Michel Aoun can cut the Gordian knot
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Lebanon is locked in stalemate as the majority and opposition remain encamped behind their red lines. But there is a way out, and the solution lies in the hands of that volatile man in Rabieh. Michel Aoun can break Lebanon's debilitating impasse, and would gain because of it. Here's how.

For months, Aoun's strategy has been to impose himself as the Maronite no one can circumvent. Until recently, the general sustained himself thanks to Christian frustration with the 2005 election law and the subsequent quadripartite agreement that left Christian politicians and groups either marginalized or playing a secondary role. That beef was justifiable, but things began to disintegrate when Aoun found himself in the same camp as Syria's allies, even as the bombings and assassinations continued. The events of last January 23, when Aoun's supporters prevented people from getting to work, was a political disaster, only compounded by the ongoing fiasco of the Downtown sit-in, which has proven to be a trap for everyone - opposition and majority alike.

With this in mind, it is plain that Michel Aoun will not be president. He cannot be elected by Hizbullah alone, though the party will use Aoun until the last minute as a bargaining chip to slip in someone else. The majority has no incentive to vote for Aoun because he has spent the past months alienating its leaders. And there is no prospect that the general - who distils polarization like no other - will be a compromise candidate, as even Aoun's own ally Elie Skaff recognized publicly several weeks ago.

However, if Aoun's ambition to be president has been dashed, his ability to play a leading role in selecting someone else for the job remains stronger than ever, thanks to the general's control over a sizable parliamentary bloc. Aoun holds the balance of power allowing him to effectively be the kingmaker of any new president. Moreover, by distancing himself from the predominantly Shiite opposition, he would force Hizbullah's leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to overhaul their strategy, as neither man wants the current standoff to appear like it is the Shiites against the rest. This could even force Berri to open the doors of Parliament. More importantly, if Aoun joins with Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, the three could together ensure that Christians have a leading say in who will be elected, and what his or her agenda will be.

Aoun and his followers insist that their main objective is to return the Christian community to its rightful place. If so, the general should bite the bullet and fight the lesser battle he can win in helping select a credible successor to President Emile Lahoud, rather than scrape though a nasty presidential try of his own that Aoun is sure to lose.

Why should this matter? Partly because Aoun's failure to reach Baabda will have a negative impact on the Christian community, whose interests the general claims he wants to advance. If Aoun plays all-or-nothing politics, Christians will react in one of two ways, or a combination thereof: they will abandon Aoun and blame him for his recklessness; or they will embrace his loss as their own, and internalize his lament that Christians no longer have a say in Lebanon. In both cases the result will be that the weight of the largest Christian bloc in Parliament is wasted, and Christians will lose any voice they might have on the presidency.

Many Aounists, when you scratch below the surface, are aware that Hizbullah will never agree to disarm and fully integrate into the political system. By the same token, Hizbullah has no deep sympathy for Aoun or his aims, which fundamentally contradict those of the party. Aoun may argue today that Hizbullah's weapons are defensible, at a time when, as he sees it, there is a power vacuum at the level of government; but it is doubtful that a President Aoun could coexist with a party presiding over a state within a state, defended by an Iranian-funded private army. There are no legs in that alliance, and for the moment Aoun and Hizbullah are merely using each other. The thing is, Nasrallah intends to sell Aoun out at the appropriate moment to get something in exchange on the presidency; but Aoun will get nothing from Hizbullah. If anything, his partnership with the party has doomed his presidential chances.

So here's a plan Aoun might want to consider. He should start by holding a far-reaching dialogue with Geagea under the auspices of the Maronite patriarch. This would aim to reach a common set or principles that any future president would have to adhere to - at least if he wants the approval of his coreligionists. Aoun would have to sacrifice his ambition to be elected to the highest office himself, but he would also be in the driving seat to impose a preferred alternative. Geagea's advantage would be that he could buy himself a wider margin of maneuver in his alliance with Saad Hariri and the Future movement. This would not imply breaking that relationship, which remains a foundation for any effort to establish an independent post-Syrian Lebanese state; but it would enhance the Lebanese Forces' credibility as a more autonomous organization.

Once that happens, Aoun would formally ditch the Hizbullah alliance, though he needn't break definitively with the party. On the contrary, he could put himself forward as the prime mediator with Nasrallah. Aoun would then ask for an "acceptable" share of portfolios in the government. This could either reflect his parliamentary weight, or there could be a tradeoff between the number of ministers and the nature of the ministries offered the Aounists. This would be a tricky stage, and would require agreement with Geagea and Sfeir beforehand on Christian representation. In exchange, Aoun would endorse an early timetable for parliamentary approval of the Hariri tribunal. He would then announce his decision to abandon the Downtown protests and fold his tents.

A vital ingredient would be Aoun's formally giving up his demand for early elections. The general still believes that such elections are his ticket to the presidency. Because the opposition might get a greater number of seats in Parliament, he feels, his presidential chances would improve. But Aoun's calculation is based on the erroneous assumptions that Lebanon is capable of organizing elections at this divisive time, or even of uniting around an election law; that the opposition is sure to gain under any new law; and that the Aounists still retain the popular support they enjoyed in Mount Lebanon in 2005. Aoun would do better to use his bloc more creatively instead of gambling on an election that nobody wants, and that Hizbullah is only setting as a condition for a settlement in order to keep Aoun on board and obstruct agreement on the tribunal.

With his bloc the swinging vote in Parliament, Aoun would be in a very powerful position as gatekeeper to the president. And with Geagea and Sfeir on his side, he could write a good part of the presidential program. More significantly, Christian unanimity would mean that any new head of state could not easily ignore Aoun once in office (the obsession of all Lebanese kingmakers), since this would only isolate him in the Maronite community. But first, Aoun must take the toughest decision of all: embrace modesty and accept that Baabda is his paradise lost.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.