Friday, July 5, 2013

Aoun plays hardball with Hezbollah

This week Michel Aoun received the Saudi ambassador in Beirut, prompting speculation about the general’s intentions. For a man who has made his alliance with Hezbollah and hostility to Sunnis a cornerstone of his public image, to receive the representative of the leading Sunni state in the Arab world merited commentary.

It’s too early to read too much into the visit, but the ambassador’s statement that Aoun was welcome to visit the kingdom suggested the Saudis are willing to make more of the relationship.

Not surprisingly, everyone wondered whether this was a sign of deteriorating ties between Aoun and Hezbollah. Aoun and his entourage have been ambiguous. They have insisted that all is well with Hezbollah, but have disagreed on two issues of great importance to the party: the extension of parliament’s term and the extension of army commander Jean Kahwaji’s mandate.

In mid-June, Aoun’s son in law, Gebran Bassil again used a Saudi channel to send messages to the party. In an interview with the Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Bassil accused Hezbollah of “stabbing us and stabbing democracy” by extending parliament’s term and preventing meetings of the Constitutional Council that might have reversed the decision. Bassil added that the alliance with Hezbollah would persist, but he had fired a shot across the party’s bow.

The meeting with the Saudi ambassador was another such shot, and Aoun must be careful not to fire too many unless they begin hitting wood. That’s because the party knows what Aoun is trying to say, but it is also aware that the general’s options are limited. If his backup plan is to shift to the Saudis, it realizes, he may lose his ability to play both sides, and risks losing credibility among his supporters, who have long accused March 14 of being on Riyadh’s payroll.

Not that Aoun has been lacking in Gulf sponsors. He was close to Qatar in the past, when the emirate funded the reconstruction of predominantly Shiite areas in Lebanon. Some have speculated that the Qataris gave financing to the Aounists’ OTV television station, though in such matters it is always difficult to confirm. But those were the days when being with Qatar was a way of being against Saudi Arabia, and the relationship between the two Gulf states, even if still marked by rivalry, has improved since that time.

Aoun’s eye, Hezbollah knows, is still on the presidency. By keeping the 2009 parliament in place, the party did two things: it denied Aoun what would likely have been, under the 1960 law that prevailed in early June, another successful parliamentary campaign. And it effectively extended President Michel Suleiman’s term, delaying the presidential election until a new parliament is in place.

Both developments mean that Aoun may have to give up on the presidency. He had hoped that a new Christian majority would act as further proof that he is the principal Christian representative in the country, heightening his chances of becoming president; while any delay in holding a presidential election only damages his odds, as two years from now Aoun will be 82.

Keeping Kahwaji in place is a second source of tension with Hezbollah. Aoun wants his son in law, Shamel Roukoz, to replace the army commander, while Hezbollah wishes to extend Kahwaji’s term. For the party this is a strategic objective, since it hopes to bring Kahwaji in as president once Suleiman leaves. That would allow the party to control the presidency as well as parliament, through the speaker, Nabih Berri. Hezbollah’s calculation is that it will be able to pass an election law serving its interests, and in that way it would be in a position to set the agenda in all major state institutions.  

Therefore, Aoun’s desire to promote Roukoz challenges Hezbollah’s plan. But Aoun, too, has a vital interest in seeing Roukoz appointed army commander. With his son in law in that post, Aoun would have a vital conduit to the military leadership, his early elevator to power in the 1980s. The army is not only a platform to Christian relevance, it has become a platform to national relevance, and a particularly desirable passage to the presidency for ambitious Maronites. 

The battle over the army leadership is all the more interesting in that there is great anger in the Future movement today with the current command. The fighting in Abra, many Sunnis feel, was caused by Hezbollah’s manipulation of the army and using it to crush Sunni defiance, and they hold Kahwaji, among others, responsible for this. That is why the temper among Future parliamentarians is reportedly very much against extending the commander’s term, despite Saad Hariri’s recent public backing for such an extension.

If this is confirmed, Aoun would have a valuable ally in blocking Kahwaji. But Future may not be alone. Many Christian presidential pretenders are naturally ill disposed toward the army commander, and even Walid Jumblatt, who is not eager to leave a vacuum at the head of the army, mistrusts Kahwaji. His instinct is to side with Hezbollah as he does not want Roukoz as commander. But the Druze leader will also gauge the Sunni mood. If Kahwaji emerges as a problem, there is a chance that Jumblatt will be pragmatic so as to avoid alienating his Sunni partners, especially in the Shouf.

So is it the end between Aoun and Hezbollah? Probably not, as the party will always need a Christian partner to avoid being isolated in Lebanon. Aoun will use this as leverage, but seems increasingly unwilling to bend to the party’s dictates if it means sacrificing his own aspirations. He gains more by opening up to all sides, including the Saudis and the Future movement. Hezbollah may find itself more constrained in the months ahead thanks to its Aounist friends.

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