Admire Michel Aoun’s capacity to say the most contradictory things, and not dissolve into laughter when he does so. Yet admiration is not the first thing that comes to mind when witnessing how the general’s supporters will applaud his political acrobatics, oblivious to his paradoxes.
Take Aoun’s denunciation of Michel al-Murr this week. Before a delegation from Murr’s village of Bteghrine, the general observed that there was what he called a “feudalism of services” (iqtaa al-khadamat), powerful politicians who garnered political support in exchange for services rendered – in the case of Murr services rendered most often through his intercession with the state bureaucracy and judiciary. The essence of such leaders, Aoun implied, was corruption and favoritism. Their time was over, Aoun promised, if voters would only show they were not afraid to vote them out of office.
Did those in Aoun’s audience, as they cheered, stop to consider that not long ago they were not only allied with Murr, but twice benefitted from his network of services in the Metn – when he called in his chips during the 2005 election, and again during the 2007 by-election, which saw Camille Khoury beating out Amin Gemayel? Murr is no choirboy; in fact his alliance with Aoun after 2005 was a blot the Change and Reform Bloc persistently tried to explain away by saying, “We can change Michel al-Murr;” but somehow it really seems the height of hypocrisy for Aoun to dismiss Murr on the grounds of principle when the general was previously so dependent on his long electoral and administrative arm.
However, let’s look at this very useful concept of a “feudalism of services,” and see how effectively Aoun has prevented his own people and political allies from engaging in such a role. When Aoun was negotiating over the formation of the government last year, he proved as eager as anyone to gain services ministries. He and his allies did rather well in that category. His son-in-law took the prize catch by being handed the telecommunications portfolio. Another follower, Mario Aoun, got a second major service ministry, social affairs. Aoun’s ally, Elias Skaff, whose domains in the Bekaa are feudal in scope, received the Agriculture Ministry, permitting him to distribute favors to his rural electorate.
As for Alain Tabourian of the Armenian Tashnaq party, which is also allied with Aoun, he received the Energy and Water Resources Ministry. This was perhaps not the most desirable of portfolios – given how it is a crippling black hole of graft – but when it comes to favors, a minister can look the other way on unpaid bills, so it must be counted as a net plus for Aoun. Tashnaq had initially asked for social affairs, but the general had already reserved that for Mario Aoun, knowing the advantages that could be derived from it. George Kasarji of Zahle subsequently expressed Tashnaq’s displeasure with the decision, but to little effect.
Of course, Aoun would insist that he placed his men in these ministries to improve services, not to use them for political ends. Indeed, if I think hard I might say I feel an improvement in social and agricultural affairs; don’t you? Don’t you feel the change and reform? As for telecommunications, cellular prices have gone down, to the discredit of Gebran Bassil’s predecessors, but we will have to see how high the cost of the gesture is, and it is not negligible. And by the way, are you finding it as difficult as I am to get through to someone you want to talk to on the first dial?
Can anyone else among Aoun’s allies be counted in that apparently contemptible category of a “feudalism of services”? Well, if Sleiman Franjieh returns to parliament, and he will, he too has the qualities of a “feudal” leader in the Zgharta-Al-Zawiyeh area, and we might recall the popularity he earned in the North when he was health minister. And then there is Aoun’s main ally, Hezbollah; no one could accuse it of being feudal, but that’s because it has gone so much beyond that in its ability to use services as a source of esteem from and control over its devotees.
Unlike Aoun, however, we shouldn’t be hypocritical about these things. Providing services is the essence of Lebanese patronage politics. We may dislike it, but the fact is that most Lebanese go along with the system for a variety of different reasons, to the extent that they often judge their politicians on that basis. To Aoun’s credit, his supporters have tended to rally to him more out of conviction than because he offers them favors, although his placing people in services ministries suggests he’s not persuaded that will last indefinitely. Ironically, that conviction is equally visible among those who prefer the Lebanese Forces, the main rival of the Aounists, which also has a fairly limited patronage network.
Then there is the fact that Aoun appears to have no problems relying on the patronage of others to bolster his political initiatives. The general insists that everything he spends comes from the contributions of Aounists. Somehow, that argument is difficult to swallow as we marvel at his massive advertisement campaign for the elections. Since Aoun wants change and reform, and since he has identified the “feudalism of services” as an obstacle to reform, perhaps, he could do something different and publish his movement’s accounts, proving to us that he is not dependent on the services and assistance granted to him by outsiders, but is, instead, entirely reliant on his supremely generous partisans.
There was a time when Aoun’s used the word “audit” a great deal. Open your books, general, let us feel the change. Let us audit you, so that we can bring ourselves to believe what you say.