The Lebanese opposition's first casualty
By Michael Young -Daily Star staff
Thursday, December 14, 2006

It adds little to the debate over MP Michel Aoun to note that this past Sunday he addressed the multitudes in the guise of a giant pumpkin. The general was not at his sartorial best, and when the searing orange had ceased to blind us, and presumably him, he must have realized this. But there is something more important than Aoun's attire that his partisans should now seriously consider: If any group is set to take a tumble in the foreseeable future, it is the Free Patriotic Movement.

My own feelings for Aoun have lately fluctuated between rampant dislike and cold hostility. This makes me a less than credible chronicler of the general's fortunes, but it wasn't always so. I twice visited Aoun during his early days of exile, after he had been deposited somewhere in the Parisian countryside - too close to Euro Disney for my taste. He was guarded by a phalanx of French gendarmes, paid for by French taxpayers, all belonging to a country that Aoun has forsaken since becoming a Maronite knockoff of Hugo Chavez. I found the general amiable, a monsieur tout le monde, generous with his time and unaffected in his approach. I've learned from several people, none enthusiasts, that the private Aoun has little changed.

However, the public Aoun is in trouble, and his urgency on Sunday to force a final showdown with the government confirmed that something was amiss. The general knows he and his own are the weakest link in the campaign against Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The Aounists cannot long endure an open-ended sit-in, both because they are not earning salaries to do so and probably because the looming holiday season threatens to melt their momentum. And there is something else: Aoun realizes that as package deals are unwrapped left and right to resolve the ongoing crisis, his chances of seeing the presidency diminish.

Indeed, the latest basket of ideas from Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa includes a proposal for the March 14 coalition and the opposition to consent to a compromise president. If that process goes through, Aoun will not be the chosen one, although Hizbullah may use him as their opening card. The party will think long and hard before accepting bids on the presidency, however, because it realizes that this will lead to a noisy divorce with the general, when it still needs the cross-sectarian cover he provides for a largely Shiite protest movement. The thing is, Hizbullah may soon not have the luxury to bat away arrangements that involve getting rid of President Emile Lahoud.

The reason is that Hizbullah is being strangled by its conflicting commitments. The party owes Syria on undermining the Hariri tribunal, and owes Iran on just about everything else. This situation has pushed Hizbullah into an uncomfortable confrontation with the Sunni community, one that is damaging its appeal in the Arab world. Since that appeal is essential to the Iranian leadership, which has sought to use popular Arab antagonism against Israel as a means of discrediting pro-Western Arab regimes, Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, risks undercutting his own importance. It could be that in an effort to salvage his troublesome Syrian and Iranian agendas, Nasrallah will have to jettison his most dispensable ally: Michel Aoun.

If that happens, Aoun's double-or-nothing gamble could permanently cripple his ambitions. Soon after the summer war between Hizbullah and Israel, the general quietly visited Nasrallah in what was apparently an early effort to prepare what is taking place today in Downtown Beirut. Aoun had backed Hizbullah during the conflict, in the face of widespread condemnation, and felt Nasrallah owed him. It is now Aoun who is most vocally warning that the opposition might form an interim government against the one backed by the majority. As the general's rhetoric escalates, his anxiety is becoming more palpable. Even under the best of circumstances his being elected would require an immensely complex succession of events that is looking increasingly unlikely.

Aoun needs a majority in Parliament to become president. He doesn't have one, which is why he would like to see early parliamentary elections before Lahoud's mandate expires. But even assuming such elections take place, a doubtful proposition, are there any guarantees that Aoun and his allies would win more seats than in 2005? If anything, the general's popularity has declined. Moreover, while he has complained long and hard about last year's election law, it was actually beneficial to him. Under any other system, the likelihood of his winning a similar landslide virtually evaporates. And Aoun's dismissal of the 2005 law is such that he's locked himself into accepting a new law, particularly one that might benefit comrades who lost their seats, such as Suleiman Franjieh.

Once that electoral hurdle is crossed, and assuming, fancifully, that everything goes Aoun's way, can the general then convince Hizbullah and the Syrians that he's their man? If the Syrians are back in town by then, their preference will be for someone more controllable; and if they are not, this will mean that all sides must accept a compromise candidate. In neither case does Aoun fit the bill. By accumulating power through persistent divisiveness, the general has allowed himself to be squeezed dry by his associates; he has also surrendered any opportunity to emerge as everyone's first, or far more importantly second, choice.

Aoun's personal misfortune matters little. However, when you speak to his supporters, it becomes obvious how deeply uneasy they are with their society, the nature of Lebanon's government, and the fate of the Christian community - and an overwhelming majority are parochial Christians, regardless of the transient love-fest with Hizbullah. If Aoun crashes, as such contraptions invariably do, someone will have to explain to the Aounists why they have followed that pied piper down a blind alley for the second time in just 16 years. And when no answer comes, all the orange will change to a menacing hue of black.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.