Friday, June 22, 2012

General electric

I invite you, dear reader, to shine a light (battery power, of course) on a conversation you surely had with the Aounists when Gebran Bassil was first handed the energy portfolio. Invariably, the loyal followers would assert that Lebanon at last had a competent minister.

Competent Bassil doubtless is, though not quite in the way his admirers meant. But when it comes to ameliorating the lot of the Lebanese, Michel Aoun’s son-in-law has been a calamity. Among those most aware of this are Hezbollah’s supporters (and not only them), who are taking to the streets daily to curse his ineptitude.

Earlier this week Aoun himself came to the defense of the son he never had. An irate general declared that everyone was to blame for the abysmal electricity output, which was doubtless correct. Yet if we follow his logic, we can apply that excuse to many other problems the Lebanese have confronted in recent years—problems that Aoun has blamed entirely, without reserve, on his political foes.

More interesting was the undertone of Aoun’s complaint. He was clearly flustered by the fact that the electorate of his Hezbollah partners has been particularly aggressive in denouncing the power cuts, behind walls of burning tires. Remember when the general ordered his followers to block roads to bring down Fouad Siniora’s government starting in 2006? Those tactics are apparently harder to stomach when directed against his own.

Aoun and Hezbollah need each other, and they will continue to collaborate, particularly in the parliamentary elections next year. However, their interests have diverged under the tattered umbrella of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government. Nor can the party particularly relish what will likely happen in 2014, when it comes time to choose a successor to President Michel Sleiman.

Many Aounists still believe, against common sense, that their leader will succeed Sleiman as the next president. And they still believe, against past evidence, that Hezbollah will help carry the general to Baabda. In 2008, the party supported Sleiman’s election, and it did not do so because it was pressured to give up on Aoun; Hezbollah did so because it was never its intention to gratify Aoun’s presidential ambitions, even as the party hypocritically, but always in a deniable way, suggested that he was the prime candidate.

Who will be Hezbollah’s choice in two years? Many believe he is Jean Kahwaji, the army commander. Alas, Kahwaji has perpetuated that dismal habit of allowing officers to put up giant portraits of him, in what is an effort to start his election campaign early. Evidently, there are no credible Maronites outside the military, so that at every new presidential election we must face an epidemic of khaki.

Certainly, Kahwaji can pretend to be Lebanon’s savior these days, as the army occupies itself by intervening in gun battles, opening roads, fighting with Palestinian refugees, and what have you. As in 2006 to 2008, the armed forces seem to be the last rampart between what passes for normality and chaos, so expect the army commander to exploit this for all it is worth, just as Sleiman did previously.

How will Aoun react? The general is anxious about his political future. According to Aounists in the Keserwan district, the movement has lost considerable momentum there. Electoral alliances in several districts of Mount Lebanon—with Hezbollah in Baabda and Jbeil, and with the Armenians in the Metn—could decisively bolster the Aounists’ fortunes, but it would also make them vulnerable. If Aoun needs Hezbollah to win a majority in Mount Lebanon next year, his latitude to compel the party to then elect him president will be greatly diminished.

Aoun has only himself to blame. Hezbollah has played him like a fiddle for years, but its links with the general have given him leverage that he never properly took advantage of. Twice, he won a majority of Christian seats in parliament, but has yet seen his appeal decline. Aoun has more ministers in this government than any single Christian politician has ever had, and yet he has made an absolute mess of things—alienating almost all of his cabinet allies, displaying unprecedented greed and annoying even Hezbollah.

And soon, if he is still among us when the next president is selected, Aoun will have to swallow the additional insult of seeing the presidency escape him for a second (even a third) time. That won’t ameliorate his relationship with Hezbollah, but don’t expect the general to find anyone to burn tires in the streets on his behalf.

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