International

The long, strange trip of Michel Aoun

Guest post by davem

On 30 May former Lebanese Prime Minister Michel Aoun gave a speech explaining why he had turned his back on the west and forged an alliance with Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.

Now even a cursory glance at Lebanon’s history shows you that it’s a place where the circumstances can change sharply, leading to sudden and dramatic changes in political alliances.

Yet even when set against this background nothing has been quite as bizarre as the political metamorphosis of Michel Aoun.

On 14 March 1989, as a leader of Lebanon’s Maronite Christian community, he launched one of the bloodiest cycles of violence in the Lebanon War– an ill-fated “War of Liberation” in which he vowed to “break [Syrian President Hafez] Assad’s head”.

It was a military disaster that resulted in huge casualties, international legitimacy for Syria’s occupation of Lebanon under the guise of “peacekeeping” and “maintaining stability”, and Aoun’s exile to France.

In February 2008 he held one of the weirdest press conferences Lebanon has witnessed.

(Very important note about the translations. Michel Aoun is notorious for being difficult to understand, even among native speakers of Arabic. He has a strange accent which makes him sound like he’s just inhaled a helium balloon. He’s even more difficult to understand via a highly compressed YouTube video clip that looks like it was recorded on somebody’s phone. So if I have made any mistakes then please feel free to correct them in the comments section.)

Aoun: “I am here today with Hassan Nasrallah to bring forward an essential thing that we must adhere to in order to solve the problems that we’re embroiled in. We must solve the points of dispute via discussion. Nobody else is doing this. No one else has the initiative or self-assurance and within this initiative and self-assurance to return Lebanon [as] an independent sovereign country.

“We have a need to bear the problems, which are circulating around the Western capitals, so that they can be solved. We realize anew that we will arrive at a solution [only] through cooperation and the exchange views.”

Nasrallah: “Today’s meeting, we consider it the beginning of a very excellent relationship between two major Lebanese national movements. We look forward to it. Of course, this isn’t a meeting, co-operating or understanding [taking place] in exchange for anything. In fact I call all others, especially to join the General [Aoun] along-side round-table discussions. I invite everybody to sit, discuss and come to a mutual understanding, so that we can build our country.

“We do this far away from the language of elimination, nullification and misdeed. Logic transcends any Lebanese section or movement.”

Basically Aoun cut a deal with the Syrian-backed bloc that enabled him to return from exile to the Lebanese political arena. However this alliance meant he had to backpedal furiously from his previous positions—for example on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Here he is on French TV February 2005, where he said:

“I am sure that Syria killed Hariri. All the political opponents of Syria have been assassinated and not a single case has been elucidated. All the Lebanese public opinion points the finger at Syria and the Lebanese puppet government that is in power”.

Now fast-forward a few years and here he is again on Lebanon’s LBC station saying something completely different.

LBC anchor: “…connected with the investigations taking place in regards to the martyrdom of Rafiq Hariri. Sir, as we know from information about on some of the sides [involved] – are you able to inform us on some of these sides, can you put us in the picture?”

Aoun: “Certainly I don’t have any information [regarding the assassination]. It’s been over a year since the crime and the international investigations committee hasn’t yet come up with an answer.

“I can draw the conclusion that in all probability it’s incorrect to say that a Syrian-Lebanese bloc committed that crime. It’s possible that was committed by another group.”

LBC anchor: “Like who?”

Aoun: “Who? Well, I can’t identify them for you give you, but it’s another group. A second force, possibly, I don’t know its make-up….”

LBC anchor: “Syrian, for example?”

Aoun “No, who was the force that… [an Islamic] terrorist team, possibly that sort of group which utilizes violence.”

The reason for this transformation is very simple indeed.

Power.

The Lebanese Constitution states that the president has to be a Maronite Christian. So if the Hezbollah bloc grabs the reins of power, then the deal is presumably that Aoun gets the keys to the presidential palace.

The fact that he has support from a minority of Lebanon’s Christians is neither here or there, as he entered an alliance that doesn’t really bother with democratic mandates. In fact it usually deals with political decisions not to its liking in this manner

LBC anchor: “What took place was expected. The only thing that was surprising was the timing. The signal to start it all off was Hassan Nasrallah releasing communiqué/declaration #1. Which can be described as a coup.”

Nasrallah: “I said quite clearly that the hand which will reach to grab the weapons of the resistance, from anyone or anywhere, we will cut it off! And today is the day we carry out that decision.”

LBC anchor: “That was Nasrallah’s promise, and he kept to it. And this time in the alleyways of Beirut and the weapons which he repeatedly said would never be turned inwards [on the Lebanese people] exploded on the streets of the capital.”

Gaymael: “We want a commitment! A guaranteed personal commitment from Hassan Nasrallah that no longer will he use weapons in a Lebanese internal political struggle”.

LBC anchor: “Negotiations on Nasrallah’s conditions came to nothing and no sooner had he finished his declaration of war than Hezbollah and Amal movement gunmen began their occupation of Beirut.”

Hezbollah didn’t seem too far from the language of elimination and nullification on this particular occasion. And that didn’t look much like building a nation.

Not long after this coup attempt, Hezbollah achieved all of its demands via the Doha agreement and the balance of power has been tipped in its favour.

After all who needs to lobby, bargain, make deals and compromises when you can send your thugs on the streets to kill people and set fire to TV stations? Who needs the whip when you’ve got the AK?

So going back to his 30 May speech, Aoun could hardly say in public that he cut a deal with Hezbollah and their Syrian-backed allies because it offered him what he thought would be his best shot at the presidency. That would be political suicide. So instead he reached for the worn-out “Jews and oil” cliché to rally his troops and justify his position.

On his return from exile to Beirut Aoun’s party won 22 seats in the 2005 parliamentary election and he claimed to have support of 70 percent of Maronite Christians. However his political strategy, culminating in an alliance with Hezbollah, has led to a hemorrhaging of this support-base.

I’m no expert of Lebanese affairs, and if you want to read more I highly recommend these blogs for a fuller picture.

Michel Totten has written great pieces on Aoun here and here.

As for Lebanon in general I cannot recommend Across The Bay highly enough.

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