Avoiding the chaos of two governments
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, May 03, 2007
Is it true that Michel Aoun recently visited Damascus and was told he would be asked by Emile Lahoud to form a government after the president's departure? Though Aoun earlier indicated he would not take such a step unless he were guaranteed the presidency, the version put out by the majority is that the Syrians didn't give him a choice. He could not be president, but he could be prime minister - following a custom of naming Christians to the post during times of crises over the presidency.
Of course Aoun would deny this. That the source of the story is the majority invites caution. However, two developments have set off alarm bells. The first is that the Saudi foreign minister, Saud Al-Faisal, warned last week of the possibility that Lebanon might find itself with two parallel governments once Lahoud's term ended, and his statement was allegedly made in response to information that Aoun had met with the Syrians.
Second, both Aoun and pro-Syrian politicians have set the stage for such an eventuality. In response to a question from Abu Dhabi television as to what would happen if there were no presidential election, Aoun said last week, "A resolution lies in the hands of the president of the republic ... [as] the government is illegal and unable to pursue the work of the presidency." When Aoun was asked whether he thought it possible that there would be two rival governments, he answered: "I don't believe in the possibility of two governments, for what will be the limits of each? There will be a balance of power on the ground that will decide the issue."
Former Prime Minister Omar Karami, one of several weathervanes reflecting Syrian intentions, said last week: "What President Lahoud is saying resembles what President Amine Gemayel did before his departure from the presidential palace, namely that he will name a prime minister and form a new government through constitutional mechanisms." The fact that Karami is a Sunni is important, since this supposedly adds legitimacy to the temporary naming of a Maronite as prime minister.
Both statements are highly dangerous. The implications of Aoun's statement are clear. If a balance of power will decide the issue of two parallel governments, then the only forces capable of affecting that balance "on the ground" are the Lebanese Army and Hizbullah. So, the general is threatening to return Lebanon to 1988, when he headed a military government and tried to solve the country's problems through the use of force. If history repeats itself as farce, then Aoun's acquiescence in such an insane plan, assuming it is his plan, would return us to a very bloody farce indeed, which could destroy the army, lead to civil war, and almost certainly break Lebanon apart - perhaps irredeemably this time with the various communities now thinking in existential terms.
On Tuesday, Aoun went further in underlining that he has no real intention of coming to power as a compromise candidate. He denounced as "conspirators" those who reject parliamentary elections today, meaning the majority, and irresponsibly offered as an alternative the election of a president by popular vote. One has to wonder about the general's supporters, who lustily applauded the idea. Only moments earlier Aoun had put on his miter and talked about the Christian presence in the Middle East. Aoun's lieutenants, lowering their secularist mask, have frequently underlined that they are the best qualified to defend Christian interests. If so, a historic bulwark of that protection has been avoiding a popular election that would allow Lebanon's Muslim majority to choose Christian candidates. One can dispute that rationale, but Aoun's proposal is a scheme to take power, in the knowledge that he can't do so through Parliament, not an effort to recast the system of representativeness.
Much of what Aoun does or says in the months ahead will be prompted by his devouring ambition to become president. The general may be a master blunderer at times, and his egotism may yet destroy the political system he so wants to dominate, but at this juncture it's more useful to employ other means to try bringing Aoun in from the cold. He has no intention of giving up on the presidency, but as his project becomes more difficult to implement, those around the general might become uneasy. Better a deal in which Aoun has a say on Lahoud's successor, they might argue, than to put all his chips on an all-or-nothing bid to reach Baabda.
Take the allegation that Aoun has agreed to form an interim government. Even if it's true that the Syrians imposed this on him, the general would certainly prefer to be president than head of a government that will be opposed by most Lebanese and the international community. He was in that position once before, and while Aoun is not one to learn from his mistakes, he knows well the disadvantages of finding himself isolated.
March 14 should play along with Aoun. Once the Hariri tribunal is endorsed, the pressure will be on the majority to break the deadlock over the government. Indefinitely denying veto power to the opposition will not be easy. At the same time, the opposition will find it difficult to bring down any new government through mass resignations in order to impose its presidential favorite. After months of debilitating stalemate, neither side has much latitude to initiate a new round of political infighting, even if that's the Syrian ambition. Moreover, while Hizbullah has suggested that the real difficulties between them and the majority are clashing visions for Lebanon's future and disagreement over holding early parliamentary elections, by refocusing on the government the majority can place the burden of normalization on the opposition.
That's why the majority should offer Aoun the number of portfolios he's long been demanding, even if that creates problems with the Lebanese Forces. However, a requirement would be that Aoun gain mainly from Lahoud's quota, since the president is on his way out. Once he's locked into the system, Aoun might also find himself locked into its logic. That could provide a valuable channel to induce him to participate in selecting a new president, once it becomes clear the majority will not vote for Aoun. That doesn't mean the general won't use his stake in government as leverage to succeed Lahoud, but the price he pays for doing so will be high if he's seen as his putting his interests before those of the country.
The plan is full of holes, but could work as a blueprint to build on. Aoun has become a destructive instrument of Syrian power, directly or indirectly, because he has no incentive to be anything else, and no institutional position to defend. The odds are that the general will view any concession made to him as further affirmation of his right to be president. This is not someone who understands or likes the baroque compromises of the political system. But the way to agree with Aoun, or smother him, is to make him part of that system and see how he reacts.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.