Before Aoun’s ‘tsunami,’ a wilderness of suspicions

By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, May 05, 2005

So Michel Aoun returns this weekend, promising a tsunami, as he recently put it. It was typical that he failed to see, in the shadow of the East Asian killer wave, the inelegance of those words. The general surfs in on a swell of ambition, the kind that reportedly makes him believe he can cut a deal with President Emile Lahoud, to better dispose of him once Aoun is inside the walls.

Events in the past days have been confusing, even by the tortuous standards of Lebanese political life. No one has come out looking good. What is going on? Depending on which side you hear, fragments of narratives are emerging. For a confederacy of Christian former Syrian allies, at the top of which stands Lahoud, but also Deputy Parliament Speaker Michel Murr, his son Elias, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, and others, the controversial agreement last week that the election law of 2000 would govern the forthcoming elections at the end of May was a case of Christians being stabbed in the back. They underline, probably with some merit, that the deal came following an alliance between Walid Jumblatt, Saadeddine Hariri, Amal and Hizbullah.

The 2000 law, this argument continues, places Christian voters and candidates at the mercy of Muslims in virtually all electoral districts. In addition, the law perpetuates an electoral anomaly in placing Bsharri, which is a bastion of Lebanese Forces support, in the same district as Muslim-majority Dinniyeh, which is not even contiguous. This will ensure, as it will in Beirut and Jezzine, that Christians have virtually no say in the districts, since they will have little leverage to name, let alone elect, their favored candidates.

It is undoubtedly true that the 2000 law was a hybrid monster designed to marginalize the Lebanese Forces and the Aounists, to impose Hizbullah’s and Amal’s hegemony in the south, and to protect traditional leaders like Walid Jumblatt in the mountains and Rafik Hariri in Beirut. But it was also destined to give the Lahouds and the Murrs an advantage in the Metn. Indeed, their hypocrisy in demanding an electoral law based on the qada, or small circumscription, is flagrant, since according to the 2000 law the Metn votes as a qada anyway, thanks to a law they helped fashion (under the supervision of Syrian intelligence chief Ghazi Kanaan) to protect their interests.

But there is a difference today. This time the Lahouds and Murrs have a potentially lethal rival in Aoun, whose support is strong in the Metn. If the general allies himself with another powerhouse in the district, former President Amin Gemayel, as well as opposition figures such as Nassib Lahoud, the alliance could easily defeat a Murr-led list (which could include the president’s son), along with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Armenians. This would spell disaster for Lahoud and Murr, and facilitate the president’s ouster once elections are completed.

That has led to a second narrative, supported by Jumblatt, but also by other figures in the Martyrs’ Square opposition, suggesting the problem is not the 2000 law (though it is accepted by the purveyors of this version as a problem); but that Lahoud and the Murrs are manipulating sectarian Christian sensibilities, using the LBC and other media to do so, and flirting with Aoun (for example by promising him military protection upon his return), in order to break him off from Jumblatt, the Hariri camp, Qornet Shehwan, and the Lebanese Forces. More parochially, the Lahouds and Murrs seek to form an alliance with Aoun in the Metn to save their skin.

A central tenet of this narrative is that Aoun is plotting to become president, and thinks he can play everybody for a sap. He feels confident enough to use Lahoud, and then get rid of him; and to use his opposition allies, then impose himself on them. Are the accusations correct? Perhaps not, but Jumblatt has been maneuvering to protect himself, and his visits to Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir and other Christian figures on Tuesday suggest the creation of a new broad opposition front may be in the works (though with or against Aoun remains unclear; that will depend on how the general decides to act). It was obvious that Jumblatt had to make amends for a lack of transparency that had little reassured his Christian allies in recent days.

What Jumblatt is said to fear most is an alliance between Aoun and Hizbullah in the Baabda district, but also an Aounist challenge in Aley, perhaps in alliance with Talal Arslan. According to some accounts, Jumblatt’s relations with Hizbullah are not especially good, and the party has little conviction the Druze leader means what he says when defending it against disarmament under the authority of Security Council Resolution 1559. One opposition figure told me that Hizbullah was also keen to keep all its options open, and by allying itself with Aoun it could certainly buy some breathing room vis-ˆ-vis the UN, even as it further divides the opposition.

Beyond the obvious fact that Lahoud and Murr are doing their best to protect their turf, much like Jumblatt, Parliament Speaker Nabih Birri and Hizbullah, the real question is how the two unknown quantities in the game, Michael Aoun and Samir Geagea, will act. Geagea may remain in prison for a few more weeks until elections are over, but both regime supporters and opponents, by failing to know quite what to do with the two men, have all but ensured that most Christians, smelling a rat, will back one or the other, or both. That’s a shame, since there is a solid core of Christians, particularly those who recall what destruction Aoun and Geagea wreaked on Lebanon, who have little patience for either man.

No doubt the mutual suspicion, or the myriad other narratives one can conjure up to explain what is going on in the run-up to elections, is the first sign of a post-Syrian political order. Where there had been imposed predictability, there is now uncertainty triggered by relative autonomy. That’s the silver lining. The cloud, however, is that Lebanon’s political class is still a long way away from being capable of renegotiating a new social and sectarian contract to ensure long-term stability.