Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Party nepotism hinders Aoun’s wider ambitions

Last week in Lebanon, Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of the Christian politician Michel Aoun, was effectively handed the presidency of the Free Patriotic Movement, when Mr Bassil’s only real rival in the presidential election scheduled for next month withdrew from the race. The rival, Alain Aoun, is Michel Aoun’s nephew, and his decision seemed anything but voluntary.

Alain Aoun and Mr Bassil do not like each other and their electoral contest represented a clash between different visions for the Aounist movement. Yet Michel Aoun did not relish a confrontation as he favoured a Bassil win. The former general has long sought to make his son-in-law his political heir, facilitating his appointment to lucrative ministerial posts destined to increase Mr Bassil’s patronage power.

The official Aounist version was that both candidates were going to receive a substantial share of the vote in September, so that allowing an election would only have split the Aounists. This did not seem persuasive, however, since a fair, democratic vote could only have strengthened their organisation.

More likely there was another reason. Unconfirmed reports recently indicated that polls among the Aounists showed Alain Aoun winning. Facing this unwanted outcome, Michel Aoun asked Alain to retire. It remains unclear what quid pro quo convinced Alain Aoun to do so. He may be appointed a vice president of the Free Patriotic Movement.

Then there is the matter that in recent months Mr Bassil changed the internal rules of the organisation to strengthen the president’s prerogatives with regard to the politburo, with an eye to consolidating his position once he won.

Yet when the initial announcement was made that Alain Aoun had stepped down, there were reports that the party’s bylaws would be changed again to curb the president’s powers. That could have been the compromise, but it remains to be seen, as Michel Aoun would not have arranged his son-in-law’s victory only to approve of bylaws limiting his authority.

Whatever Michel Aoun does, he leaves a movement whose leaders are divided. When he withdrew from the race, Alain Aoun said he feared that if elections went ahead they would reflect “a dangerous omen of division that may threaten the unity of the Free Patriotic Movement in the post-elections stage”.

The remarks revealed the rifts at the heart of the organisation. For years certain militants of the Free Patriotic Movement, especially a group based in France, have called for democratic elections. Indeed, after Alain Aoun’s announcement, one of them, Fares Louis, declared his intention of standing against Mr Bassil in September, to ensure a contest took place.

In truth, the Free Patriotic Movement has been undemocratic, though it portrays itself as the opposite. Michel Aoun has maintained tight control over his movement, engaging in open nepotism by backing the advancement of his sons-in-law – Mr Bassil; Shamel Roukoz, whom the Aounists have put forward as a candidate for the post of army commander; and Roy Hashem, who heads the Aounists’ OTV television station.

The avoidance of an electoral contest was important for Michel Aoun. Had the election been divisive, it might have weakened him at a crucial moment in his political manoeuvrings. He continues to want to impose himself as Lebanese president, and for a year and a half has prevented the election of a president by parliament to blackmail the political class into voting for him.

Mr Aoun has also continued to insist on Mr Roukoz’s appointment, hindering government action as leverage to do so. However, the defence minister recently extended the term of the current army commander, angering Mr Aoun. And Aounist ministers insist that the prime minister, Tammam Salam, is exploiting the presidential vacuum to usurp the Maronite Christian president’s powers and sideline Christians.

Mr Aoun’s obstructionism has led some to believe that he, along with Hizbollah, is seeking to alter Lebanon’s governance system to replace it with a system that may grant Christians more autonomy, albeit lessening their shares in the central state. If true, Mr Aoun is taking a risk, as many Christians will hesitate before seeing their representation in the state reduced.

The Aounist presidential election implicitly confirms that the era of Michel Aoun is nearing its end. Though spry, the general is 80 years old. But he still has the ability to express Christian fears of Sunni empowerment. Such fears have been exacerbated by the progress of Sunni extremists in Syria. This has made more palatable his alliance with Hizbollah, which many Christians view as a barrier against extremists.

But in doing so, Mr Aoun has highlighted a contradiction in his position. By manipulating sectarian fears he cannot expect to become a national consensus candidate for president. Ironically, while the general has successfully pushed the careers of family members, he has systematically failed when trying to do it for himself.

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