Friday, April 5, 2013

In search of enemies

Michel Aoun has said that he would not accept a return of Najib Miqati as prime minister. That’s understandable, since the biggest loser when Miqati chose to step down was Aoun.

But is the General really surprised? To be allied with Aoun has always been a risky venture, given that his opportunism invariably sinks his partners. Aoun not only alienated Miqati (the performance of Aounist ministers was an endless source of frustration for the prime minister), he has also antagonized the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri. Only Hezbollah has been spared Aoun’s duplicity, largely because the party is so much more powerful than he is.

There has been talk recently that Hezbollah’s patience is limited. Aoun’s maneuvering at Miqati’s expense – for instance, his backing of the so-called Orthodox proposal and of a pay raise for the public sector, both of which the prime minister opposed – helped push Miqati to the door, something Hezbollah did not want. Perhaps, but officially the party was fairly close to Aoun on both these issues, and at a moment when the Assad regime in Syria seems so vulnerable, Hezbollah cannot afford to lose its main Christian ally.

But has Aoun done anything with this leverage? Hezbollah helped win him 12 ministers in the Miqati government, but then the General squandered this advantage by systematically undermining the prime minister. Aoun’s gift for angering potential allies always seems to harm his political interests. Berri cannot stomach him, nor can Walid Jumblatt, whom Aoun accused on Tuesday of not being normal, after Jumblatt stated his opposition to a return of Free Patriotic Movement ministers to the Telecoms and Energy Ministries.

Gebran Bassil and Nicholas Sehnaoui irritated the so-called centrists in the government, which explains Jumblatt’s reaction. Bassil’s management of the offshore gas projects has long elicited Miqati’s mistrust, while his sending fuel oil to the Syrian regime discredited the prime minister in the eyes of his own community.

As for Sehnaoui, he repeatedly refused to hand over telephone and internet data to the Internal Security Forces in the investigation of Wissam al-Hassan’s assassination. Sehnaoui’s refusal was defendable, as he sought to protect privacy, but to Miqati and the centrists it looked like yet another effort to impede the Hassan inquiry.

Aoun has viewed conflict as beneficial to his power, even if he has had a knack for losing his most important battles. From his ruinous uprising against the Syrian presence in Lebanon over two decades ago to his more recent wager on the ultimate triumph of Bashar al-Assad against the Syrian revolt, Aoun has miscalculated. He may be skilled at playing on Christian fears of marginalization, which led him to favor the Orthodox proposal, but this is hardly challenging. When it comes to reading the longer-term outlook for Lebanon and the region, Aoun has usually reasoned like an ignorant provincial bigot.

The General’s most damaging habit has been to keep up his hostility to the Sunni community, seeing this as a way of rallying the support of Christians, given their historic apprehension of the Sunni majority in the region. But this is not particularly smart at a time when we are witnessing a Sunni revival, and when Aoun’s ally Hezbollah is on the defensive given the likely overthrow of Assad in the foreseeable future. Worse, Aoun’s behavior has prompted negative reactions from the Gulf states, where more than 100,000 Lebanese work.

When given the choice between pursuing short-term gain or laying the groundwork for long-term advantage, Aoun has usually chosen the former. After the elections of 2005 the General became the natural choice to succeed Emile Lahoud as president, given that he had emerged as the leading Christian representative. All Aoun had to do was to navigate a neutral path between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, open to both sides yet committed to none.

In that situation, any effort to deny him the presidency in 2008 would have been regarded by Christians as an effort to disregard their preferences, which neither March 8 nor March 14 could afford. After all, Berri had stayed in office because the Shiites demanded it, and Fouad Siniora had become prime minister because Sunnis demanded it.

So what did Aoun do? He sided with Hezbollah against the same majority in parliament necessary for his eventual election. This he did because he felt that an alliance with Hezbollah would improve his chances, and he sensed that Christians would support him against Saad Hariri and Jumblatt following the quadripartite agreement between Hariri, Jumblatt, Hezbollah, and Berri in the elections of 2005, which many Christians viewed as a betrayal.

Soon, Aoun’s partisans conveniently forgot that Hezbollah had been part of that agreement. Hezbollah never seriously pushed for a Aoun presidency, and by opposing the parliamentary majority the general lost any chance of being elected, thwarting his principal ambition.

This may have been par for the course for the erratic Aoun, but it was also a debilitating setback to a rare consistent aspiration in a political career marked by contradiction and obfuscation. After Michel Suleiman came to office instead of Aoun, the Free Patriotic Movement leader found that he had hit a glass ceiling. He has continued to play politics, but having been denied the ultimate prize, he has done so without much sense of purpose. Instead Aoun has aggressively struck out in all directions, in seeming frustration at his pointlessness.

This is the man whom too many Christians regard as a model. But a model of what? Of political failure and cheap populist pandering? Of sectarian narrow-mindedness? Of personal ambition regardless of what this might cost Lebanon as a whole? The sad thing is that Aoun has always been in a position to offer much more than that, but he has never been able to resist the pull of his darker side.

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