Thursday, August 22, 2013

Play the Aoun card against Hezbollah

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said the former U.S. budget director Bert Lance, who died last week. But watching the growing rift between Michel Aoun and Hezbollah, March 14 might want to modify that proposition: If it’s broke, make sure it isn’t repaired.

Aoun’s differences with Hezbollah initially centered around an extension of Parliament’s mandate and prolongation of Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi’s term (both of which Aoun opposed). Today the discord has spread, with Aoun telling the Saudi daily Al-Hayat, “There are differences [with Hezbollah] over a number of issues, mainly over establishing the state, democracy, settling the situation of south Lebanon, the Palestinian cause and Syria.”

Aoun went on to express his displeasure with Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, noting, “This is an individual initiative and there is no understanding between us and [Hezbollah] and we oppose intervention outside Lebanese territories.” He added, “The presence of the resistance in Syria is an understanding between them and Syria, we are not part of such an understanding.”

This was pretty strong stuff coming from a man who once justified every abuse, and covered every act of intimidation, carried out by the party. The reasons for Aoun’s reversal are not obvious, but with so egotistical a man it must have something to do with Aoun’s political interests, which Hezbollah has balanced against its own.

The extension of Parliament’s mandate effectively meant that Aoun was denied an opportunity to gain a substantial Christian bloc only a year before President Michel Sleiman’s term is scheduled to end. Already, the party had undermined the 1960 election law, which Aoun quietly favored because it would likely have given him an advantage, but had to publicly oppose when the Christian mood turned against it.

A new Christian majority, Aoun felt, would have given him valuable leverage to succeed Sleiman. This was all the more likely as Hezbollah and its allies have been insisting that they will not approve an extension of the president’s term next year. That is where Kahwagi comes in. Hezbollah, Aoun realized, sought to keep the army commander in place so that they could bring him to office next year.

Perhaps Aoun sensed that, while his alliance with Hezbollah had brought him many advantages (a sizable Christian parliamentary bloc in the 2005 and 2009 elections, thanks to Shiite votes, a large share of Christian ministers in Najib Mikati’s government, and probably significant funding from the party or its regional backers), it would not bring him what he sought most: the presidency.

This should have been obvious to Aoun in 2008, when the party failed to solidly endorse him as its candidate, and instead accepted Sleiman as president at the Doha conference in May.

Yet after Aoun won a large Christian parliamentary bloc in 2005, all he had to do was sit back and remain on good terms with both March 8 and March 14, until Emile Lahoud left office. It would have been very difficult to deny Aoun the presidency then, without making it appear that the most popular Christian politician was being intentionally cast aside.

Instead, Aoun picked sides, assuming that his alliance with Hezbollah would ultimately bring him to power. In fact it did the opposite, making Aoun so contestable to March 14, which had a parliamentary majority, that it did everything to deny him a victory. Meanwhile, Hezbollah was not about to waste valuable political capital on Aoun’s behalf, fearful that if elected he would be impossible to control.

Apparently sensing Aoun’s frustration and eager to break him away from Hezbollah, the Saudi ambassador met with the general in early July and declared that he was welcome to visit Saudi Arabia. Aoun did not set a date, but in the Al-Hayat interview, he affirmed that nothing prevented him from accepting the invitation.

“There are no obstacles in the essence of the relationship with Saudi Arabia but there are Lebanese political sides that have created the impression that Gen. Michel Aoun is against Saudi Arabia,” Aoun said. “If we review our ties with Saudi Arabia, there are no barriers between us, and Saudi Arabia helps Lebanon to be stable and to build a strong Army.”

Aoun also suggested that his political disagreements with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri were no longer an obstacle. “We had a dispute in the past which led us to resign from his Cabinet and now it is over,” he said.

Beyond Aoun’s personal ambitions, Hezbollah’s entry into Syria disturbed the general. The party’s irresponsible action has exacerbated sectarian tension in Lebanon, destabilizing the country. Aoun can be lucid when his political calculations have been dashed. There is a part of him that viscerally reacts against whatever damages the state, even if he sanctioned Hezbollah’s actions in that direction for years because he believed this would be to his advantage. But with little to lose today, he has no problems calling a spade a spade.

March 14 should take advantage of the situation. Aoun probably seeks an endorsement for the presidency, as a counterweight to Kahwagi. Neither Walid Jumblatt nor Samir Geagea will go along with such a scheme, but this creates an opening that can weaken Hezbollah at a difficult time for the party. That appears to be the Saudi calculation, and Aoun’s willingness to go along with it suggests, at the least, that he seeks to play both sides to his benefit.

Some wonder whether Aoun, who is nearly 80, truly wants to be president. Fulfilled ambition often lengthens life. All those who hope to ride the general’s coattails to power would agree. Breaking down Hezbollah’s network of alliances is achievable, at a moment when the party seems dead set on carrying Lebanon into the unknown.

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