Friday, September 11, 2015

Winter of our discontent - Michel Aoun, Christians and the Arab Spring

Recently, Michel Aoun, in a speech to his followers, decried the impact of the Arab Spring on Lebanon. While the uprisings in the Arab world have indeed proven to be catastrophic, or have failed, it was surprising to hear this from the general.

Let me take you back to the end of the 1980s and explain why. At the time, I worked in a research center, and one of my jobs was to read all of Aoun’s speeches when he was head of a military government and fighting the Syrians and the Lebanese Forces. In his regular addresses to his followers Aoun portrayed himself as a revolutionary figure who sought to eliminate the privileges of the Lebanese political elite and overturn the sectarian system. The fact that Aoun was someone from the social periphery, a rural Maronite who had grown up in Haret Hreik, whose social promotion had taken place through the army, was a theme always implicit in what the general said.

The Arab uprisings, regardless of their successes or failures, were motivated by similar impulses. So for Aoun to refer to a desire for change solely as a catastrophe, without stopping to mention how the political orders that provoked the uprisings were themselves catastrophic, was instructive.

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another example of Aoun’s hypocrisy and double-dealing, of which examples abound. But his reaction reflects that of many members of religious minorities in the Middle East, who regard the Arab Spring merely as a byword for an Islamist revival. Indeed, such fears are one reason why Aoun has defended Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, after having fought it back when Hafez Assad was responsible for ravaging Lebanese Christian fortunes.

For a start, Aoun’s reaction shows that his old promise of a secular order was a sham. The general is as sectarian as they come, but in this he is hardly alone. A good part of his populist message has been to attack Sunnis, with his followers recently depicting the Future Movement and Prime Minister Tammam Salam as socially acceptable versions of ISIS.

But it’s Aoun’s approach toward reform that is the greater question mark. In 2005 he joined the ruling class that he had earlier denounced. He and his family members began to profit from the political system, all the time insisting to their gullible followers that they were improving matters, or trying to, but that those with vested interests were hindering them.

Recall that Aoun held up the formation of Saad Hariri’s government in 2009 until his son-in-law Gebran Bassil was handed the lucrative energy ministry (this after Bassil had headed the prosperous telecommunications ministry). His reformist skills were hardly on display. Though Bassil promised 24 hours of electricity a day, the condition of Lebanon’s power system has never been as disastrous, with parts of Beirut (including my own) seeing power cuts of up to eight hours a day. And that’s not beginning to mention rural areas, where electricity is rather like the Virgin Mary: everyone has heard of it, but almost no one seems to ever see it.

It was revealing that when protesters took over the environment ministry two weeks ago, Aoun sided with the rest of the political class in condemning the move, warning that chaos was not a solution. In siding with the politicians against an initiative pushed by non-sectarian civil society activists, Aoun contradicted another of his promises from the 1980s. The general may be right in doubting the success of the activists, as are many people, but his willingness to affirm the mood of a political class he had done much to condemn was remarkable.

The jury is still out on the Arab Spring, but it’s fair to say that the record until now has not been heartening. A number of dictators and tyrants were overthrown, while others are still hanging on. The ensuing destruction, as well as the rise of extremism, will have made many people utterly cynical about the consequences of challenging authoritarian leaders. Better a despot who maintains order, many will insist, than democracy that leads only to undemocratic, intolerant religious rule.  

Certainly the Arab Spring demands introspection by Arab societies. Why is it that, with the relative exception of Tunisia and to a lesser extent Egypt, the revolts led to a combination of civil war and religious radicalism? Much of the blame can be directed at the regimes themselves, especially in Libya and Syria, who provoked civil war to protect themselves. But it is also true that those opposing the regimes quickly allowed their movements to be taken over by a powerful extremist fringe.

So what should non-Muslim minorities, not to say Muslim majorities, think? Aoun’s reaction, while terribly shortsighted, is also one that many Christians in the region will echo. Is their salvation, then, to continue to survive in the shadow of absolutist regimes that stifle all freedom and suffocate all ambition? The decline in Christian numbers in the region, and indeed the large number of Muslims walking through Europe today, suggests not. Anyone who can, chooses to emigrate.

So, Aoun, once a defender of reform and change, views the Arab Spring as calamitous. He’s right that Lebanon has paid a high price, but without change and reform the Arab world will head toward new tragedies of biblical proportion. Aoun’s own career is a fine illustration of how the region can breed mediocrity.

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