Saturday, May 24, 2014

Unholy trinity - Why Aoun’s three-way division of power is dangerous

On Tuesday, Michel Aoun told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar station in an interview, “Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and I should be a three-sided triangle, and triangles cannot be broken up.”

There are several problems with Aoun’s vision of politics in Lebanon as, essentially, a division of influence between three individuals, supposedly representing Lebanon’s main sects.

The first is that Aoun’s comments were noteworthy for whom he failed to mention, most prominently Walid Jumblatt, Samir Geagea, and Nabih Berri. By saying that he, Hariri, and Nasrallah were the principal Maronite, Sunni, and Shiite interlocutors, Aoun was implying that all others didn’t merit such recognition. The arrogance was extraordinary, as was Aoun’s insinuation that one should disregard pluralism in the political system. Hariri’s unspoken opinion of this came on Monday, when Geagea held a press conference in Paris, one almost certainly coordinated with the former prime minister.

The Lebanese Forces leader reported that Hariri, in a conversation with Geagea, had raised the matter of Aoun as a consensus candidate. Geagea allegedly replied that, given Aoun’s past, this was not realistic. Perhaps not coincidentally, his remarks echoed those of the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, purportedly made to his Lebanese interlocutors in Paris, namely that the Saudis had not forgotten Aoun’s history.

Geagea’s press conference did three things: it suggested that Hariri was amenable to an Aoun presidency, preserving relations between the Future Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement; it implied that Geagea had veto power over Future’s support for any alternative to him as presidential candidate; and the latter implication shielded Hariri from the accusation that he was doing the Saudis’ bidding in not voting for Aoun.

In pushing Geagea into the forefront of the response against Aoun, Hariri made it clear that there are politicians other than Aoun who speak for the Maronites. And this rule applies across the board: None of the main Muslim representatives has an interest in funneling his ties with the Christians, particularly the Maronites, through a single person. They prefer to play on Christian divisions by dealing with a range of individuals.

While Aoun’s differences with Berri are well known, why the conscious effort to disregard and debase Jumblatt? No doubt the Druze leader is facing difficult times, having alienated Hariri in 2011. No doubt, too, this may pose problems in the parliamentary elections next November, so that Maronite and Sunni resentment may conceivably mean he has to face a challenge in the Shouf from Hariri and even from Aoun. Perhaps that’s why Jumblatt has said he would not be a candidate.

However, in the wider context of national coexistence, the Christians have no stake whatsoever in discrediting the man behind communal reconciliation in the mountains. That’s why Jumblatt made such a big thing of the Brih settlement last weekend, inviting President Michel Sleiman to the ceremony. It was important for him to remind everyone of why he is important, and to have this endorsed by the Maronite president.

A second implication of Aoun’s Al-Manar comments is that, once again, the general has lent legitimacy to an arrangement floated by Hezbollah, namely the notion of a three-way separation of communal power in Lebanon. The political system continues to be based on a 50-50 ratio, with Christians and Muslims each making up half of the council of ministers and parliament. That is the essence of the post-Taif order and is regarded as a guarantee to the Christians, who demographically represent much less than half the population.

Why would Aoun agree to question this hallowed principle when it is one of the last Christian privileges recognized in Lebanon? Largely for self-centered reasons: if Lebanon is built on a three-way division of power, this would allow Christian political figures to exploit their ties with one Muslim community or the other to advance their own agenda, and in that way always form a majority against the third community.

It’s all very short-sighted, and could very easily turn against the Christians if the Sunnis and Shiites came to an accord on their own. But Aoun, in going along with an idea advanced by his Hezbollah allies, is solely interested in advancing his political interests. He has repeatedly failed to acknowledge the profound implications of institutionalizing the Christians’ demographic disadvantage in political institutions.

A good argument can be made that the Christians would benefit from eliminating the idea of a sectarian breakdown of seats in parliament themselves, since in the future pressure to do so may come from the Muslim communities. At least this way, if the impetus comes from the Christians, they would be in a better position to manage a transition carefully.

In contrast, Aoun’s tolerance of a three-way power division does not do away with sectarianism in political institutions. Rather, it keeps the sectarian foundations in place, while also accepting a new breakdown that only anchors Christian disadvantages.

President Michel Sleiman is well aware of the risks. In an interview with L’Orient-Le Jour published on Thursday, he stated, “Through my positions [in a speech delivered in Amshit], I’ve contained, preventively, the three-way division of power. I refuse this equation… It is not on the agenda, but developments on the ground could take us in this direction.”

Aoun’s supporters continue to argue that he would be a strong president who is best placed to defend Christian interests. But if so, they must explain how these characteristics are reflected in someone who envisions a political system dominated by just three men, at the expense of pluralism, and who can go along with a three-way division of power that marginalizes Christians.

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