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How Long will Lebanon’s Political Honeymoon Last Under President Aoun

Democratic Arab Center

Many questions arose once news broke of a new Lebanese president, after 29 months of an empty Presidential Palace. What made the March 14 Alliance and the Lebanese Forces suddenly change their position and drop their opposition to voting for General Michel Aoun? Will the wave of optimism which was triggered by filing the first chair in Beirut go far? What are the consequences, if any, of choosing General Aoun in regards to the region’s crisis? Which policy will Aoun adopt on thorny issues, like Hezbollah’s independent army in the south of the country and its heavy involvement in the war in Syria?

The two competing camps in Lebanon’s presidential elections scrambled to spin the Parliament decision to vote General Aoun in its favor. Sa’ad Al Hariri of the March 14 Alliance and Samir Geaea of the Lebanese Forces presented their blocks’ vote for Aoun, whom they opposed for a long time, as a vote for preserving the state’s structure after a long period of gradual erosion. On the other hand, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah described the result of the election as a confirmation that Hezbollah’s position of supporting Aoun all along was right.

The claims of both sides may not be accurate, however. Hariri-Geagea and their allies’ opposition and Hezbollah’s support were positions based on certain considerations in the past. The grounds have moved considerably since then and these positions were naturally becoming a subject to review. The review led to March 14 and the Lebanese Force voting for Aoun in a stormy Parliament session October 31. Allies of Hezbollah tried to block the vote when the surprise “U Turn” of Hariri-Geagea and their intention to vote for Aoun became evident.

The shift in Hariri-Gaegae’s blocks was indeed surprising. True, there were some hints of a possible change a few days prior to the decisive vote, but it was also said that some members of the two blocks were opposed and that internal debates were not decisive either way.

But what changed and made Hariri-Geagea ready to drop their veto on Aoun?

Many things.

It became clear to almost everyone that regional polarization has become a major issue on the global agenda. The region and the world are both tired of endless confrontations and sudden eruptions of new crises. There will be a new administration in the US and certain preparations have to be made for a new American strategy in the Middle East. This was conveyed to several regional capitals as well as to Lebanese political figures.

There is also an expected marathon to put the Syrian war to end. The Syrian crisis has exhausted Lebanon beyond imagination. There are almost 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon; the country is too small to sustain this number of newcomers.

But above all, an accumulative erosion of Lebanon’s state functions was a trend threatening to push this tiny country into the region’s black hole of crises.

While Hezbollah insisted always on Aoun being president and no one else, the real bet of the group was that neither Hariri nor Geagea would ever vote Aoun. The general was, for Hezbollah, a thick stick to be put onto the wheel of any attempt to solve the country’s political crisis. The fact that none of the Lebanese state functions were functioning suited Hezbollah just fine. Hezbollah has its own administration in its own area of control. Its budget, as Nasrallah bragged a few months ago, comes directly from Iran.

The weaker the Lebanese national government gets, the stronger Hezbollah is. The need to get the government and its institutions to work again was pressing those who feared the future would be bright if the government remained paralyzed by the presidential vacuum.

But what is coming is not necessarily as bright as the optimists hope. There are many mines on Lebanon’s road to the future, aside from the simmering regional crisis.

One of the problems is the way a new government will be formed. While Hariri was picked as the new Prime Minister, the main political blocks are showing some reluctance to accept less portfolios than they think they deserve. Ambitious demands are presented even when the whole country is galvanized in a wave of optimism. One wonders how it will be when this optimism recedes.

The momentum created by finally selecting a president will not mean that the profound differences between political groups will be reduced. All politicians are speaking now of gathering on whatever common grounds exist as domestic denominators. But this may prove to be an oversimplification.

The gap between local issues and regional polarization is minimal by virtue of Lebanon’s geographic location. Beirut cannot escape from the shadows of the regional polarization, however inwardly it plans to focus. Lebanon’s political parties have organic cords connecting them to the major regional forces. Sooner or later, goodwill will leave way to regional polarization, so long as this polarization is mounting by the day.

In this area, the internal conflict is expected to rise even if everyone is carried away by the spirit of the current honeymoon period. What makes this even more expected is the nature of General Aoun’s personality and his set of beliefs.

The general is profoundly patriotic and unbendingly “un homme d’etat.” The concept of sovereignty gains in his mind an inflated weight and is taken independently of the complexity of time and place. The General abstracts the concept of sovereignty and separates it from the flexibility and compromises dictated by the nature of political life, let alone during this sensitive moment and in a country with the geopolitics of Lebanon.

The rigid views of General Aoun will soon set him on a collision track with most political parties, and particularly Hezbollah. In the field of respecting national sovereignty, Hezbollah admits openly that it moves according to what the Revolutionary Guard in Tehran dictates.

No question that having a president in Lebanon at long last is a positive step. Yet, it remains to be seen whether Lebanon’s civil society will generate enough pressure to keep all the country’s political powers around the national flag.

Source : Middle East Briefing

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