A crumbling empire
The real reasons behind the postponement of FPM elections

Hanin Ghaddar, NOW Lebanon Staff ,

April 9, 2008

Elections for the Free Patriotic Movement’s Central Committee have been postponed yet again, this time from May 4 to October 26, amid a flurry of reports in the local media that internal disputes are behind the holdup. Although official FPM statements cited logistical and administrative reasons for the delay, insiders, who understandably are reluctant to be named, have privately confirmed to NOW Lebanon that the postponement is directly related to the growing conflict between two increasingly divergent groups within the movement: General Michel Aoun’s inner circle, and others who describe themselves as the FPM “opposition.”

As a serious rift between these two sides appears ever more plausible, the leader of the FPM, General Aoun, still seems to be in denial, refusing to see that such clashes could be the FPM’s undoing – and his own.

Splitting up
By all accounts, the lack of a coherent organizational structure is at the root of the FPM’s broader problems and not everyone is happy with the way Aoun would like to rectify the issue. Sources close to the FPM opposition say that the current dispute is centered on Aoun’s plan to create a structure that would allow his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, to become his deputy president. Apparently, many fear that this coveted position would be given to Bassil largely in order to keep the considerable political and financial power it carries within Aoun’s immediate family. Other leading FPM opposition figures like Alain Aoun have voiced their objection to what they see as blatant nepotism.

According to a formerly active FPM member who is now critical of the movement, the FPM opposition today is not a united front, because its members have differing agendas. “Some are seeking a better position [in the party hierarchy], others are there to oppose the policies, and some joined to express their resentment of Aoun’s strategy of giving family members the best positions and most power,” said the source.

Retired major-general and FPM official Issam Abou Jamra, who had been mediating between Aoun and the FPM opposition until efforts were recently called off, told NOW Lebanon, “Bassil’s name was not mentioned for the FPM deputy-president position, nor was mine… Nothing prevents me from being a candidate for the position.”

Abou Jamra denied that Aoun has any intention of naming his son-in-law as deputy FPM president. However, NOW Lebanon sources revealed that Abou Jamra’s role as a mediator was, in fact, largely focused on convincing Aoun to give Bassil less power in order to assuage opposing FPM figures.

But despite the controversy provoked by FPM’s chaotic, patronage-based political structure, the source suggested that the recent flaring of tensions is more directly related to the party’s distribution of financial patronage. “The real reason behind the explosion [of tensions] is the financial issue. The party was assigned projects worth millions of dollars in the southern suburbs, but they were given to Bassil and Hikmat Dib, because he is close to Hezbollah,” he added.

There are further allegations that Aoun’s immediate family members are acting as the party’s bankers. “All of the party’s own money, plus the recent donations received during elections and the financial support they receive from Lebanese expats, all of it was put in the personal accounts of Aoun and his family members, and into institutions such as the OTV, which is also run by his other son-in-law, Roy al-Hashem, something which had raised a lot of questions within the party,” said the source.

With so many internal grievances, many analysts believe that the FPM opposition has a strong chance of winning the internal elections – and that is why the date was pushed back to October. “I don’t think the elections will even take place on that date, as Aoun will use the approaching 2009 parliamentary elections as an excuse,” the source speculated.

One man show
While Aoun boasts a manifesto that fights corruption and promotes democracy, sources explained that the General has never worked on building a party with institutions, focusing instead on consolidating his own assets and power.

“He also has this strategy that aims at weakening those [in the party] who become powerful, by strengthening their opponent within the party. For example, when MP Ibrahim Kanaan’s political star began to rise, Aoun worked on giving more authority to his rival Nabil Nicolas, so that he [General Aoun] could maintain his own control over the party,” one FPM insider said.

Meanwhile, widespread dissatisfaction may suggest that Aoun’s command over his own party is waning. Sources confirmed that during the FPM meetings, opposing voices have become more outspoken in expressing their points of view, in contrast to the old days, when nobody dared to challenge the General.

In February 2008, Sofres Liban, a branch of the leading market research firm Taylor Nelson Sofres, conducted a survey using a representative sample of 2,000 people in the Lebanese Christian community, aged 18 years and above. According to the survey, 60% of the Christians now say that they never supported Aoun. Also, 57% believe that the Change and Reform bloc is not united.

Furthermore, Aoun cannot ignore the weakening relationships between the FPM and others in his Change and Reform parliamentary bloc, especially given that Aoun’s victories in the 2005 parliamentary elections were largely built on these alliances. Wins in the Metn and Zahle were only possible because of the support of Michel al-Murr and Elias Skaff, two of Aoun’s most estranged allies today. And in Kesrouan and Jbeil, Aoun won because his list was supported by George Ifram, who conditioned his support on the addition of his son-in-law, Walid Khoury, to that list.

The emperor has no clothes
OTV, the party’s media arm, which is controlled by the Aoun family, has not escaped the internal conflict. “OTV is a clear example of how Aoun disrespects the institutions,” an FPM source explained. “One, it belongs to family members and allies, and not to the party itself; and two, it is run by his son-in-law. And it’s managed as Aoun’s own political platform,” he added. “For example, the station cannot put Alain Aoun on air, because he is vetoed by the General.”

The recent conflicts within the FPM, most visible in the repeated postponement of party elections, have exposed Aoun’s insincere views on democracy and institution building. Instead, he seems far more concerned with keeping his power and assets safe – and preventing a coup from within.

The FPM – long hailed by its supporters as one of Lebanon’s only true political parties – is today, quite possibly, the country’s most fragile grouping. Without a solid organizational structure, the party’s ability to function is completely dependent on Aoun, his family and few allies. Without him, many believe, the party would fracture – or even collapse altogether – long before the 2009 parliamentary elections. This state of insecurity makes many supporters understandably nervous.