Looking for a president for Lebanon in all the wrong places

Sunday 23/10/2016
Aoun could prove his critics wrong

BEIRUT - It is not uncommon for parlia­ments to fail to pass a specific bill or to even elect a president but to fail to choose a new head of state 45 times, as the Leba­nese chamber of deputies has, is perhaps a record of abysmal failure.
This deadlock might soon be bro­ken, or so it seems, and the Leba­nese parliament might achieve the required quorum to elect a presi­dent. This breakthrough was partly due to an initiative led by former prime minister Saad Hariri to bro­ker a deal with one of the two presi­dential candidates, Hezbollah’s main Christian ally, Michael Aoun.
Hariri, who heads the largest par­liamentary bloc, had made Sulei­man Frangieh his choice for the presidency, something that would have secured Frangieh’s election had the parliament actually con­vened.
While Aoun and Frangieh theo­retically belong to the same pro- Syrian-Iranian political camp, Hariri, House Speaker Nabih Berri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt opted to support the latter who was politically more reliable and a more pleasant character to deal with than Aoun, who is famous for his anger fits and his unorthodox demean­our.
The main obstacle for the election of Aoun transcended his personal qualities. Saudi Arabia, Hariri’s main patron had implicitly vetoed Aoun viewing his election as a win for its regional nemesis, Iran.
While this anti-Iran position does not seem to have changed, much of the Hariri initiative indicates that Riyadh no longer objects to Aoun. This one-dimensional interpreta­tion might be misguided, mainly because Saudi Arabia simply no longer cares for developments in Lebanon.
This Saudi position is mainly triggered by its engagement in conflict with Iran and its allies in Yemen and Syria, which naturally takes precedence over Lebanon’s inconsequential position. Moreo­ver, Saudi indifferences primar­ily stems from its disappointment with its Lebanese allies, as Hariri has failed time and again to field a proper political front to respond to the attacks of Iran and its Lebanese subsidiary, Hezbollah, against the Saudi monarchy.
Consequently, the potential elec­tion of Aoun or any other figure might not be the way out for the Lebanese predicament but rather a continuation of chaos that started with the 2005 assassination of Saad Hariri’s father, former prime minis­ter Rafik Hariri.
In 2008, the Doha agreement gave the Lebanese political elite the required regional support to elect Michel Suleiman as president and to end a violent confrontation be­tween Hezbollah and pro-govern­ment elements.
At this important juncture, the election of Aoun, with Hariri’s backing, and without this regional consensus will not yield any posi­tive outcomes but would rather alienate
Lebanon from its regional surroundings, i.e. the Sunni envi­ronment. Berri and Jumblatt seem to be aware of this regional aban­donment and have requested that the election of a president comes within a package deal with the blessing of the regional and inter­national actors.
Aoun, and Hezbollah by exten­sion, has refused to pledge any commitments that he has publicly declared would impede the pre­rogatives of a strong president, which Aoun will certainly fill. This so-called myth of a strong presi­dent clearly disregards the fact that strong leaders within a stratified country, such as Lebanon, have to be balanced arbitrators capable of resolving many of the problems of governance rather than simply re­claiming the rights of the Lebanese Christians.
Aoun time and again has failed to understand the regional role that Lebanon could play, if a strategic and substantial road map is adopt­ed, both to reform the geriatric po­litical system and to more impor­tantly navigate the murky waters of the ongoing Sunni-Shia regional war.
As interim prime minister from 1988 to 1990, Aoun unwisely de­cided to ignore the global ramifi­cations of the end of the cold war and the unfolding Gulf War. Aoun’s decision to launch a suicidal war plunged the Lebanese Army under his command into a losing battle with the Syrian Army, which ended with the occupation of Lebanon.
Aoun could nevertheless prove his critics wrong if he and his en­tourage realise that the burden of responsibility requires a shedding of their populist exclusionist rheto­ric; even then it might be too little too late for the 81-year-old prospec­tive president.