Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 June 2005
Issue No. 747
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Aoun's hour

Enter Michel Aoun. Omayma Abdel-Latif reports from the Lebanese capital on the implications for Lebanese politics

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Aoun flashes the V-sign during celebrations with his aides at his home in the outskirts of Beirut

When General Michel Aoun was asked by Al-Ahram Weekly what he expected the battle of Mount Lebanon to be like, he took no time to answer. "It will be a make or break battle which will decide the future of many forces on the political scene," Aoun said.

Sunday's third round of Lebanese elections proved one of the most difficult challenges facing the general, who recently returned home after spending 15 years in exile. For many Lebanese, the general's participation has transformed the elections into a truly democratic event. "Thank you Michel Aoun," Jihad Al-Zin wrote in the An-Nahar newspaper on Tuesday in acknowledgment of Aoun's positive contribution in saving the third round from degenerating into a predetermined referendum-like poll as was the case in the previous two rounds.

While the results of the third round have seen the emergence of Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) as the political force most representative of the Christian street, its most significant fallout is the crowning of Aoun as the leader of Lebanon's Christians par excellence. "It was a battle against his newly found political rivals, like Walid Jumblatt and Saad Al-Hariri, who have cornered Aoun since his return," said one political analyst. It was also a battle over the leadership of Lebanon's Christians.

Aoun, according to the vote results, proved to be the leader most Lebanese Christians trusted to break the Sunni-Druze dominance over the political process that had emerged following the killing of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri last February. According to commentators, Aoun's victory completes the circle of sect leaders. The Druze have Jumblatt, the Sunnis have Al-Hariri, the Shia have Hizbullah and Amal and the Christians now have Aoun.

The third round of the four-stage elections took place in five major constituencies; Kesrwan- Jbeil, Al-Matn, the Bekaa Valley, Al-Shouf, and Baabda-Aley. The ballots included a number of candidate lists, the two most important of which were Aoun's FPM, called "Reform and Change", and the other supported by the Jumblatt-Hariri- Qernet Shehwan alliance called the "Mountain Unity" list.

The lists were competing to win 58 seats from the 128-seat parliament. Aoun's list in Al-Matn, which he combined in an alliance with Michel Al-Murr, former deputy prime minister and a staunch supporter of Syria, scored a landslide victory, winning all seven seats except for one Maronite seat which Aoun left vacant, filled by Pierre Gemayel. His list also won eight seats in Kesrwan-Jbeil, with Aoun taking 67,500 votes. In Zahle, the list of Elias Skaf, the Catholic MP who allied with Aoun, won six of the seven seats. Jumblatt's list in Baabda-Aley won all 11 seats but with a relatively small majority over Aoun's list.

Al-Shouf, the Druze heartland, was an easy victory for Jumblatt, who won all eight seats. No surprises came in the West Bekaa-Rachiya constituency where the Al-Hariri-Jumblatt alliance won all six seats. And as expected in the Baalbek-Hermel constituency in the eastern Bekaa Valley, the Hizbullah-Amal alliance running under the slogan of protecting the resistance scored an easy victory by taking all 10 seats.

The third round saw the emergence of some of the strangest electoral alliances in post-war Lebanese politics when Hizbullah supported the Mountain Unity list, which included members of Al-Quwwat Al-Libnaniya (the Lebanese Militia) and Al-Haraka Al-Islahiya Al-Kataaibiya (The Reformist Phalangist movement), two historic enemies of Hizbullah due to their ties with Israel. The scene of Edmund Naaim, a prominent Lebanese lawyer and a candidate from the Lebanese Militia sitting at an election rally for Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's secretary-general, took many by surprise.

Even more surprising to many analysts was the failure of some seasoned politicians, such as Abdul-Rahim Murad, former defence minister, Elly Ferzeli, former information minister and Albert Mansour to secure seats in parliament. But the most shocking result was the failure of MPs Nassib Lahoud and Fares Said, two of the key figures from Qernet Shehwan running in the Al-Matn constituency against the Aoun - Murr alliance, to garner enough votes to be re-elected.

Said described Aoun's landslide victory as "disastrous for Lebanon and the Christians". He even went so far as to suggest that Aoun's victory will re-open the door for "the Israeli project to come back to the Lebanese scene". Other members accused Aoun of allying with pro- Syria figures, suggesting that his electoral campaign is being consolidated by the pro-Syria security apparatus. Aoun responded, "Said could not take defeat and was hallucinating." He added that election results prove that the role of Qernet Shehwan, a Christian bloc that was formed with the blessing of the Maronite Patriarch in an attempt to unify Lebanese Christians under one banner, has ended and that it should restructure itself.

The war of words between Aoun and members of the Qernet Shehwan-Hariri-Jumblatt alliance reached its climax during the days leading up to the third round of elections. Jumblatt went so far as to accuse Aoun of being "the tool which Syria was using to come back to Lebanon through the back door". On Monday, he said Aoun's victory might put Lebanon on the verge of civil war. "By voting for Aoun," Jumblatt told a press conference, "the Christians have chosen the road of extremism at the expense of moderation."

Although many observers saw the Jumblatt-Aoun row as part of the traditional Druze-Maronite rivalry and within the context of the heated election campaigning, it was the dispute between Aoun and members of Qernet Shehwan which prompted many observers, particularly within Christian circles, to voice concern about its impact on the unity of Lebanon's Christians. Rosana Bu-Munsef, a political analyst for An-Nahar, said that the current climate between rival Christian factions was reminiscent of the situation during the aftermath of the signing of the Al-Taif Accord, when Christian forces, including Aoun, were engaged in a "war of elimination".

"The war of words between Qernet Shehwan and Aoun is not just about electoral gains but rather about who has the ability to lead the Christians now and it is feared that this will reflect on the post-election period creating an irreversible schism in the Christian ranks," Bu- Munsef explained.

Although Aoun himself has repeatedly stated that his party is not a Christian party, the fact that the majority of his electorate comes from Christian ranks has limited his chances of presenting himself as a national leader. His visit to Tripoli on Monday, one day after his sweeping victory and brokering of a reconciliation between Suleiman Franjeya, the former interior minister who is known to be a pro-Syria figure, and the former prime minister Omar Karami, was also meant to consolidate his electoral alliances in northern Lebanon in preparation for the forthcoming and final round of elections on Sunday in which 28 parliament seats are contested.

Aoun's entry into the Lebanese parliament with a relatively big bloc in the assembly is likely to impose a re-ordering of many of the priorities of Lebanese politics, including debates surrounding the position of the presidency. While the Lebanese opposition, including members of Qernet Shehwan and Jumblatt, have been calling on Lebanese President Emile Lahoud to step down, Aoun has been vague on the issue, suggesting that there was no need for Lahoud to resign. Key issues, like the disarming of Hizbullah, fighting corruption and the economic situation, including Lebanon's massive debt, set at $43 billion, are likely to exacerbate the political tension between the two political rivals.

The third round of elections were overshadowed by unconfirmed reports in the Lebanese press about the presence of members of the Syrian intelligence, who may have interfered in the election process. Lebanese opposition complaints about a comeback of Syrian intelligence officers into the country has prompted UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to announce that he was sending back an investigative team to ensure Syria's complete withdrawal. Syria, for its part, denied the reports.

Return of the general

The quiet entrance leading to General Michel Aoun's headquarters in Al-Rabiyeh in Mount Lebanon is suddenly filled with scores of security men carrying machine guns and ensuring that the road is safe enough for Aoun to pass. The general arrived home after spending the day addressing his electorate. It is 8pm and the general still has a long schedule of press meetings and television interviews.

Wearing a white shirt and looking exhausted, the 70-year-old Aoun is, nonetheless, lively. During the past few weeks since the general's return, he has emerged as the most controversial figure in the pre-election period, creating more enemies than he can probably handle. His failure to strike an alliance with the major two allied powers of the Lebanese opposition, Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader and head of the Progressive Socialist Party, and Saad Al-Hariri, head of Tayar Al-Mustaqbal, has pitted him as their number one rival. In opposition circles, Aoun is portrayed as someone whose comeback was meant to create a schism within the ranks of the Lebanese opposition. He was also accused of striking a deal with Damascus which allowed him to return.

This week, Jumblatt accused Aoun of working to "sabotage the opposition movement". He added that he wished Aoun never returned from Paris. Political tension between the two rivals soared during the days preceding the elections with Aoun accusing Saad Al-Hariri of spending millions of "petro-dollar money" to buy votes. Aoun spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly at his office in Al-Rabiyeh a few days before the "[electoral] battle of Mount Lebanon" took place about his relationship with the Lebanese opposition and his vision for the future of Lebanon.

You repeatedly stated that the Hariri-Junblatt alliance was a war of exclusion against you. Why do you think this is the case?

They wanted to ostracise me and I believe that only the corrupt are threatened by my comeback to the political scene. The Hariri-Jumblatt alliance wanted to force me to draw my list of candidates only from Christian ranks and I have always made it clear that the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) is not a sectarian based movement.

I wanted to name a Shia candidate and a Druze candidate but they refused. There is a general state of corruption taking hold of the country and the number one item on my agenda is to fight corruption on all levels.

But many in the Lebanese opposition, particularly from Qernet Shehwan, accuse you of allying with pro-Syria figures who are part of the corrupt class you claim to be fighting?

They left me with hardly any options. Besides, who in Lebanon was not working with the Syrians during the past 15 years?

I have stated clearly that my problem with Syria is when Syria is in Lebanon, but when Syria is in Syria, I have no problem with them. Why is it acceptable for others to ally with pro-Syria figures like members from Ain Al-Teena [an alliance of pro- Syrian political forces] and when I ally with pro-Syria politicians, I am attacked?

Would you say that the current political class ruling Lebanon is a corrupt one?

Inside this class there are many corrupt figures but we cannot generalise, because most of those who claim to be in the opposition have been part and parcel of the power structure during the past 15 years and they too have helped create a network of corruption.

This political class wants to ostracise me. They might succeed in ostracising me politically but they will not be able to do so on a popular level because I represent a growing movement which relies heavily on grassroots support.

I think they will be exposed when the time comes to initiate our plan of fighting corruption and to order an investigation into the mismanagement that has been committed during the past 15 years.

Do you think that the unity of the different opposition forces is a genuine one?

There is a unity of narrow interests which will be short-lived because there is not one common goal for the future.

Do you agree that Hizbullah should disarm, and if so, what do you think is the best approach to handle such a sensitive issue?

First of all, in order to be able to explore ways of dealing with Hizbullah's weapons, we have to understand what the endgame of remaining armed is, and then we can propose ideas that can preserve Hizbullah on the one hand and protect Lebanon on the other.

We are not in an armed struggle with Hizbullah and we will not be led into one, but there are reasons for the party to disarm, some of which include the sovereignty of the state and the unity of the Lebanese state and security apparatus. This means that only the state should be made responsible for the security and defence of the country.

If the state is in need of extra security forces, it could then call upon Hizbullah and on other Lebanese. Defending Lebanon is not the exclusive responsibility of Hizbullah. We don't want to give preferential treatment that allows one group of Lebanese to be armed thereby discriminating against other groups.

How can Lebanon maintain a deterrent force against the continuous aggression of Israel if Hizbullah disarms? What assurances could you give Lebanese citizens who live in the south that any Israeli aggression will be deterred?

I believe it is up to the Lebanese state and the international community to ensure that Lebanon will not be vulnerable to any aggression.

The issue is not just about disarming Hizbullah. The disarming of Hizbullah should go hand in hand with commitments from Israel made through the United Nations, because disarming Hizbullah has international and regional consequences. Such an issue cannot be handled independently of the regional and international context in which it is taking place.

So you are saying that disarming Hizbullah will necessitate international intervention?

Yes, an important and very sensitive issue such as disarming Hizbullah will require international input because even if it is a Lebanese issue, it will have major regional and international consequences.

We first need to know why Hizbullah wants to remain armed. My reading from the party's rhetoric is that it wants to continue its struggle against Israel, but if most Arab countries are moving towards signing peace deals, we will be confronted with the issue once again.

According to the Al-Taif Accord, all Lebanese militias should disarm and Hizbullah was then one of those militias. It was not classified then as a resistance movement. None of the militias which existed then was excluded from this classification.

Now we should redefine Hizbullah as a resistance movement and not as a militia, but we should define the limits of the resistance's activities, should they be inside Lebanese territory or should it extend to the regional context. This is why I believe we should have a continuous dialogue with Hizbullah and listen to what they have to say on all these thorny issues.

What is the closest political force to your platform that you can ally with?

All the political forces that are based on a secular, non-sectarian system which believe in the notion of citizenship. We are the only political force that cannot be isolated because we don't use a sectarian language. This is why I don't have a problem when I criticise Saad Al-Hariri or Walid Jumblatt, because I don't do so from a sectarian standpoint but rather from a political standpoint.

But despite your non-sectarian line, many argue that the Free Patriotic Movement cannot appeal to Lebanon's different sects, particularly Lebanon's Muslim community.

We are still in the process of building the movement's structures and after the elections we expect a surge in the number of our members from Lebanon's different sects.

There is a reality in Lebanon which is built on sectarian quotas. This is something we have to take into consideration, but in the FPM, we want to reach the point where a Sunni member of the FPM can be appointed prime minister or a Shia FPM member is appointed parliament speaker. The head of the FPM itself should not necessarily be a Christian. He could be Sunni, Druze or Shia.

We want to encourage the Lebanese to stop thinking along sectarian lines and to stop organising themselves politically and socially along sectarian lines, but rather to revive the notion of citizenship. The sects are a big myth. It is a challenge for us to achieve such a transformation.

Do you think there is an American project for Lebanon, and if so, what is it about in your view?

If there is one, it is definitely not with me. The declared target of American involvement in Lebanese affairs is that they want democratic rule in Lebanon. I don't know anything about their undeclared intentions.

Those who cooperate now with the Americans should be asked about it. I am not cooperating with the Americans any longer. Although I believe the United States has helped Lebanon regain its independence, I have no connection whatsoever with the American administration. My connections have been confined to the American Congress and presently there are no links.

Those who used to accuse me of being an American agent and shunned me are the ones who are now cooperating with the Americans.

Do you think the Syrian mandate over Lebanon has been replaced by a Franco-American mandate?

I think there is an act of deception taking place here because it is the Lebanese politicians who have created this problem. Instead of talking to one another, they go to the foreign ambassadors and talk about one another. Because in Lebanon the political class has been always used to an external frame of reference (marjaaiya).

Thirty years of Syrian mandate has indeed affected the way they think politically. They are not used to thinking independently from foreign powers, be it Syria or the United States or France. I know them all. It is the same class of politicians which besieged me back in 1989 and the class that is putting me under siege now.

The killing of prominent journalist and writer Samir Kassir has unleashed fears that political assassinations are back in Lebanon. How do you view the security situation in Lebanon now?

The new government committed a grave mistake when it sacked all the top security officials following Rafik Al-Hariri's assassination. It destroyed the security apparatus and created a power vacuum.

It is true that the Lebanese security system was playing a political role and needed to be completely neutralised in order to focus on security-related missions, but instead of restructuring it, they brought down the whole system and the new interior minister failed miserably to handle the security situation in the country.

Do you think the hasty Syrian withdrawal helped create this vacuum?

No. The failure of the state to fill the security posts and the lack of qualified staff has led to this.

There are people who are not necessarily pro-Syria and are qualified to do the job but are not appointed.

How did you interpret Kassir's killing?

It is a political crime par excellence. Although many accused Syria of being behind this heinous crime. I, myself, am a potential target for assassination and this is why my movement is very restricted. I am constantly surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards.

Some argue that Lebanese security remains a card in Syria's hand on the negotiating table with the Americans.

I don't think so. While Syria has been in the country for 30 years and it still has the capability to create security problems, I still believe that the Lebanese security apparatus has the responsibility to prevent any crime from taking place and to expose the culprit before the public.

This comes through maintaining strict border policies and running cross-border patrols.

Interviewed by Omayma Abdel-Latif

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