Friday, August 12, 2011

The maestro of envy

Among the more dismal spectacles in an already dismal political landscape is that of Michel Aoun talking about Syria.

In the past two weeks, since the assault on Hama, Aoun has played down the Syrian repression. This week he observed that Syria was calm and advised the Syrian people to make their demands known through the ballot box—in a country celebrated for its democratic standards. Aoun also invited President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents to come to their senses and essentially embrace his rule.

It’s been clear for many years that as far back as his abortive “war of liberation” against Syria, the general’s devouring fantasy was to become Lebanon’s president. That plan failed time and again, despite Aoun’s acrobatics and his alliance with Hezbollah against the majority that emerged from the 2005 elections. Today, Aoun pursues a lesser objective, namely to guarantee that his children, with their spouses, inherit his political mantle. The boy of modest means from Haret Hreik has made good, and aspires to bequeath a dynasty.

In that respect, Aoun is no worse, or better, than most other Lebanese political players. However, only the foolish fail to see through his ambition, regarding him as something of a reformer. Look closely at the laws the general is advocating—even ask his allies in government what they think—and they will laugh and quietly tell you that the initiatives Aoun has packaged as “reform” are merely accelerated means of catching up for all those years when he was exiled by Syria, incapable of securing the benefits accruing to most of his peers.

Perhaps that’s why the general’s comments on Syria are so grating. The supreme egoist carried Lebanon into a ferocious conflict against the Syrian army in 1989 purportedly in defense of freedom—the same freedom sought by Syrians now—causing massive numbers of casualties. Aoun’s subsequent decision to turn his guns on the Lebanese Forces killed many more, accelerating the Christian exodus from Lebanon. Despite the wreckage, the general’s followers still regard him as a communal champion and have never held him to account.

Now, Aoun has not only reconciled with the Syrian regime—he is not only among its most vocal, and willfully blind, partisans—on top of that he and many of his supporters will blithely tell you that the Assad regime, which has done more harm to Christian influence in Lebanon than just about anyone, is in reality a protector of Christians.

Yet hold a snap parliamentary election in Mount Lebanon, the Christian heartland, and Aoun would probably do as well as he did in 2009, if not better. The man has been as acrobatic as Walid Jumblatt in his reversals—has transformed contradiction, demagoguery and hypocrisy into powerful weapons—and all the while he has managed to retain a solid core of Christian admirers. Aoun may embody the very worst features of the Lebanese political class that his supporters once claimed to oppose, but nowadays they are willing to overlook all that because deep down, their principle difficulty with the political system was envy. They wanted what everyone else had.

You have to admire Aoun’s cynicism. He always grasped that envy was the key to the hearts and minds of many Christians after the war ended. It was envy directed against the national reconstruction effort, from which many Christians, rightly or wrongly, felt excluded; envy directed against Taif, which took power away from the Maronite president and placed it in a cabinet led by a Sunni prime minister; and envy directed against mainstream politicians who had cut a deal with the Syrians, thereby monopolizing the instruments of patronage while Aoun rotted in exile (and Samir Geagea in prison).

When Aoun returned home he continued to manipulate envy. The old resentments were still alive, to which the general added fresh ones. He directed his flock’s envy against the March 14 coalition, which had denied him the presidency; against Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, whose loathing of Aoun was written all over his mitre; against President Michel Sleiman, who occupied the office that Aoun coveted. Envy was everywhere. Aoun became a maestro of acrimony, issuing bilious declarations, deploying libel and imprecation, his body language radiating annoyance as he insinuated that he and his own were entitled to much more than they were getting.

The more ridiculous Aoun’s performances became, the more ridiculous his devotees appeared for applauding his every asinine semi-colon. And yet many have remained with him, so that those of us who wrote Aoun off too readily must admit that we were partly wrong. The man has lost ground, without question, offers nothing, is arguably the most destructive politician the Christians have had in decades, has no vision worth mentioning, and embodies, as do others, the brutish pursuit of naked self-interest. But his survival is ensured for as long as he can feed off the flaws and fears of his community.

Aoun’s durability tells us much, too much, about the Christians. The general is not alone in meriting condemnation, and the fact that the community’s principal leaders are figures who became prominent during the war years is hardly a badge of honor. But not a few Christians want Aoun nonetheless. As they follow him through his labyrinth of self-serving policies, anti-democratic diatribes and corrosive envies, it is beyond time for them to ask if Michel Aoun offers them a better future, or more disenchantment.

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