Thursday, July 19, 2012

Aoun, or when tragedy becomes farce

We can take it as a given that for as long as Michel Aoun can take a full breath without the assistance of a respirator, he will continue to aspire to the presidency. And if that respirator becomes a necessity, the general will think seriously about transporting it to Baabda with him.

The farce in which the Aounists have engaged during the past few days has exposed their anxieties. On the one side they have blocked roads to support the Army, after three officers were detained for their alleged involvement in the killing of Sheikh Ahmad Abdel-Wahed and Hussein al-Mereb last May. On the other, the Aounists have picked a fight with contract workers at Electricite du Liban, on the grounds that they were undermining the authority of the state.

Why the sudden, and brazen, encouragement of the Army? It didn’t take much to see that Aoun’s embrace of the military institution was more embarrassing than helpful.The Army can be ham-fisted when organizing campaigns to bolster its popularity, but the blocking of the Sarba highway was not something it would have readily done. The demonstration exasperated thousands of drivers. It also implied that the Army command was behind the protests, therefore was disrespectful of the legal system in place to deal with the officers. An Army statement released Tuesday sought to dispel that impression.

Aoun is aware that his primary competitor for the presidency in 2014 will be Jean Kahwagi, the Army commander. Kahwagi is dancing like a ballerina these days, as the Syrian regime totters, wondering just where to place his political feet. He is looking to remain on the good side of the Americans, but also of the Sunni community, which will gain in power once President Bashar Assad is ousted. Recently, the head of military intelligence in the north reportedly contacted Khaled Daher of Al-Jamaa al-Islamiyya, who has been especially critical of the Army. The conversation, unlike those in the past, was apparently cordial.

Aoun wants to see Kahwagi discredited. Ideally, he would like one of his own to lead the Army, perhaps his son in law Shamel Roukoz, to better pave the way for Aoun’s election as president. Under the veneer of defending the Army, the Sarba incident did not make Kahwagi look good. Worse, it put him in a bind if the officers are found guilty and sentenced. Kahwagi would then appear to be someone incapable of defending his institution; someone too willing to please those like Khaled Daher, in other words those Sunnis (and Aoun’s cynical appeal to Christian sectarian sentiment was plain) who purportedly do not have the Army’s interests at heart.

The EDL episode was related. Even though the contract workers whom the Aounists assaulted are in their majority regarded as clients of Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker, the Aounists were indirectly targeting Hezbollah. In fact, there were accounts that the Aounists shouted insults at both Berri and Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general. Why did Aoun go after his Shiite allies?

For two reasons, primarily. Aoun knows that Hezbollah is more likely to approve of Kahwagi as president than of Aoun himself. That is intolerable for the general. Not only have Hezbollah and Amal partisans burned tires against Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, for his abysmal handling of the electricity crisis; not only did Berri attempt to impose a fait accompli on Bassil with respect to the contract workers, in a way that favored the speaker and created a sectarian imbalance; not only have Hezbollah and Amal failed to come down on Aoun’s side in government disputes, particularly over civil service appointments. On top of this, there are no guarantees that Hezbollah will endorse a Aoun presidency, in fact quite the contrary.

So, Aoun was out to catch Nasrallah’s attention, and the two men purportedly plan to meet soon to discuss their differences. That said, a divorce is to the advantage of neither party. Aoun will require the Shiite vote, above all in Baabda, Jbeil, the Metn and Jezzine, to be successful in parliamentary elections next year; while Hezbollah will very much need a Christian partner in several mixed districts.

Which leads us to a second reason why Aoun has decided to lash out against his Shiite partners. Even as the general seeks to strengthen his bargaining hand with Hezbollah and Amal, he also needs to rally Christian voters behind him at election time. If elections were held today, Aoun would probably do fairly well, thanks to the bloc votes currently provided by his Shiite and Armenian allies.

However, these are volatile times. The Aounists, by their own admission, are losing ground in the Christian heartland district of Kesrouan, which is always a good barometer of the communal mood. Their atrocious performance in government has been a debilitating drag. So too has the ambient Christian disgust with the way Hezbollah and Amal have behaved in Lebanon’s streets (a habit the Aounists have since taken up), not to mention supposed Shiite indifference to Christian sensitivities. For example, Christians were greatly disturbed by the way Shiite inhabitants of Lassa behaved in a land dispute with the Maronite Church last year, as they were by Shiite students praying on the esplanade of the Antonine University in March.

Then there is Syria. Aoun has nailed his flag to the survival of Assad, the latest of the general’s ruinous calculations, in a vast anthology. If Islamists come out on top in a post-Assad Syria, Aoun will try to play on Christian fears. But the general will mainly see his pro-Syrian allies in Lebanon weakened, which will harm the Aounists, and he will pay a heavy political price for his sustained hostility to the Sunni community. Aoun cuts an utterly pathetic figure these days, but he really needn’t obstruct our roads to halt his anticipated decline.

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