Friday, June 24, 2011

Maronites and the two Michels

Here is one argument for why Lebanon’s Christians, and the Maronites in particular, should seriously consider surrendering the presidency. We can sum it up in just three words: the two Michels—as in Michel Aoun and Michel Sleiman.

With Aoun we have a familiar figure in Lebanese political tradition: a Maronite ravenous for presidential power who has illustrated better than most the destructiveness of his ambition. From the days that President Amin Gemayel appointed him to lead a transitional military government in 1988, until 2008, Aoun has dreamt of becoming our head of state. He dreamt of it in the darkest days of his exile at La Haute Maison, amid the open fields of an isolated hamlet in the distant periphery of Paris. He dreamt of it when he allied himself with Hezbollah after his return to Lebanon, imagining that the party’s weapons and Syrian patronage would impose him on his enemies.

And when they didn’t, Aoun still dreamt of Baabda. He concluded that even though Michel Sleiman had been elected in May 2008, it was Michel Aoun’s right to be president in place of the president. And here we are reminded of what the great French historian RenĂ© Grousset once wrote of the Roman general and politician Pompey. Somehow, he also offered up a succinct, incisive portrait of Michel Aoun:

“What was it his ambition to attain in the Republic? A sort of moral presidency to which, after the services he had rendered, he had some right? To rule, with our without a formal title? Especially to accumulate honors, many honors, which would have satisfied his vanity and his irresolution, but which his secret mediocrity would have prevented him from turning into something redoubtable?”

Having won a lion’s share of ministers in the new government, Aoun may have succeeded in attaining a moral presidency and will now strive to rule without a formal title. But his secret mediocrity will get the better of him, as his attempts to display resolution will expose his innate recklessness. All that will be left is vanity, discolored by cynicism deriving from Aoun’s corrosive dissatisfaction.

Aoun’s rival, Michel Sleiman, has only a formal title and the honors accompanying it to hold up as a bulwark against irresolution. Hailed as a savior in 2008 at the pinnacle of his career, the president has left no vale of hesitation, of reversal, unvisited since that time. Having been handed two of the four sovereign ministries in Fouad Siniora’s government of July 2008, and those again and more in Saad Hariri’s government of December 2009, the president should have built himself sturdy political foundations. Instead, he has relegated himself to the status of political nonentity, the latest insult being his obligation to “share” the Interior Ministry with Aoun.

Perhaps the ultimate statement on the presidency was provided by Emile Lahoud. Though the man benefited from the backing of Syria, Hezbollah, and the intelligence services, he ended up toothless, reviled, a casualty of the impossible incongruities of presidential office. Sleiman is learning a similar lesson. To be potent, a president must be a Maronite chieftain and play the communal game hard-nosedly, without inhibition—isolating foes, picking fights to rally the partisans, driving opponents into minefields of disputation. But Sleiman, whose conceit compels him to disregard the fray, stands blankly, godfather to a government over which he has little influence.

This reality should invite a profound reassessment in the community. Is the Maronites’ continued insistence on retaining the presidency a source of strength or weakness? Not only has competition over the office become a source of inter-communal cannibalism, but the presidential institution has lost much of its punch. Worse, it has become a repository for those embodying the lowest common denominator of agreement among Lebanon’s diverse political actors, who must appeal to everyone because they threaten no one.

Recently, Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai made an ill-considered statement on the matter. He called for the Taif Accord to be renegotiated in order to give the president more power. It didn’t seem to occur to the patriarch that amending Taif might well push the Muslim communities, quite legitimately, to demand that the accord be implemented in full, which would imply abolishing political confessionalism. And if Lebanon abolishes political confessionalism, then the presidency would no longer be reserved for Maronites.

It’s a pity that Rai and Maronite leaders in general refuse to address that possibility. Yet picture a system that gradually erodes confessionalism, or sectarianism, and that allows, at least in an interim period, for the different communities to rotate between the top posts. In that context we might envisage Lebanon as a real country rather than an assemblage of religious tribes. As spirited citizens of a nation rather than the fearful offspring of a dwindling minority, Maronites could begin reinventing themselves in a reinvigorated society.

The presidency is no more a guarantor of Maronite strength than Michel Sleiman represents the highest aspirations of his coreligionists. How demoralizing that for months the community has been driven by the calculations of the two Michels over cabinet portfolios. If you missed that clash, it’s a good sign. It means you understand the triviality surrounding presidential maneuvering.

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