aoun's answer was remarkable: "Why, so that they all end up with the Syrians?"

Aoun eventually did organize his followers, and he did so rather well. However, his response in those early days of exile provided a window into the man's deeper impulses: Though his supporters were being slapped around for championing him, Aoun's main concern was maintaining authority. That was reasonable, but less so was the fact that the general justified this attitude by casting doubt on the loyalty of the Aounists. Given that they are recklessly following him down the road to communal perdition today, perhaps we can suggest that Aoun apologize to all those people whose devotion he doubted while in France.

Yesterday, the Future Movement suddenly declared its intention to support a constitutional amendment to bring in the army commander Michel Suleiman as president. This came after the French reportedly inquired about the general, and the Russians allegedly expressed sympathy for him. Even the Lebanese Forces leader, Samir Geagea, waffled on Monday when asked about a constitutional amendment to bring the general to power, noting that "all options are being studied."

Aoun will swallow poison before saying yes to Suleiman. It's difficult to believe that Geagea really relishes the idea of bringing to power his warden for nine years. And Walid Jumblatt has already told Suleiman he would not vote in favor of a constitutional amendment, even if he has also indicated he would be willing to accept anybody to avoid a vacuum. But will this be enough to stop the army commander? Hizbullah may be as lost as anyone in gauging what comes next. Having declared its support for Aoun, it knows that shifting its support to Suleiman may mean a divorce with Aoun. Is that one of the main objectives in the Hariri camp's backing for the army commander? Perhaps, but even so, it's difficult to imagine that Hizbullah will oppose Suleiman if Syria backs him.

The Maronite community has split down the middle in the race between its politicians for an office that is fast turning into the sinecure of the Lebanese republic. Whichever way you cut it, the Maronites, and Lebanon's Christians in general, need to overhaul their thinking when it comes to their national political role. Each presidential election, it seems, is further destroying what remains of Christian influence. That's why its time to seriously open a debate within the community on whether Christians actually benefit from the presidency anymore.

Such a debate will be delayed by two things. First, the priority today is, and must be, the consolidation of a Lebanon independent from Syria. Will a President Suleiman, if he is the anointed one, bring this about? Or on the contrary, is he Syria's choice as many people seem to believe? It's a paradox that the Christians, who were always at the forefront of opposition to Syria, are now, through their infighting, the main reason why the Assad regime is finding it so easy to manipulate Lebanese politics for a comeback (even if the 2005 electoral deal between Walid Jumblatt, Hizbullah, Saad Hariri, and Nabih Berri gave the current opposition the oxygen it needed to collect itself and prepare a counterattack). The fact that Suleiman's agenda is so ambiguous, particularly on Syria, is a result of the Christians having lost their bearings on Lebanon's independence.

Second, no discussion over the Christians' future can occur while Hizbullah holds weapons. That's because no national debate on political reform can take place under those conditions. Which community will agree to make concessions when only one community has guns and rockets?

More troubling, however, is the fact that Hizbullah and the Aounists have repeatedly cast doubt on the Taif Accord - when they've paid attention to it at all. For disgruntled Christians to join Hizbullah in an anti-Taif alignment would be a tragedy. Taif is the only legitimate framework for political reform in Lebanon today, and the only protection Christians have if Sunnis and Shiites ever consider a review of communal prerogatives. On the other hand, if Sunnis and Shiites confront each other over such prerogatives, they might find it necessary, in an effort to avert open conflict between themselves, to arrive at an arrangement at the expense of the weaker parties: the Christians and almost certainly the Druze as well.

Since Suleiman is the man of the hour, it might be useful to ask what he thinks of Taif. If he becomes president, the likelihood is that he will draw to him many of the supporters that Michel Aoun had depended upon. Will he reconcile them with Taif? A Suleiman presidency would surely represent Aoun's political elimination. But Aoun's fate is immaterial; the real question is whether Suleiman will help solidify a free Lebanon, one in which the Christian community would be less weighed down by Aoun's sectarian paranoia. Or will Michel Suleiman try to do what Emile Lahoud failed to do and stabilize Lebanon under a new form of Pax Syriana?

Maybe then Michel Aoun would think twice before accusing his followers of wanting to "end up with the Syrians." He tried to play the Syrian game, and may have just lost. For the second time in two decades he drove the Christians into the ground. Now someone else may have the opportunity to save the community, or repeat the same mistake that Aoun did.


tarr0011 said...

Hi there. You make some interesting points

I am a journalism student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and I have to write a story on people from Beirut that come to America to escape the violence.

I was wondering if you, or anyone you know has sought refuge in the U.S.? Have you ever considered coming to the U.S. to get away from the violence? or is it something people just get used to?

Thank you very much for your time.

My email is

Anonymous said...

Took me time to read the whole article, the article is great but the comments bring more brainstorm ideas, thanks.

- Johnson