Thursday, March 22, 2012

Aoun-Hezbollah ties hit a glass ceiling

You have to wonder what Michel Aoun thought about the incident on Monday at the Maronite Antonine University, in which Shiite Muslim students prayed in front of the facility’s church. The ideals of religious coexistence aside, as a private religious institution the university did have the right to restrict such an act within its confines.

Aoun’s relationship with Hezbollah provides an interesting backdrop to the episode. Aounist students asked their Shiite comrades to respect university rules, but it was the Lebanese Forces who led the condemnation. It has been just over six years that Aoun signed an agreement with Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general. During that period, both sides benefited. Yet, ultimately, Aoun failed to become president, which was at the heart of his calculations, and the party did little to help him in the 2008 election.

What about today? The reality is that the Aounist-Hezbollah partnership appears to have hit a glass ceiling. Both sides remain friendly. They may very well renew their electoral collaboration in 2013, though precisely how will be shaped substantially by the events in Syria. But the limits of the association are clearer than ever.

A few na├»ve souls once interpreted the Aounist-Hezbollah alliance as a historic reconciliation between Maronites and Shiites. Aoun represented a fundamentally new type of Christian leader, they gushed, someone who had embraced the reality of the Shiite revival. Such considerations failed to take into account that Maronites began flirting with the Shiites as far back as the early 1980s, when they sensed that the community was as hostile to the Palestinian military presence as they were. During Israel’s invasion of 1982, many Shiites openly welcomed the removal of Palestinians from the south, while a number of Amal-controlled Shiite neighborhoods in the southern suburbs of Beirut opposed the presence of Palestinian combatants.

This did not go far, partly because President Amin Gemayel never opened a serious channel to the Shiites, partly because Nabih Berri, then the community’s champion, fell under Syria’s sway. But Aoun was no maverick in looking to Hezbollah, not any more than Samir Geagea was in allying himself with the Sunni leader Saad Hariri or with the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Amid the shifting tectonic plates that is Lebanese politics, cross-sectarian alliances are frequent.

Unfortunately, Aoun’s and Nasrallah’s rapprochement had little impact at the social level. Christians are not any more or less friendly to Shiites than they were previously. The Christians of Hadeth, many of them solid Aounists, are even more anxious about the extension of predominantly Shiite quarters into their vicinity than they were before Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah. The vast majority of Michel Aoun’s electors in Mount Lebanon hardly deals with Shiites at all, or in a way that reflects the Aoun-Nasrallah understanding.

That is normal, you would say. After all, why should political ties trickle down to the popular level? Absolutely true, in postwar Lebanon they have tended not to do so. Which is precisely why we should not read more into the Aounist-Shiite rapport than it merits. And the controversy over what happened at the Antoine University brought home again the regrettable chasm between the communities.

Yet even politically, Aoun and Hezbollah are drifting in separate directions. Both support the barbarous repression undertaken by Bashar Assad in Syria. Both remain hostile to March 14. However, Aoun and Nasrallah have incompatible priorities for the government, and this has led to real, if understated, tension between them.

The aim of Aoun is to use his successes in the Cabinet to consolidate his authority among Christians, possibly make a bid for the presidency in two years’ time, and eventually pave the way for a smooth succession within the Aounist movement, presumably to his son-in-law. Nasrallah’s objective is to brace Hezbollah for sudden transformations in the regional order – above all the fall of the Assad regime, but also a possible war with Israel, or even the consequences of embarrassing revelations before the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Aoun’s strategy inevitably leads to confrontation, since the man knows no other tactic to get his way than heightening polarization, for example threatening to bring down the government. The general is in a hurry. He wants to decide all major Christian administrative appointments; he wants to decisively weaken the Future Movement while it’s down; and he wants to assist Gibran Bassil, whose schemes are designed to exploit the monumental cash cow that is the Energy Ministry.

Nasrallah, on the contrary, seeks to calm the game. He wants the government to remain in place, and to succeed. This he made plain in a speech several weeks ago, in a patent stab at Aoun. Hezbollah doesn’t benefit from a vacuum, which may mean losing its grip on the ground, which is already evident anyway. The party is unsure about the president, Michel Sleiman, the prime minister, Najib Mikati, the Parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, and, of course, Walid Jumblatt, but it needs to keep them onside for now, to avert isolation.

That is why Hezbollah has remained neutral on administrative appointments, weakening Aoun’s hand; and it is why the party allowed Mikati to fund the special tribunal when Aoun was recklessly leading the charge against this. It is also why Nasrallah has not opposed Berri’s and Jumblatt’s maneuvering over budget legislation, even though their endorsement of a package deal to legitimize past outlays by March 14-led governments undermined Aoun’s position.

Aoun has a gift for painting himself into a corner, then screaming so others will let him out. Hezbollah used to help him, but not much anymore. The party faces existential challenges, and has little incentive to advance Aoun’s parochial agenda. The confrontation at the Antoine University will be papered over, but it stands as a useful reminder of the guardedness coloring Shiite-Christian relations, and now increasingly those between Aoun and Nasrallah.

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