Thursday, September 27, 2012

Was Michel Aoun assassinated after all?

Michel Aoun is getting a taste of his own medicine. When Samir Geagea declared earlier this year that he had been the target of an assassination attempt, the general expressed dubiousness. Now March 14 is doing the same about a alleged attack against Aoun in Sidon, in which one of his vehicles was hit by a bullet.

Would Aoun invent such an incident to bolster his electoral chances? The general would do, and has done, far worse. For the commander who abandoned his soldiers and family on Oct. 13, 1990, when Syrian soldiers overran the areas under his control, to the man who now defends the unbounded barbarity of President Bashar Assad’s repression, to lie for electoral gain qualifies as an improvement.

But Aoun is right in one regard. Let’s wait for a thorough investigation to determine what happened in Sidon. If someone did shoot at him, then it’s a serious matter. However, perhaps it’s another question that we should ask of Aoun. Did Pope Benedict XVI, during his recent trip to Lebanon, assist in the general’s political assassination?

The pontiff came to Beirut with two principal messages to Christians: Remain in your country so that demographically the Christians of the Middle East will not disappear; and embrace the Lebanese model of coexistence, because only that, in the end, can truly preserve the Christian presence in Lebanon. Underlying his visit was advocacy of self-confidence, the notion that Christians must believe in themselves and not succumb to a debilitating sense of irreversible decline.

Aoun is an acutely paradoxical practitioner of that epistle. He has always presented himself as the embodiment of Christian, particularly Maronite, strength and vigor. And yet his practice is to play on Christian fears, above all a fear of Sunni domination. In his alliance with Hezbollah and Syria, Aoun has also drifted close to a strategy of dhimmitude, a belief that it’s best for vulnerable Christians to seek protection from the stronger Muslim party (and for much of the period after 2005, the Shiite community and Syria were that party).

In many respects Aoun has destroyed Christian morale, even as he has purported to reinforce the community’s presence. Aoun’s Christians, and not only them, are profoundly, and understandably, anxious about their destiny in Lebanon. Demographically, Christians are believed to make up no more than a third of the population. Their youths (like those from all communities) are emigrating, with very limited opportunities that would encourage them to remain.

The problem is that Aoun is constitutionally incapable of addressing this crisis through the prism that Pope Benedict favors, namely to anchor the Christian presence in a context of religious toleration and harmony. Largely, that’s because the general has adopted the ways of a populist and benefits from sectarian divisiveness. His hostility to the Sunnis has brought him dividends, but hardly the most advantageous ones in that conditions in the region, and in Syria especially, point to a future in which Sunnis will be more dynamic and influential.

What happens to Aoun is less important than what happens to those Christians who are loyal to the general. There can be only terrible consequences from a situation where the Christians play sides in the Sunni-Shiite rivalry, and gamble on one side or the other. Christians hold a great advantage in being able to have close relations with all Muslim communities, which creates openings for them to advance their values and agendas in Lebanon’s national conversation.

Aounists will complain that they are no worse than Samir Geagea and the Lebanese Forces, who have allied themselves with the Sunnis against the Shiites. True, but Geagea has not done so primarily on the basis of sectarian rancor because he and his supporters have an aversion to Shiites; he has done so because, as he sees it, Hezbollah threatens the foundations of the sovereign Lebanese state. Once the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons is resolved, it’s likely that the Lebanese Forces will see benefits in rebalancing their relationships with the political representatives of the Muslim communities.

Aoun has been equally ambiguous when it comes to the role of the president. The general has insisted time and again that the Taif Accord, at least that aspect of it dealing with the prerogatives of the presidency, must be revised. The implication is that the president has lost valuable power – another Aounist lament about Christian regression.

The presidency surely has lost power, but no parliament will ever reverse this. And the surprising effectiveness of President Michel Sleiman in recent weeks in managing blowback from the conflict in Syria shows that a president can be highly effective if he functions imaginatively within the confines of a national consensus.

Sleiman’s newfound credibility coupled with Pope Benedict’s words of encouragement have destabilized Aoun, at the very moment when the general and his followers are worried about how they might fare in parliamentary elections next year. Even in the Maronite bastion of Kesrouan, Aounists will admit that they are losing ground. We will have to wait and see, but it does make you wonder: Michel Aoun may have escaped elimination in Sidon, but elsewhere the story may be rather different. Many Christians seem tired of his perpetual spite.

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