Thursday, May 30, 2013

Aoun's highway of broken dreams

So parliamentary elections will be postponed, allowing us to enjoy a further year and a half of Lebanon’s legislative confederacy of dunces. But what has provoked interest in the halls of parliament in recent days is Michel Aoun’s displeasure with extending parliament’s mandate, and how this might affect his relations with Hezbollah.

Most of the large parliamentary blocs have accepted an extension for different reasons. Hezbollah, the strongest proponent of an election delay, sees no reason for a decisive election before the situation in Syria becomes clearer. Saad Hariri, too, prefers to postpone elections, because under the several probable laws that would govern the electoral process today, he and March 14 would not win a majority. For Walid Jumblatt, any of the laws most likely to be on the table, such as a hybrid law, would undermine his lock on the Chouf and Aley. Better to wait until the broader political context changes. Meanwhile, Jumblatt still holds the balance of power in parliament.

The Lebanese Forces, after the fiasco over the Orthodox proposal, also prefer to hold off on elections in order to rebuild their relationship with Hariri and the Future Movement. Samir Geagea helped torpedo the 1960 law, which is what he sought, and knows no consensus will emerge over a new law anytime soon. Plus, postponement could thwart the aims of Geagea’s main Christian rival, Michel Aoun.

That’s why Aoun is the odd man out. After spending weeks pretending that he wanted the Orthodox proposal and opposed the 1960 law, Aoun must now pay the consequences. The reality is that he always favored the 1960 law, which allows him to benefit from friendly Shiite electorates in Jbeil, Baabda, and Jezzine. But Aoun needed to show he was sensitive to Christian displeasure with the 1960 law, and so he played the game of endorsing the now-dead Orthodox project.

Aoun finds himself in a bind. An extension means that there will be no elections, which would likely have won him a new Christian majority under the 1960 law. This would have put him in a stronger position to take over from President Michel Suleiman next year, when Suleiman’s mandate is scheduled to end. But Aoun now has to worry that an extension of parliament’s term will mean an extension of Suleiman’s term, denying Aoun the opportunity to become president.

Another question (if rather less grand) also preoccupies Aoun, namely who will succeed Jean Qahwaji as army commander. Aoun wants his son-in-law Shamel Roukoz to get the nod, and he opposes efforts by the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, to extend Qahwaji’s term. Some have suggested that Hezbollah gave Aoun guarantees in this regard so as to secure his approval for extending parliament’s term.

But that will not make it any easier for Roukoz to be promoted. No one wants to hand Aoun such influence over the armed forces, and it is doubtful that Suleiman will welcome such an arrangement. Even Hezbollah, regardless of its alliance with Aoun, deep-down may prefer to bring in a commander of its own choosing rather than someone linked to a politician who, given his background, has the latitude to push the army in directions the party would prefer it not to go.

It is difficult to see what Aoun really gains from an extension of parliament’s mandate. The general is getting no younger and deferring electoral deadlines forces him to readjust his plans. Aoun has been a stalwart partner of Hezbollah for years, but other than help him gain large parliamentary blocs, the alliance has never permitted him to take advantage of such representation in order to fulfill his overarching ambition: becoming Lebanon’s president.

Aoun, no fool, knows this. Apparently his preferred way of dealing with his frustration is to impose himself as the Christian whom the political class cannot afford to circumvent. That is why the parliamentary elections were so important to him, and why their postponement is so damaging to his political fortunes.

Aoun has been uncomfortable with Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian conflict, though there are no signs that he will break with the party, despite suggestions to that effect from parliamentary sources cited by the Al-Hayat newspaper. What is interesting, however, is to see whether the general will seek to exploit growing Lebanese condemnation of Hezbollah’s actions in Syria to extract concessions from the party. And if so, what might these concessions be?

Ultimately, parliament’s extension saga may prove no more than another blip on Lebanon’s volatile political chart. But for Aoun it represents a fresh setback. Whenever he has felt the winds blowing his way, a political deal has intervened to foil his plans. In 2008 it was the Doha accord, which brought Suleiman to office instead of Aoun. Suleiman was set to go next year, giving Aoun a second chance, but now the political system has been frozen until 2015.

With a push from Hezbollah, Aoun may be compensated with a lucrative ministry for his son-in-law Gebran Bassil in a new government. But how pathetic that would be for a man who has long sought to become Lebanon’s head of state. Move aside as Aoun races ahead on the highway of broken dreams.

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