Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Aoun’s playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship

It was of questionable judgement for Michel Aoun to organise a triumphalist political rally last Sunday near Lebanon’s presidential palace in the Beirut suburb of Baabda. A quarter of a century ago, the palace was the site of Mr Aoun’s ignominious defeat at the hands of Syria’s military, from whom he fled to the safety of the French embassy.

Much has changed since then. Mr Aoun is now politically allied with the Syrian regime and Hizbollah. In 1989, as commander of the army and head of a military government, Mr Aoun embarked on a so-called “war of liberation” to force Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon. He failed when, on October 13, 1990, the Syrians bombed him out of the presidential palace.

And yet some things have not changed. Just as Mr Aoun sought to manipulate the anti-Syrian rallies of 1989-90 to bring about his election as president of Lebanon, so too, last weekend, did he view his march in Baabda as leverage to be elected.

This determination has effectively blocked the Lebanese political system since May 2014. Unless guaranteed of winning the vote beforehand, Mr Aoun has prevented a quorum in parliament to elect a new president. He has also hindered cabinet work, arguing that as the Maronite Christian presidency is vacant, Christian ministers collectively represent him, therefore all government decisions must be taken by unanimity.

Mr Aoun’s obstructionism notwithstanding, he has been supported in his efforts by Hizbollah, which has publicly said it backs him for the presidency. While some have argued the party is leading Mr Aoun on in pursuit of its own agenda, the reality is more nuanced. Hizbollah not only regards Mr Aoun as a politician who will defend its interests, it may well believe he will work to amend the constitution to the Shias’ advantage.

Both Hizbollah and Mr Aoun feel now is the time to benefit from the recent nuclear accord with Iran. They have, rightly, interpreted the deal as a boost for the Islamic Republic, shifting the balance of power in the region to its benefit. Therefore, they believe, this balance must be reflected in Lebanon through a pro-Hizbollah president and, very probably, a constitutional order that can secure and expand Shia gains.

While Hizbollah has not openly defined its aims, party officials have long talked about an overhaul of the sectarian political system. According to Lebanon’s 1989 constitution, agreed in the Saudi resort of Taif, representation in parliament, the government and the civil service is 50-50 between Christians and Muslims.

However, some Shia politicians have indicated that Hizbollah wants to put in place a system of thirds: a third for the Shia, a third for Sunnis and a third for Maronite Christians, with smaller communities receiving shares within this framework.

Mr Aoun appears to agree with this. While Christians would lose representation through such a scheme, the rationale of Mr Aoun and his son-in-law, foreign minister Gebran Bassil, is that many Christian parliamentarians and ministers are already appointed or brought to office by Muslim politicians, therefore the reduction in representation would not be a net loss for communal influence.

More important, to Mr Aoun and Mr Bassil, a structural majority of the Christians who back him and Shia would maintain Sunnis at a permanent disadvantage. This reflects their innate fear of Sunnis, whom they regard as oppressors of regional minorities. The crude judgement has gained traction as the war in Syria has allowed jihadi groups to proliferate. It also explains Mr Aoun’s sympathy for Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

While Mr Aoun is over 80, Mr Bassil’s recent elevation to the post of president of the Free Patriotic Movement, Mr Aoun’s political party, opens up new possibilities for Hizbollah. Mr Aoun recently averted an FPM election he knew Mr Bassil would lose and, instead, imposed his victory undemocratically. Left unsaid is that if Mr Aoun were to die before becoming president, Hizbollah would probably shift its support to Mr Bassil.

It has been a strange path for Mr Aoun. He has been most responsible for perpetuating the debilitating political vacuum since May 2014. While claiming to defend Lebanese sovereignty, he has partnered with a party, Hizbollah, that has created a state-within-a-state in Lebanon.

While purporting to be above sectarian calculations, Mr Aoun has behaved in the most narrowly sectarian of ways, indifferent to the polarisation he has exacerbated, greatly harming Christian-Sunni relations in particular. Indeed, Sunni rejection of him, both in Lebanon and among the Sunni-majority Arab states, is now Mr Aoun’s greatest barrier to getting elected.

Mr Aoun’s brinkmanship will continue and he will not relent until he is voted into office. Yet Mr Aoun’s red lines are defined by Hizbollah, which will back him to the hilt, but does not want Lebanon to be dangerously destabilised as a consequence. However, as Mr Aoun showed in 1990, in pursuit of the presidency, destructive inconsistency is no vice.

No comments: