Thursday, July 3, 2014

Watching the Aoun movie while we wait

You have to hand it to Michel Aoun. He can say whatever he wants, no matter how foolish or contradictory, and still retain the backing of a substantial number of Christians.

Take Aoun’s latest proposal for a presidential election. The general called earlier this week for the president to be elected in two rounds of popular voting. In the first, Christians alone would vote. Then the top two candidates would go on to a second round, where all Lebanese – Christians, Muslims and others – would choose a president.

At the same time, Aoun again declared his support for the so-called Orthodox proposal, in which each religious sect would elect only its own parliamentarians. His rationale was that, under the current 1960 law, most Christian parliamentarians were being brought in by Muslims. “This is not fair,” Aoun said. “When every religious group elects its own officials, we are ensuring justice and fair representation.”

So essentially, we have two proposals that apply opposite principles. When it comes to the presidency, Aoun is willing to give the clear Muslim majority in Lebanon the power to bring in a Maronite president, in that way bypassing Parliament, where Christians and Muslims are represented equally. But when it comes to parliamentary elections, Aoun intends to neutralize the Muslim majority that he will otherwise empower on the presidency.

It all makes perfect sense. Of course, Aoun would argue that the key lies in the two-stage presidential process, which presumably gives Christians the right to filter their two leading candidates in the first round. Perhaps, but the scheme, aside from raising serious legitimacy questions in a consociational system, is such that there are no guarantees either candidate will represent a majority of Christians, let alone that the winning candidate will. Far more significant is that Aoun opens the door to the principle of allowing Lebanon’s Muslim majority to effectively use its numbers to determine political outcomes. That means undermining confessional parity in the post-Taif institutions, which Christians regard as a protection, given their minority status.

With Aoun, we learned long ago that duplicity in the service of self-interest is no vice. More than any other Christian politician, he helped destroy his community, along with Samir Geagea, in the last years of the Lebanese war, in what began as a struggle against a Syrian regime he now backs. Aoun can still rally communal support, but this tells us more about the desperate mindset among Christians than about the man’s merits.

Aoun’s proposal has been panned, and understandably so. What is it about Aoun and Geagea that in the past year has made them back election proposals, presidential or parliamentary, that, while they may bring them some political benefit, are destined to harm Christian interests in the long term? The Christians can no longer afford politicians who mobilize them in their internecine battles.

For now, the most startling embodiment of Maronite fortunes is the absence of a president. And once again, Aoun has been pushed into the forefront of a confrontation in which he counts for relatively little. In reality, the agenda is being set by Hezbollah, with Aoun a useful facade to delay a final decision on a president and probably to protect the party’s favorite candidate.

Aoun, no idiot, senses this, and is trying to exploit what limited margin of maneuver he has to force the issue on his candidacy. But it is clear that Saad Hariri, even if he wants to maintain a good relationship with the general, has no Saudi backing to endorse Aoun. Walid Jumblatt has also sought to block Aoun, fearing that any Aoun-Hariri rapprochement would jeopardize his own balancing act in the center of the political spectrum, while ultimately threatening his authority in the Chouf.

Hezbollah has allowed this situation to play itself out, knowing that it would block the election process, buy the party time, and increase the frustration necessary to bring in a candidate of its choice, which many observers believe is Army commander Jean Kahwagi. The security threats in recent weeks, while real, have also been played up to make Kahwagi more appealing to the public and to foreign governments that have doubts about him.

Hezbollah may also want more time to decide because the regional situation has again become unpredictable. With the offensive by the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Sunni uprising in Iraq, the party is under greater pressure. Iraqi Shiite militias have returned home to fight ISIS, forcing Hezbollah to fill the void in Syria. For its part, Iran is scrambling to impose some order on the Iraqi chaos, even as the country fragments between its Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish components.

In this context, Hezbollah faces two sets of problems. On the one hand, Lebanese divisions make an early resolution to the presidential deadlock in a way the party favors highly improbable. On the other, with the situation in Iraq so volatile and Hezbollah heavily committed in Syria, it’s better for the party to perpetuate a Lebanese vacuum until Iran and Hezbollah can shift the tide regionally. At that stage, Hezbollah would seek to impose a new balance in Lebanon that reflects this reality.

There are many uncertainties in such a scenario, which is probably why we can expect a further delay in parliamentary elections scheduled for November. With everything stalemated, the prospect of a consensus over a new electoral law seems very remote. Nor is Hezbollah keen to return to the 1960 law, which may lead to a Parliament similar to the one we have today. This would force the party to be dependent on the centrists, which it doesn’t want.

Lebanon is set for many more months of much ado about nothing. But before anyone assumes we are entering an uncontrollable vacuum, the reality is that we are in a well-planned holding pattern. Michel Aoun is the in-flight entertainment while we wait, courtesy of Hezbollah.

No comments: