Aoun ups the ante
By: Lucy Fielder -Al Ahram: 20/10/06

Aoun's latest rally is forced to take a rain check, but the Christian leader's influence is on the rise, Lucy Fielder reports from Beirut
Ramadan is drawing to a close and with it a truce Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah called in the bitter dispute between the Shia Muslim group and its allies and Lebanon's anti-Syrian government. Next, Nasrallah promised, comes a campaign for a national unity government, which most people think is aimed at bringing Aoun into government. Hizbullah's arms, which dented Israel's armour during its ferocious bombardment of Lebanon this summer, are central to current demands for a stronger Lebanese state.

That a "memorandum of understanding" Aoun signed with Hizbullah in February stood the test of Israel's war and subsequent sectarian tensions surprised many. Not to be thwarted by a Mediterranean storm, thousands of Aounists surged through Christian districts of Beirut Sunday, beeping horns and waving flags, apparently to defy critics who say the presidential hopeful's alliance with Nasrallah has cost him core Christian support. Although rain called off a rally to commemorate the launching of Aoun's ruinous campaign against Syria at the tail-end of the 1975-90 civil war, supporters, huddled under orange umbrellas, the former general's trademark colour, watched Lebanon's most popular Christian leader speak on huge screens at a marina north of Beirut.

As expected, Aoun called for a unity government, accusing Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora's US-backed government of neglect and corruption, saying that international support alone could not lend it legitimacy. Hizbullah and Aoun appear to be aiming for a one-third blocking minority in government. The anti-Syrian parliamentary majority led by Saad Al-Hariri, son of former Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri whose assassination last year many Lebanese blamed on Syria, accuses Hizbullah and Aoun of ultimately seeking to hamper efforts to form an international court to try Al-Hariri's killers.

Aoun did not merely criticise the government, but addressed the key concerns of its supporters as well as his own. Hizbullah's arms were "temporary" he said. "We are looking for a proper framework to end the role of these arms." Relations with Syria should also be corrected, but based on mutual respect, Aoun said. "This calls for emphasising the Lebanese nationality of the Shebaa Farms and a total demarcation of the borders between both countries and monitoring them," he said.
Joseph Semaha, publisher of the influential Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, wrote Monday that many were watching to see how Aoun could square his recent policies with his followers, "to help them crystallise their awareness and realisation of their place in Lebanon and its crises and international and regional relations". Maronite Christians have traditionally belonged to the part of Lebanese society that would rather opt out of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but their newfound support for Hizbullah catapults them to the frontline of resistance against Israel. Aoun's ability to win over his diehard Christian support base was visible during the Free Patriotic Movement's (FPM) efficient relief effort for the million or so mainly Shia displaced by Israel's bombs.

In the 12 months since his return from 15 years' exile in Paris, Aoun has defied expectations by adopting a contemporary political language that is largely absent from Lebanon's public sphere. If he has lost a few per cent of his Christian support, according to polls, he has gained a broader backing for his presidential drive among Shias and some secularists, who increasingly see him as a relatively non-sectarian figure. His latest speech seemed aimed at both constituencies.

"If we wanted a general description for yesterday's speech we could say it was a model speech for the modern Christian middle classes," Semaha wrote. It dealt with concerns such as human rights, democracy, gender equality and solidarity with marginalised, weak minorities. During the 2005 parliamentary elections, too, Aoun's FPM put forward a detailed manifesto on issues such as education and the environment as well as political direction. Nothing unusual in that, ordinarily, but it compared favourably with the ubiquitous "vote for me" mugshots -- unaccompanied by any programme as such -- spread by the other candidates.

"The national unity government is not an aim, it's a means to an end," said respected pollster Abdo Saad, head of the Beirut Centre for Research and Information. "They have a political programme -- a new electoral law, early elections and then a presidential election." Lebanon's sectarian electoral system is often criticised as unfair and its reform has long been on the table. Saad said the Hizbullah-Aoun alliance was a step towards a more secular Lebanon. "Now you have two major sects, which make up 70 per cent of the Lebanese people, who have signed an accord to build a state."

Many observers feared the return of the outspoken former general last year. He is often portrayed as erratic -- even insane by his opponents -- with many Lebanese harbouring dire memories of his failed war with Syria. Critics say his transformation from Syria's archenemy to a friend of its closest allies amounts to an about-face. Aoun says attacking Damascus is no longer necessary since troops withdrew in May 2005.

In the months before the race to substitute isolated Syrian- backed President Emile Lahoud steps up, Aoun is positioning himself as a pragmatic figure able to find common ground between once diametrically opposed Shia and Maronite Christian positions while addressing the fears of both sides.
Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper said Aoun's speech went beyond expected mudslinging. "Aoun not only described the end goal of a modern state, he also identified ways of getting there. He spoke of the need to promote national unity and do away with sectarianism and discrimination in all their forms," read a recent editorial. "No one can deny that Aoun's remarks reflect the opinions of the majority of the country's citizens."
The English-language daily challenged Aoun, whose Reform and Change parliamentary bloc commands 22 out of 128 parliamentary seats, to draft legislation to bring about such changes with its Hizbullah allies, who hold 14 seats. "Then everyone in Lebanon will know which parties are willing to put their words into action," the paper said.

Current wrangles over the nature of Lebanon's government are implicated in such other issues as the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended Israel's aggressive war, an international court to prosecute those who murdered former Prime Minister Hariri, and the search for a new president, says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's new Middle East Centre. "Hizbullah feels that it won the war and suffered blows and that shouldn't be followed by disarmament and political emasculation. The objection of 14 March group was: 'Well, if you're just trying to come into the government to be obstructive we can't accept that'."

Given strong external pressure on Lebanon to force the issue of Hizbullah's arms, Salem says Shia parliament speaker Nabih Berri's visit last week to Saudi Arabia, which supports the ruling anti-Syrians in Lebanon, played a role in calming tensions. "Berri's trying to calm nerves and to emphasise common ground," he said. Other analysts said that Berri returned from Saudi empty-handed, having tried to secure a more neutral Saudi policy towards Syria and its allies in Lebanon, so as to reduce Sunni-Shia tensions.