Friday, June 19, 2015

After me, the deluge - The fight over Michel Aoun’s succession has started

To understand the often-incomprehensible behavior of the Aounist movement today it’s important to grasp that behind it lies a struggle for succession. With Michel Aoun over 80, we are seeing maneuvers by the divided leaders in his movement to ensure that they will come out on top once the general expires.

An interesting article by Claire Shukr in Al-Safir on Wednesday highlighted disagreements over the internal regulations of the Free Patriotic Movement. An initial draft of the regulations was replaced by a revised draft that was sent by the FPM to the Interior Ministry on Monday. According to Shukr, the amendments would effectively ensure that Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law and the foreign minister, would be able to consolidate his hold over the movement when the time comes.

However, several senior Aounist figures are hostile to Bassil and have no desire to see him inherit the mantle of FMP leadership. As they look around, the only person who might have a chance of challenging Bassil for control of the FPM is Shamel Roukoz, the charismatic soldier who married another of Aoun’s daughters. Knowing it would improve Roukoz’s chances immensely, Bassil’s enemies are trying to have him appointed as commander of the Lebanese Army to succeed Jean Qahwaji.

But in pushing for Roukoz’s promotion, the Aounists have blocked all cabinet activity. They have insisted that this issue, among others, must be decided before Qahwaji’s term ends in September, otherwise they will boycott all cabinet sessions in which security appointments are not an agenda priority. In other words, the system is frozen partly because some Aounists want to enlist Roukoz as a Trojan Horse against other Aounists.

After a decade of watching Aoun and his acolytes work, it is no surprise that a party that once portrayed itself as a builder and champion of institutions, has regressed to a petty group of bit players squabbling over which one of Michel Aoun’s son-in-laws will lead the FPM. And worse, this abysmal state of affairs has held Lebanon hostage politically and economically at the most dangerous and trying period in its recent history.

But the Aounists are apparently not alone in preparing for Aoun’s departure. Much has been made of the Aounist-Lebanese Forces reconciliation. This was variously interpreted as an effort by both parties to signal that they were the dominant actors on the Christian scene, and a sign of recognition that Christians need unity at a time when the community is under existential threat in the Middle East.

But it may also have been something else. Samir Geagea can count just as well as Aounist officials can, and perhaps he feels that a settlement of his problems with the general now would allow him to benefit from support among Aounists down the line. His assessment could be that the FPM will face a major rift once Aoun dies—hardly an impossible outcome—and that he can exploit this politically by picking up some of the pieces.

Geagea has no better way of doing so, the argument goes, than by presenting himself as someone who made his peace with Aoun in the interests of the Christians, in that way papering over his image among Aounists as an arch-villain from the past.

One has to pity Aoun in some ways. No one likes to be surrounded by vultures, especially someone who still has ambitions and somehow believes he may yet become president, even after nearly three fruitless decades of trying. But what is more of a problem is that Aoun’s default setting for the past 10 years has been obstruction and permanent brinksmanship. In pursuit of his aims he has done more damage to Lebanon, and to his own Maronite community, than just about anyone else.

Roukoz’s fate is a good illustration of how Aoun’s stated goals can end up undermining his own interests. If by chance Roukoz does become army commander in September, it would almost certainly end Aoun’s chances of becoming president. The political class will not accept that two of the most senior Maronite posts in the state be in the hands of Michel Aoun. He can obstruct the system all he wants, but it won’t happen.

How reminiscent this is of Aoun’s recklessness in 2006. At the time, the general was the dominant Christian political figure, someone whom it would have been nearly impossible to circumvent as a successor to Emile Lahoud. All he had to do was strengthen his ties with March 14 after the disagreements of summer 2005, while maintaining friendly relations with March 8. Who could have disregarded Aoun after that? Instead, the general, not sure of whether his priority was to be president or to undermine March 14, allied himself with Hezbollah against the majority, ensuring that he would never be elected.

Today, again, Aoun is not sure whether he wants to become president or whether he wants Shamel Roukoz to be army commander. It’s an either-or proposition and the general must choose. If he wants Roukoz, then he is guaranteed of getting what he wants, on condition that he accept a new president other than himself. But if he insists on being president, then he has to give up on Roukoz and allow the government to function.

Meanwhile, his own movement is preparing for political battles ahead. The likelihood is that Aoun won’t be around for those. That’s not so bad, as there are few battles that Aoun has decisively won, or from which he or Lebanon have gained. 

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