Lebanese president’s health fuels growing uncertainties, speculation about successor

Some media sources in Beirut claim Aoun’s work day has been restricted to 2-3 hours, with his staff handling run-of-the-mill affairs.
Sunday 23/09/2018
Lebanese President Michel Aoun addresses the European Parliament in Strasbourg, on September 11. (Reuters)
Health concerns. Lebanese President Michel Aoun addresses the European Parliament in Strasbourg, on September 11. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - In a country gripped by political and sectarian differences, with a chronic crisis in cabinet formation, Lebanese President Michel Aoun is a familiar face that world leaders and the Lebanese people trust and respect. He is someone who can pull the country together and has done so previously.

By the time his term ends in 2022, however, Aoun will be 87. Increasingly, he has been showing signs of fatigue, raising worries about his physical health and ability to complete his term, with speculation about who might succeed him if he parts the scene or is somehow incapacitated.

In a region ruled by octogenarian presidents, Aoun’s age shouldn’t be a problem. The president of Algeria is 81, while the king of Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian president are 82. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi turns 92 in November.

There is no post of vice-president in Lebanon. If a president dies while in office, parliament needs to convene immediately to find a replacement. Only one of Lebanon’s 17 presidents has died in office. That was during the civil war when Rene Mouawad was shot at little more than two weeks after assuming office in November 1989.

Aoun has been in power for less than two years, after a 2-year vacancy at the presidential seat in Baabda Palace. His election was celebrated as a national achievement, reached by consensus between his Hezbollah allies and the Gulf-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Talk of the president’s health remains a hushed topic in Beirut, something that few discuss openly. On Army Day celebrations in August, Aoun stuttered as he spoke, mistakenly saying “qurood” (“monkeys”) instead of “jurood” (“barren ridges”). He reportedly suffered a stroke in 2013, then fell — on camera — at an Arab summit in Jordan last year.

Some media sources in Beirut claim Aoun’s work day has been restricted to 2-3 hours, with his staff handling run-of-the-mill affairs.

Lebanese analyst Fadi Akoum said that, regardless of the president’s health, early elections are not an option for Lebanon. “They would mean that the ruling clique is actually admitting that [it] failed at ruling the country. Any opposition to early elections would actually be coming from the presidential palace itself,” Akoum said.

Ghassan Hajjar, editor of the mass circulation daily Annahar, said: “All Maronite politicians have presidential dreams but it is too early to discuss early elections. Presidential hopefuls would simply be burning themselves at this stage and the president is in no position to step down or call for early elections unless something out-of-hand happens.”

Within Lebanon, many said that Aoun’s 48-year old son-in-law Gebran Bassil, the current foreign minister, has his eyes set on succeeding Aoun as president, just like he succeeded him at the helm of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).

Although technically an ally of Hezbollah, Bassil has been reaching out to new allies, both at home and abroad, marketing himself as president-in-waiting.

Aoun has three daughters. None, given Lebanon’s patriarchal traditions, are likely to succeed him as president. The first, Mireille, is married to Roy Hachem, the CEO of Aoun’s OTV. The second, Claudine, is married to Brigadier-General Chamel Roukoz, a decorated officer who was voted into parliament on an FPM ticket last May. The third, Chantal, is married to Bassil, whom she met at an FPM conference in Paris in 1996.

Earlier this summer, in what seemed to be a message directed squarely at her brother-in-law, Mireille Hachem spoke to the Lebanese newspaper Al Joumhouria, saying: “Nobody is going to inherit (from) the general.”

Bassil, having just returned from an official visit to the United States, responded with a statement denying that he was planning to replace his father-in-law. He said these were “baseless accusations” made by “intellectually bankrupt enemies of the Aoun era.” Analysts argue otherwise.

Those familiar with Aoun’s career path stress that he fought hard to become president and will not give up power easily. In the late 1980s, Aoun assumed the post of prime minister, which would normally go to a Sunni Muslim rather than a Christian Maronite, in violation of the 1943 gentlemen’s agreement that governs Lebanese politics, known as the National Accord. That, for a time, resulted in two rival governments in Lebanon, one led by Aoun and the other by Prime Minister Salim Hoss.

Aoun waged a war of elimination against his Christian rival, Samir Geagea, who was subsequently arrested and jailed until the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. He had been aiming at the presidency but backed out in Aoun’s favour in 2016.

Aoun also waged a failed war of liberation, hoping to free Lebanon from its Syrian occupiers, who ultimately defeated him and ejected him from power, sending him into long years of exile in France, where he remained until 2005.

Aoun, a skilled statesman, quickly mended relations with Damascus, after teaming with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, realising that due to the Shia community’s numerical and military superiority, he needed their support if he were to become president.

He promised to protect Hezbollah’s right to hold arms and they promised to place him in power, which they did in 2016 at the expense of Suleiman Frangieh, another long-time ally. Frangieh will likely nominate himself in 2022 or earlier, if Aoun steps down.

A third possible nominee is Amin Gemayel, a former president who appointed Aoun prime minister in 1988 and has been working on a comeback for the past four years.