Aoun-Berri dispute arouses sectarian differences
The fragility of the sectarian balance that makes up the Lebanese political system was exposed in the dispute between President Michel Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri.
At issue is a seemingly routine exercise: a decree that gives retroactive seniority to a group of army officers. This time, however, the decree aroused dormant sectarian and political differences that called into question the validity of the 1989 power-sharing Taif Agreement, which ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.
The agreement stripped the president, by tradition a Maronite Christian, of many of his powers and allocated them to a council of ministers. All presidential decrees became subject to the endorsement of the prime minister, by tradition a Muslim Sunni, and the ministers concerned. Consequently, decrees that involved financial burdens needed the approval of the minister of finance. The minister of finance in the current cabinet is Shia, belonging to the parliamentary bloc of the speaker, by tradition a Shia.
The decree concerning the army officers was endorsed by the prime minister and the minister of defence but it did not carry the signature of the minister of finance, prompting Berri to object. Aoun insisted the decree was a routine army affair and did not involve any expenditure and thus did not need the endorsement of the minister of finance. He cited several occasions in which similar decrees had been issued without the sanction of the minister of finance.
Berri was not convinced and when Aoun suggested that the dispute be referred to the judiciary, Berri responded: “Only the weak go to the judiciary.”
The Shura Council, a consultative body that rules on legal quarrels within the state bureaucracy, decided in a non-binding resolution in favour of the president.
The dispute was taken to new heights when religious leaders on both sides entered the fray. Senior Shia clerics demanded that the Ministry of Finance be permanently allocated to a Shia, which would effectively give the Shias veto power over almost any decree issued by the president. This prompted the Maronite cardinal to openly support the president and to reject the demands of the Shia clerics on grounds that such a demand is contrary to the Taif Agreement.
The technical and sectarian layers of the dispute camouflage a fierce political rivalry between Aoun and Berri.
During his presidential campaign, Aoun offered himself as the strong leader who would restore the powers of the president to the pre-Taif Agreement period. Berri, on the other hand, has been the speaker for more than 25 years, during which he established for himself a strong power base among the Shias and gained immense influence within the machinery of the state.
Berri viewed Aoun’s ambition as a threat to his authority and was determined to block him. Berri opposed Aoun’s candidacy for the presidency and has been in conflict with him ever since.
The Ministry of Finance is crucial for Berri because he can use it to exert pressure on the government. This was demonstrated recently in a row with Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hariri appointed as chief to one of the security services a Shia who was not a follower of Berri. When the prime minister rebuffed Berri’s objections, the latter instructed the minister of finance to withhold all funds to the security services.
Still, Hariri tried to remain neutral in the dispute between Aoun and Berri by declaring no opinion, even though he signed the disputed decree. Similarly, Hezbollah, which is allied to both sides, did not openly support either party while it subtly tilted towards Berri.
Moreover, the attitude of Hariri and Aoun aroused suspicions among Hezbollah and Berri of a covert alliance between the Sunnis and Maronites at the expense of the Shia in parliamentary elections scheduled for May 6. Until then, it appears there will be no end to the dispute between the president and the speaker.