Thursday, August 21, 2008

The battle of the two Michels has begun

The battle of the two Michels has begun
By Michael Young
Commentary by
Thursday, August 21, 2008

Weeks ago, Michel Aoun's political adversaries were already predicting that the general's first act once the government was formed would be to demand that the prerogatives of the deputy prime minister be clarified. The post is traditionally "reserved" for the Greek Orthodox community and is currently held by Aoun's comrade Issam Abu Jamra. They sensed that Aoun would use the dispute to yet again try to rally support among Christians by claiming to be defending their interests against Sunni dominance - since the deputy prime minister's job description must necessarily be elucidated at the expense of the Sunni prime minister.

On Tuesday, this discussion took on more rarefied airs when the minister Tammam Salam and the parliamentarian Ghassan Mukheiber of the Aoun bloc exchanged statements on the role of Mukheiber's uncle, Albert, when he was deputy prime minister in the 1972 government headed by Tammam Salam's father, Saeb. Mukheiber argued that his uncle had stood in for Salam when the prime minister was abroad, while Salam insisted this was not true. Mukheiber went on to state that now was a good time to define the duties of the deputy prime minister, which must have pleased Aoun while also allowing Mukheiber to score some points within his own Greek Orthodox community.

In the midst of a hot summer, this somehow qualifies as news. Aoun has long been a master of institutional guerilla warfare, in which he scores points by consistently applying sectarian pin pricks. However, something may be changing. The small-mindedness of the deputy prime minister debate may actually play to Aoun's disfavor because it comes as the president, Michel Sleiman, is seen by many to be filling his political space with more momentous achievements - not least his visit to Damascus last week. In the competition over Christian representation, Aoun's weapons are now looking less effective than Sleiman's.

A lot of this is based on perceptions, of course. Sleiman came back triumphant from Syria, but the results of his summit with President Bashar Assad were, to be kind, very limited. On the fate of prisoners in Syria the Lebanese got a committee with no deadlines set for its work. On border demarcation Lebanon got another committee, again with no deadlines set, with many people apparently unaware that the demarcation question has been drifting from one committee to the next for decades. On the Shebaa Farms the Lebanese adopted the Syrian position that there could be no delineation of borders before Israel's occupation ended, thereby leaving the geographical identity of the territory in limbo. And before traveling to Damascus, Sleiman, through a spokesman, declared that the Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council, the starkest memento of the years of Syrian hegemony, would not be dismantled.

What did Lebanon get in exchange? The promise of an embassy and diplomatic recognition. That's not negligible, but we might want to look at this from Syria's perspective. A Syrian embassy in Beirut would not be like the Kuwaiti or even the Egyptian embassy. It would be an axis point for Syria's allies in the country, a very useful means of allowing the Assad regime to exert its political influence in Beirut on a day-to-day basis in a way it cannot do so today. Many remember the considerable sway that the United Arab Republic's ambassador in Beirut, Abdel-Hamid Ghaleb, had at the start of President Fouad Shihab's mandate. Diplomatic recognition on its own does not guarantee respect for Lebanese sovereignty.

Despite all this, Sleiman benefited domestically from his summit with Assad, and came back to take in hand the volatile situation in Tripoli. The public could not but approve, whatever the results, and Aoun is beginning to realize that he is losing ground among his coreligionists. Nor can the general gain much anymore by persistently baiting Fouad Siniora, when the prime minister seems to be working so well with president. This was evident in the preparation for Siniora's trips to Egypt and Iraq, both partly designed to help overcome the electricity crisis. Aoun's frustration was understandable. Siniora, with Sleiman's tacit approval, circumvented the energy minister, Alain Tabourian, whose Tashnag Party is allied with the Aounist bloc. The president and prime minister, each for reasons of his own, are happy to collude against Aoun. Better still, they are playing on the recent tension between the general and Tashnag over the fact that Aoun gave them the Energy Ministry in his quota of ministerial portfolios, when they had asked for the social affairs portfolio that Aoun instead reserved for Mario Aoun, a member of the Free Patriotic Movement.

It may be a reach to suggest that Sleiman is making a bid for the Armenians at this early stage, by showing them that they have more to gain by allying themselves with him than with Aoun. But ultimately that may be precisely what the president does as Michel Murr begins preparing a candidate list in the Metn, one facet of a broader strategy by Sleiman to nibble away at Aoun's base before parliamentary elections next year. It is known that the president wants a bloc of his own in Parliament, and he may be able to count on assistance from Aoun's rivals in this regard. That explains why Aoun has so fervently defended Hizbullah lately. He needs Shiite help to win compensatory seats in the Baabda constituency, in Jezzine, and in Zahleh. Some are suggesting Aoun also has an eye on the Maronite seat in Baalbek-Hermel.

The elections are still a long way off, but Aoun is already entering the period he dreaded after he was forced in Doha to accept Sleiman's election. For better or worse the president is now the person most Maronites and Christians in general are looking toward to defend their communal wellbeing. This is forcing Aoun to behave recklessly, as when he tied Hizbullah's disarmament to the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, a position that made many in his electorate gag. Aoun also erred in appointing his son-in-law to head the cash cow Ministry of Telecommunications, contradicting his earlier claims to be a different type of politician who opposed nepotism in politics.

Aoun is a cat of many political lives, so it may be unwise to write him off just yet. But even cats need branches to sit on, and the general is finding that these are not as numerous as they once were. He is picking secondary fights and is now beginning to sound like a lost voice in the desert.

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