Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

More Lebanese trial balloons

Was the Future Movement’s nomination of Michel Aoun for the Lebanese presidency a serious proposal or a political feint, asks Hassan Al-Qishawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

In an attempt to stir stagnant Lebanese political waters, two weeks ago Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, who is close to Future Movement leader Saad Al-Hariri, had a bold idea: the Future Movement would support General Michel Aoun for president — the nominee of Future foe Hizbullah and head of the Change and Reform bloc — in exchange for the premiership going to Saad Al-Hariri, as part of a comprehensive resolution of the Lebanese crisis.

The proposal came as no less a surprise than Al-Hariri’s move a few months ago to nominate MP Suleiman Frangieh, the head of the Marada Movement and a close ally of Syria and Hizbullah. Frangieh is described as a virtual brother to Bashar Al-Assad.

Although the Aoun proposal was seen as odd, some believed it more logical than Frangieh’s nomination given Aoun’s political weight and since his alliance with Assad and Hizbullah, though strong, is less durable and fixed than that of the Frangieh clan.

Before the proposal was debated within Future, Lebanese political veteran and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt announced he would support Aoun for the presidency if Lebanese Christians endorsed him.

The leaked proposal, which encountered objections from many Future Movement members and was not enthusiastically welcomed among Aoun’s own allies, illustrates the crisis in Future and its desire to shore up its Lebanese support via compromises and deals at a time when its popularity among Sunnis is declining, as shown by municipal elections, especially in Tripoli. Future’s ties to its closest and biggest regional ally, Saudi Arabia, have also frayed, as the latter has abandoned its reliance on the Al-Hariri family as its exclusive agents in Lebanon and started expanding ties with other Sunni leaders, including leaders close to Iran-allied Hizbullah.

Riyadh also dealt officially with the Saudi Oger crisis and did not rush to rescue the company, owned by Al-Hariri, when it stopped paying salaries to thousands of workers, including Indian workers who are going hungry in the streets of Saudi Arabia.

Observers believe all this prompted Al-Hariri to move away from Saudi Arabia and toward the Lebanese domestic scene, in an attempt to reach understandings with his opponents that would allow him to return to the premiership as he loses influence elsewhere.

But one of his biggest foes, Hizbullah, seems uninterested in keeping Al-Hariri afloat, and more importantly is lukewarm about the Future Movement’s support for Aoun’s candidacy. This led many within Future to caution against embarrassing Hizbullah by supporting its ally for president. This support could reveal that Hizbullah does not actually want Aoun in the presidency despite promising him its firm support for a high-level position.

Support for Aoun is thus far simply a trial balloon of the kind typically released by Lebanese politicians to test the waters. This time it came from Nohad Machnouk who said he expected to see a president elected soon.

Machnouk, a long-time Future hawk vehemently opposed to Syria and Hizbullah, since assuming the post of interior minister two years ago has become responsible for coordinating security understandings with Hizbullah. The understandings ended fighting between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli and secured the country against terrorist attacks. As part of the agreement Sunni residents in the Lebanese town of Tufayl, which was surrounded by Syrian forces and Hizbullah fighters, were evacuated and moved elsewhere in the country.

Despite overseeing security coordination with Hizbullah, Machnouk has repeatedly questioned Hizbullah’s engagement with the Future Movement on security matters and has said that the party got more than it gave. Complaints are heard as well about Hizbullah’s political protection of Shia clansmen in the Beqaa involved in kidnapping and smuggling. An even bigger grievance is the deployment and conduct of the so-called Resistance Squadrons, a Sunni militia loyal to Hizbullah, in Sunni areas, especially in the south.

Overall, it seems that in the partial compromise between Future and Hizbullah, the latter came out the winner and gave very little. Yet, Machnouk, known for his strong Arab ties, is acting now based on his sense of the weakness of the alliance between Future and Gulf states, which have begun treating Lebanon differently as it has lost its preferred status among Gulf states. The country is now seen more as the stomping ground of their foe Hizbullah and a weak ally. With his political experience, Machnouk knows that Lebanese Sunnis cannot stand up to Hizbullah. Any conflict would not only work in Hizbullah’s military interest, it would foster the rise of extremist forces to lead Sunnis in the country. In the face of a militarist, Shia fundamentalist party, terrorist fundamentalists are the only counterweight among Sunnis, not the quasi-secular, capitalist Future Movement.

There was reportedly strong opposition among Future members to Aoun’s nomination, especially since Al-Hariri’s conciliatory policies have led to a decline in Future’s popularity in the wake of his nomination of Frangieh, Assad’s friend. It also seems that Al-Hariri himself is less keen about the uncertain gamble of rapprochement with 8 March forces. Although Aoun is a strong personality and could be more independent of Hizbullah if he reached the presidency, he is also hard-headed and difficult to reach an understanding with.

The response of Hizbullah and its allies to the proposal also helped to bury it. Speaker of the Lebanese parliament Nabih Berri, who leads the Amal Movement that shares control of the Shia street with Hizbullah, is known for his frigid to tepid relations with Aoun. Their common alliance with Hizbullah is the only thing that unites them.

Berri, the godfather of Lebanese politics and the erstwhile mediator between Hizbullah and Future, showed no enthusiasm for the proposal. In fact, he quickly complicated Lebanese politics further by adopting an earlier proposal to establish a senate that would include representatives of all sects while making the Chamber of Deputies a fully representative body (preserving a Muslim-Christian sharing system without the complex sectarian allotments). This seemed to be an attempt by Berri to muddy the waters and bury the proposal to nominate Aoun in a flurry of other initiatives.

As for Hizbullah, it is showing through its conduct that it does not want its strong ally as president. This brings matters back to square one. On 18 August, Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who is close to Al-Hariri, called on Maronite leaders to select a fifth name for the presidency that all could agree on. Some thought the statement came too late. With the two potential candidates both coming from the Hizbullah-led 8 March alliance, the real consensus presidential candidate is the existing vacuum.

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