Aoun’s game: Keeping it all in the family
With the Middle East engulfed in multiple wars, it is a luxury that Lebanon’s political class can pursue parochial political agendas with abandon. In August, for example, Gebran Bassil was gifted the presidency of Lebanon’s largest Christian party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), by his father-in-law Michel Aoun.
Aoun, a Maronite Christian, first made his name as commander of the Lebanese Army in the late 1980s when he launched a “war of liberation” against the Syrian presence in Lebanon.
The effort failed and Aoun fled into exile in France.
Aoun returned to Lebanon when the Syrians withdrew in 2005 and since then, for reasons related to Lebanon’s convoluted politics, has sided with Syria’s Lebanese allies, above all Hezbollah, and has backed President Bashar Assad’s regime in the Syrian conflict.
To say the FPM presidency was “gifted” to Bassil is fair. The Aounists had planned a presidential election for September 20th, in which Bassil would have faced Alain Aoun, a nephew of Michel Aoun. However, internal polling showed that Alain Aoun would defeat Bassil, which would have undermined Michel Aoun’s intention to hand leadership to his son-in-law.
Michel Aoun asked his nephew to withdraw from the race, which he did. However, a list formed by Aounists unhappy that the FPM has not had elections in a decade sought to contest the vote. However, their list was quickly disposed of on the feeble pretext that it failed to fulfil party by-laws.
This was the stuff of banana republics but Bassil’s victory has wider implications.
With Michel Aoun now 80 and not in the best of health, the succession question in the FPM had to be resolved quickly. Another factor must have weighed on Aoun: the preferences of Hezbollah, which is close to Bassil.
Bassil’s victory may have pleased his father-in-law and Hezbollah but it was contested within the FPM. He has never been the most popular of party officials and is viewed as having profited from the lucrative ministries in which Michel Aoun placed him. Bassil is also seen as a self-seeking thruster willing to eliminate all rivals.
For instance, this past summer the Aounists sought to have another Aoun son-in-law, Shamel Roukoz, appointed commander of the army. There was opposition in the government and, to build pressure, Bassil mobilised street demonstrations that led to a clash between FPM stalwarts and the army. This effectively undermined Roukoz’s chances of becoming army commander. To Bassil’s critics his real objective was to discredit Roukoz. As army head, and a Maronite like Bassil, Roukoz would have been in a good position to become president of Lebanon, threatening Bassil’s own ambitions.
His difficulties notwithstanding, Bassil is likely to consolidate his hold on the FPM in the near future. The real question is whether he can keep the FPM together once Michel Aoun dies.
While Hezbollah played no role in the election, Aoun could not have been indifferent to the wishes of the FPM’s closest political ally. With the Middle East increasingly divided by sectarian conflict, Aoun and Hezbollah regard their relationship as the cornerstone of a broader partnership between Christians and Shias, against the Sunni majority in the region.
Hezbollah is also looking beyond Michel Aoun and sees that Bassil is committed to an “alliance of minorities” between Christians and Shias. Indeed, in his victory speech Bassil emphasised Christian themes, stating: “If this movement ceases to exist, so will the Christians of the East, and so will Lebanon.”
Ultimately, Hezbollah favours rewriting the Lebanese constitution to better protect the party and the Shias in the event of a Sunni triumph in Syria. One way to do so is to replace the 50-50 breakdown in representation between Christians and Muslims in parliament, the government and the state with a 30-30-30 breakdown between Sunnis, Shias and Maronites (with smaller sects distributed within this framework).
The rationale would be to create a structural two-thirds majority in the state between Christians and Shias. How this might be achieved remains unclear but if that is Hezbollah’s aim, the party has to guarantee that a friendly Maronite Christian partner is in place with whom it can go forward. Bassil is that person.
Yet Christian factionalism has often spoiled the best-laid plans. Bassil has great ambitions and deep down, like many Maronites, he may dream of becoming president. However, his inability to be elected to parliament, his manufactured victory in the Aounist elections and his efforts to hinder Roukoz’s appointment suggest a man conscious of his shortcomings.
Then there are the Sunnis in Lebanon and the region. Bassil has often played on Christian fears of Sunni extremism to enhance his position. But sectarian populism can be fatal in Lebanon, as successful Christian leaders must appeal to all Muslim communities. If Bassil continues to antagonise Sunnis, his aspirations may be as vain as those of his father-in-law.