Thursday, January 17, 2008

Why not the patriarch's moment?

You have to wonder what Michel Aoun thought when he heard the sound of the bomb that went off next to a US Embassy SUV on Tuesday. It is likely that one of the general's objective allies was behind the attack. Yet Aoun will continue to rail against American behavior in Lebanon, even as he keeps a worried eye on Washington where, we last heard, the debate is continuing over what the US should do to him or those close to him.

Marvel at Aoun's thoroughness. In 1990 he almost destroyed Lebanon's Christians. Today he seems to be carrying through on that ambition - indeed has expanded it to question the very idea of Lebanon as we know it - all the while claiming that he's saving the Christians from elimination.

In his hunger to be elected president, Aoun is blocking the election of Michel Suleiman and justifying the dismantling of the institutional protections allowing Christians to retain political power in Lebanon well beyond their demographic weight. The general's statement on Monday that the president must be chosen by direct popular vote was typically irresponsible. Why, if the logic of majoritarianism kicks in, should a majority of Lebanese who are Muslim elect a Christian president at all? And how many Christians really want the majority of Muslims to pick the head of state - an office that Christians have long insisted is their one guarantee against the majority of Muslims picking a head of state?

Recall how, last November, Aoun proposed a very different plan to bring a president to office, whereby he would have selected that president while Saad Hariri Saad-Hariri-Profile Sep-07 would have done the same to the prime minister. The scheme not only ignored the same voters whom Aoun today alleges he wants to enfranchise; it sought to completely bypass the popularly elected Parliament from which Aoun claims to derive his legitimacy. But with the general, inconsistency in the pursuit of power is no vice.

That the Lebanese political system needs a massive overhaul is apparent. Ultimately, gradual, consensual deconfessionalization of Parliament, with institutional safeguards for minorities, particularly Christians, is the only way forward for Lebanon - and the only way Christians can retain a stake and confidence in the system. But what Aoun is proposing is nothing of the sort; he wants the sudden, drastic, and nonconsensual abortion of the Constitution. The general's motive is to rule, and he somehow still believes he can win a vast majority of Shiite and Christian votes. So let the National Pact and the sectarian checks and balances that are the essence of the Lebanese confessional order be damned. Yet for the sake of national coexistence, it's time to tell Aoun "Enough!"

Actually, it's time for Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir to say it. Aoun is vulnerable today, because Christians see in Suleiman an acceptable alternative. Sfeir has recently chipped away at Aoun's strategy - focused on throwing up a wall of conditions to effectively prevent Suleiman's arrival. Aoun's angry ripostes directed against Bkirki have shown how seriously he takes the patriarch's criticism, even if the general has lost credibility in the process. But much more is needed from Sfeir. Pin pricks from the Church will only prolong Christian lassitude. The patriarch needs to galvanize the community, as he did just before the parliamentary elections in 2005, pointing out that Aoun's ideas threaten the Christians' future in Lebanon. He needs to put his weight behind an election now, and make clear that Suleiman, whatever one thinks of him, is the most likely to be a strong president, with even the predominantly Sunni Arab states agreeing to this. And Sfeir must affirm that Aoun is the main Christian obstacle to his election.

For several reasons Sfeir hesitates to do this. He's not a man who likes to name names. Yet unless the patriarch is blunt in mentioning Aoun, the general will just absorb his censure. Second, Sfeir knows it's the Syrians who are blocking the presidential election, and that Aoun is merely their plaything. Why go after a Christian leader and weaken the community in the process, the patriarch wonders, when Aoun is just a messenger? Third, Sfeir knows that his Church is divided, with some bishops siding with Aoun (and others with Suleiman Franjieh, who this week called Sfeir an employee of the American and French embassies), so that any undue criticism of Aoun might create more cracks within the clergy.

All these reasons are legitimate, but unconvincing. If the Christians are in dire straits, as Sfeir repeats in one way or another every day, then his reluctance to take a stronger position is indefensible. There is a higher interest that has to be considered. But the patriarch must also calculate that Aoun is the weakest link in the opposition; his marginalization would open the door to a presidential election in the Christians' interest, and it would deny Hizbullah a Christian partner allowing them to impede the vote. As for the divisions within the Church, the patriarch, with Rome's backing, can certainly wield more authority than he is doing now.

However, Sfeir shouldn't be pushed to the forefront alone. One of the great limitations of March 14 is that it has had no real dialogue with the mass of Christians since the 2005 elections. Aoun has been granted too much latitude to manipulate his coreligionists' sense of frustration. It's no secret that most of the parliamentary majority's Christians are not regarded particularly highly within their community. One reason is that very few are able to participate in politics on the ground, because they spend so much time escaping assassination. But nothing prevents them from being active through representatives. March 14 has the financial means and networks to make inroads into the Christian electorate, but it has been lethargic in responding to the community's needs.

Saad Hariri will argue that it's not up to a Sunni leader to play Christian politics, as it would discredit his Christian allies and provoke a negative backlash from within the community. That's too narrow a way of looking at things. He can easily do more to bolster the patronage activities of his Christian coalition partners and allies, if he hesitates to directly involve himself. But both he and Walid Jumblatt also need to hone the way they communicate with Christians - after all Jumblatt represents a large Christian electorate in the Chouf, Aley and Baabda. They need to talk to Christians directly, as often as they can in Christian areas to Christian audiences, explaining why they want a presidential election, without conditions, as soon as possible.

Most importantly, they need to publicly apologize for the 2005 electoral alliance that so many Christians, fairly or unfairly, still regard as an effort to diminish their representation. The step would not be an easy one, but modesty in the defense of independence is no vice. Simply put, Christians need finally to be talked to so that Aoun can no longer reach them.

1 comment:

Solomon2 said...

gradual, consensual deconfessionalization of Parliament, with institutional safeguards for minorities, particularly Christians, is the only way forward

Will the Christians be permitted to bear arms, use force, or call in foreign troops to defend their interests, when threatened? If not, then why would "institutional safeguards" be effective?