The broken promises of the Lebanese president
Growing up during the Lebanese civil war, I vividly recall Michel Aoun, the commander of the Lebanese forces at the time, with his military fatigues and his famously short temper, pledging to rid Lebanon of the Syrian occupation, even if it meant “breaking the head of [Hafez] Assad.”
Despite his failure to achieve this goal, Aoun touted the same pro-sovereign line from his Parisian exile, relentlessly attacking the Syrian hegemony of the Lebanese political system and promising supporters the total liberation of their motherland.
Aoun’s ultimate contribution to that end is debatable. When the Syrian Army pulled out in 2005, most attributed the withdrawal to the resentment fuelled by the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Nevertheless, the pattern of Aoun promising much and delivering little was set and it is one that looks likely to continue up to his forthcoming visit to Iran.
There’s little that’s new here. Following Syria’s withdrawal, Aoun returned with a new reformist line, campaigning throughout the country under the hackneyed slogans of reform and change. Shortly afterward, Aoun surprised many by signing a memorandum of understanding with Hezbollah, which was under considerable pressure both locally and internationally after initiating the conflict with Israel in July 2006.
Despite the unpopularity of the agreement, Aoun rebuked his critics, guaranteeing that such a cross-sectarian alliance could only serve as the first step to bringing the pro-Iranian faction in from the cold and making it more Lebanese, whatever that may mean.
Be that as it may, the memorandum of understanding brought Aoun closer to the anti-Western axis and, as Syria began to reconcile with a historic enemy, the Assad regime welcomed Aoun and his family to a personal tour of Syria’s historic Christian sites, guided by none other than the young dictator and his wife. Similarly, Aoun visited Tehran, where, despite his minor status as a Lebanese legislator, he was received and treated as a quasi-head of state.
Looking back, much of the activity of Aoun and his cronies during this time appears framed as part of a larger plan to benefit both Christians’ and Lebanon’s greater interests. In the case of Syria, Aoun’s friendly relations would theoretically secure the release or at least reveal the fate of the hundreds of Lebanese detainees in Assad’s dungeons, many of whom were captured after Aoun’s military debacle of 1990, when the invading Syrian occupied the presidential palace and executed many of the officers and soldiers who were left behind after Aoun fled to the safety of the French Embassy.
Likewise, Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah promised to address the issue of the 5,000 Lebanese, who, fearing persecution by Hezbollah and its allies, fled to Israel after the conclusion of the fighting. Some of them had served in the South Lebanon Army during the Israeli occupation.
Over the years, Aoun and members of his parliamentary bloc have piggybacked strategy of the supposed plight of these exiles, many of whom happen to be family members. By incorporating their cause into their electoral platform, yet refraining from taking concrete steps to bring their cases to any kind of conclusion, Aoun continues to play the long game.
While Aoun’s heart might be in the right place, his allies in Damascus and Tehran have worked tirelessly to prove him wrong, by challenging and curbing what remains of the Lebanese state’s fragile sovereignty. Syria and some of its Lebanese proxies have been implicated in a series of bombings, the sole intention of which was to ratchet up sectarian tensions within Lebanon’s volatile religious tapestry.
Hezbollah, rather than becoming more Lebanese, has become an even greater menace to regional stability and, by meddling in the affairs of Arab countries and fielding its militias in conflict zones, further exposed Lebanon and its economy to potential financial and political sanctions.
Officially invited by his Iranian counterpart, Aoun will soon embark on a state visit to Iran, where both sides will engage in a series of fairly redundant meetings under the umbrella of fortifying fraternal relations.
A few kilometres away from where the Lebanese presidential delegation will be lavishly hosted, Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen, languishes in the dismal cell where he has been held by the Iranian authorities for the last two years. Zakka, who was invited by the deputy president of Iran to be a guest speaker at a technology conference, was detained without charge on his way to the airport. Zakka and his family have reached out to people in the Lebanese government, including Aoun, pleading for their intervention in the matter without success.
After his election as president, Aoun pledged to be a father to all and to protect Lebanon and its people. Yet many of the statements and positions Aoun has taken over the years have yielded the opposite effect. The fate of hundreds of detainees in Syria remains unknown; the families of the South Lebanon Army collaborators still dream of their sons, brothers and fathers returning home; Hezbollah continues to affirm its undying allegiance to Iran and Zakka still hopes he can hitch a ride home on the presidential jet.
However, if history has taught us anything, it’s that many of the promises issued so easily by Aoun and his supporters can be broken just as effortlessly as the shattered dreams of the Lebanese who still think their leaders will one day deliver on their word.