Friday, April 25, 2014

Reversal of fortune - Will Saad Hariri give Michel Aoun the presidency?

With the first round of the presidential election having ended, all eyes are now turned toward candidates who can hope to win votes from both the March 8 and March 14 coalitions. Ironically, the person who feels he has the best chance of doing so is Michel Aoun, who has presented himself as the compromise candidate who can break the prevailing deadlock.

But it this scenario realistic? Would Saad Hariri order his parliamentary bloc to vote for Aoun, in that way fundamentally shaking up the alliances that came into existence in Lebanon after 2005, when Syrian forces withdrew from the country and Aoun built a relationship with Hezbollah against March 14?

That possibility is not only worrying two leading politicians who stand to lose from such a deal, Samir Geagea and Walid Jumblatt, but also Future Movement parliamentarians. They have spent the better part of eight years condemning Aoun before voters and have no desire to suddenly alter direction to make him president.

The narrative circulating in Beirut these days is that Hariri would endorse Aoun, in exchange for which he would return to Lebanon with security guarantees from the general to serve as prime minister. This follows on from a gradual improvement in relations between Hariri and Aoun, culminating in their two blocs’ recent collaboration in forming a committee to discuss the impact of the higher salary scale on the economy – a decision opposed by Aoun’s allies Hezbollah and the Amal Movement.

Undoubtedly, a Future-Free Patriotic Movement rapprochement would be an interesting development on Lebanon’s otherwise deadlocked political scene. But it would also present major challenges to Hariri, not least a political rift between the former prime minister and the Lebanese Forces. It would also exacerbate the relationship with Jumblatt, with whom Future was allied between 2005 and 2011, before the Druze leader alienated Hariri by backing Najib Miqati to replace him as prime minister. 

Hariri may be willing to risk strained relations with Geagea if he could attract Aoun and draw him away from Hezbollah. In parliamentary terms Aoun has a much larger bloc than the Lebanese Forces, and, even if Geagea opposes Hariri’s opening to his principal Maronite rival, the argument goes, he could not realistically realign himself with Hezbollah in response.

In other words, Geagea, with few other options, would be obliged to maintain a partnership with Future, even if it meant that he became a secondary Christian ally of the Future Movement.

As for Jumblatt, if Hariri and Aoun were to strengthen their ties, his role as the man in the middle of Lebanese politics, able to play one side against the other, would disintegrate. Worse, a Christian-Sunni partnership could have consequences for him in the mountains, particularly the Shouf, where Christian and Sunni voters roughly make up 60 percent of the electorate, even if the Lebanese Forces may be stronger than Aoun in the district.

Ultimately, Jumblatt’s greatest trial will be to ensure that the law governing parliamentary elections next November continues to give him a dominant role in Aley and the Shouf, while allowing him to bring in his Druze candidates in Beirut and the West Bekaa. To Jumblatt’s advantage, Aoun and Hariri both benefit from the 1960 law, which the Druze leader favors, even if Aoun has declared his opposition to the law for tactical reasons, because Christian communities feel it marginalizes them.

But at the least the Druze leader would have his wings clipped and doesn’t relish that prospect. That’s why he has warned Future that if Hariri were to support Aoun, this could revive the rivalry that existed between Rafiq Hariri and Emile Lahoud.

Jumblatt of course has an interest in saying such a thing, but he may also be right. Nothing guarantees that a Hariri-Aoun marriage will be harmonious. Hariri may be gambling that a President Aoun will take on the characteristics of his new office and defend state sovereignty against Hezbollah. But Aoun may just as easily follow another presidential inclination and affirm his prerogatives against those of the prime minister, implementing a longstanding vow to try to overhaul the Taif agreement.

Is that to say that Hariri’s exploration of a new relationship with Aoun is necessarily a bad idea? Not at all, but the foundation on which such an idea has grown, namely that Aoun will turn against Hezbollah, appears to be deeply flawed. Aoun has frequently been astute, and given the middle ground of the presidency he may try to exploit his situation by playing Hariri and the Future Movement off against Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah.

Perhaps such a situation would allow a President Aoun to better fulfill his constitutional role to defend national unity. It may even help him maintain equilibrium between Sunnis and Shiites, containing any tension or conflict between them. But balancing acts usually require heightening the contradictions of one’s rivals, so it’s just as likely that Aoun, in order to consolidate his power, could end up aggravating Sunni-Shiite relations.

Ultimately, Hariri’s political choices are his own. His decision to back Michel Sleiman in 2007 proved to be a success. If the former prime minister decides to pull another rabbit out of his hat and do the same for Aoun, the outcome may be positive. But, knowing Aoun’s track record until now, it’s easy to be skeptical. In fact, skepticism is a duty when it comes to a man who has repeatedly helped destroy Lebanon in pursuit of his personal ambitions.

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