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Painting a Portrait of General Michel Aoun

June 6, 2009

As the Lebanese campaign cycle winds down, the electorate and analysts take their final look at the candidates and coalitions.  Perhaps the most opaque of all the leading Lebanese politicians is General Michel Aoun.  Two worthwhile recent articles attempt to clarify what exactly makes him tick and the source of his estimable popular support.  In Lebanon leaders typically receive popular support for serving the narrow interests of their particular communities.  In my view Aoun is no different, he simply serves a different cleavage of the Christian community than leaders such as Gemayyel or Geagea.

In the National blogger Qifa Nabki writes that:

the FPM seems to occupy a hybrid position, somewhere between a traditional Lebanese confessional party orientated around a single charismatic leader, and a modern political movement committed to certain ideological principles. Listening to the Aounists talk amongst themselves it remains hard to determine whether their fervent wish is for a new Christian strongman in the form of Michel Aoun or for the secularist agenda that he espouses.

Qifa Nabki’s piece makes a case that the program of reforms Aoun’s bloc espouses is sincere and that there is more to his politics than a mere quest for the Presidency.  Moreover, a look at Aoun’s 60 page electoral platform “Towards the Third Republic” suggests a broad range of policies that aim to combat the corruption, nepotism, and foreign interference that has long afflicted Lebanese political life. 

But what about Aoun’s many contradictions?  While Aoun calls for a break with the sectarian order, he makes an unabashedly sectarian appeal to Lebanese Christians that only he can restore their lost political power.  For example, Aoun caused quite a stir when he refused to compromise with Nabih Berri over the Opposition’s Jezzine list, arguing that Jezzine ought to be reclaimed by the Christians.  Also, at a rally in the Chouf earlier this week, Aoun criticized the coexistence status quo in a sharply sectarian speech when he implored residents of the Chouf, “Are you satisfied that after 26 years the displaced remain displaced?” 

Or more importantly, while General Aoun takes a principled stand against foreign involvement in Lebanon when it comes from America, Saudi Arabia, or Syria, he ignores Iranian support for Hezbollah.  Perhaps he is shrewdly engaging in sure handed brinkmanship, accepting necessary evils so as to usher in the Third Republic.  On the other hand, a more cynical reading suggests Aoun is engaging in a self-aggrandizing power grab. 

Hazim Saghiyeh writes in al-Hayat that much of Aoun’s attraction for some Lebanese Christian comes from his novelty.   Afterall, Aoun is a populist leader whose aims are simple and cater to the passions of the masses.  Aoun is also unique among Lebanon’s Christian leaders in that he is not heavily identified with a particular region (as the Gemayyels are with the Metn or Geagea with Besharre) and therefore holds a wider appeal.  Furthermore, his revolutionary campaign against Hariri and Jumblatt is aimed squarely at the abiding threat emanating from Sunnis and Druze, the Christian’s chief rivals of the Greater Liban and Mutasarifiyya eras respectively.  In this project the Shia are natural allies for the Christians as they generally have not hitherto challenged the power of Lebanese Christians (except for a few pointed exceptions that Sagieyeh notes).

In other words, Aoun challenges the very “culture of sectarianism” of Lebanon (to borrow historian Usama Makdisi’s phrase) that has been explicitly reinforced in 1861, 1926, 1943, and again in 1990 when it led to reduction in Christian political power.  For Aoun, the “Cedar Revolution” discarding Syrian military occupation (which marginalized Christians) is only a first step and must be carried through to the radical denouement of the “Third Republic”.

The broadest ramifications of the Third Republic are not found in Aoun’s proposals for addressing the mundane issues of the environment or telecommunications, but rather national security.  Thus, as the elections are looming, it is worth recalling Aoun’s ideas for defense strategy, first put forward at the second session of the Lebanese Dialogue last November and reiterated in the FPM Electoral Program
The overarching theme is to not only merge the resistance with the
Army, but restructure society in a way that maximizes the deterrent
against Israel.  The rationae, as the FPM Platform notes, is that, “[Israel] is incapable of
fighting in a resisting society.  It succeeds from time to time in
particular operations, but if it remains permanently it is incapable of
dominating and continuing the occupation.”  In the FPM’s proposed defense
strategy the resistance is, “formed out of the people and thus these
forces must cover all Lebanese territory.”  Lebanese must consider whether such an approach is really the best way to develop Lebanon and avoid future conflict.

In a recent interview with Ahmad Mansour on al-Jazeera Aoun was asked about the Resistance’s weapons and whether he thinks it’s necessary for the Resistance to have its own communications network when there is a Lebanese state.  Aoun replied that there is no state (”ما في دولة قائمة”).  When asked what he meant by that, Aoun responded that since 1983 Christians have been prevented from returning to their homes in the Shouf.  He explains that Jumblatt has weapons that allow him to have his way in the mountain at the expense of the Christians, implying that the state cannot impose its justice througout Lebanese territory.  When pressed about Hezbollah’s weapons, Aoun dodged the question and returned to Jumblatt.  It is instructive that of all the many criticisms that could be made of the Lebanese state and its absence he chose to raise a particular sectarian dispute.

Aoun and his supporters exchange the potentially self-destructive support they offer to Hezbollah for a chance to undermine the status quo.  Aoun seeks to exploit dissatisfaction against passive zuama’ or outstanding local Christian grievances such as the displaced to increase his Parliamentary share come June 7.  Setting aside the material incentives of handouts to vote for one side or the other, a rational Christian voter in, for example, the Metn must determine whether the reform agenda of Aoun is really that much more compelling than those offered by the March 14 coalition to warrant the added risk of conflict under the “resistance” state.

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