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Anger management: Michel Aoun and the Lebanese chaos theory

Aoun's grandstanding on behalf of Lebanese Christians seems to want to turn the clock back to before 1989 - and risks political suicide

The recent call for political mobilisation by the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) General Michel Aoun against the Lebanese government should perhaps be viewed through the lens of the chaos theory. The protagonists of the theory believe that there is a certain logic even in chaos that can yield positive results. By asking his supporters to demonstrate against the cabinet, Aoun wants to create enough chaos so as to push the country to the brink and thus bully his way to the presidency.

Strangely enough Aoun, the self-proclaimed leader of the Christians, has asked his die-hard supporters to go to the streets against the same government that includes two of his own ministers, one ironically being his own son-in-law, Gibran Bassil.

Ever since his return from his Parisian exile in 2005, Aoun has proclaimed himself to be the strongest Christian politician who has the right to speak on behalf of his community.

To many, these theatricals might appear to be yet another of the angry outbursts which Aoun has become renowned for since he was appointed interim prime minister in 1988.  However, these Aoun-like antics would have gone unnoticed if the Lebanon internal/regional situation was, to say the least, less volatile.

The Lebanese Republic, as it sits, has been without a president since the office fell vacant with the end of the term of Michel Sleiman on 24 May, 2014. Since then, the Lebanese parliament has failed over 25 times to elect the next president, with Aoun and his allies Hezbollah boycotting these sessions. Aoun believes that he should be elected by the parliament unopposed and until such conditions occur it is permissible to derail the democratic process.

Aoun’s pretext for this manoeuvre stems from the fact that he has the largest Christian parliamentary bloc and thus he has the legitimacy to speak on behalf of the Maronites and consequently be elected president. Coincidently, Aoun attacked the government of Prime Minister Tamam back in May, accusing it of being “democratically ignorant” as well as refuting the constitutionality of the Lebanese parliament.

As a result of this vacancy, the national unity government of Salam had to assume the reigns of governance and manage a failed state, a lagging economy and 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Moreover, the cabinet had to deal with the precarious rise of extremist elements domestically who are incensed by Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian crisis.

Aoun’s recurrent or perhaps only grievance is that the Christians’ political rights have been usurped by the Sunni prime minister who now shares power with the president. Aoun, who never endorsed the Taef accord which ended the 15 years of civil war in 1989, claims that only through the pre-Taef prerogatives a strong president can rule. Prior to 1975, the president of the republic yielded unchecked constitutional powers which aggravated the sectarian divisions in the country.

While other Christian political factions - among them the Lebanese Forces and the Phalangist Party - share Aoun’s concern for the rights of Christians, none of them go as far as to disregard the Taef accord but rather ask for its proper implementation.

Primarily, this accord introduced a number of constitutional amendments and changed the power-sharing formula between the Christians and the Maronites from six-to-five to an even 50/50. Moreover, it gave the Syrian regime under the late Hafez Assad virtual control over Lebanon. The Syrian occupation alongside other internal elements prevented this accord from being implemented and thus deprived the Christians as well as a big segment of the Lebanese of their rights. This Syrian occupation would end shortly after the assassination of PM Rafik al-Hariri in 2005.

Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, who has long considered to be Aoun’s arch nemesis after both sides were caught up in a bloody confrontation in 1988 known as “the War of Cancellation,” recently  ended their feud by ratifying a memorandum of understanding. Both leaders, who are frontrunners for the presidency, have agreed to make peace because the Christian interest dictated a strong united Christian front. They even went as far to agree on running a commercial poll which involves a sample of 4,600 Christians to determine who amongst the Christian leaders would run for president.

While these initiatives - the call for inter-Christian dialogue and polling - do not carry any legal implications they have been received by the general public, more so the Christian constituency, as a step in the right direction. Aoun, nevertheless, opted to rock the boat of political stability by attacking the only form of legitimate governance.

The political deadlock, which characterised the country even before the presidential vacuum, dictated that the tenure of the high-ranking posts that were mainly military and security be extended. Consequently, the commander of the army, the army chief of staff and the director of the internal security forces had their retirement deferred.

The cabinet justified this move by stating that the mercurial security situation dictated so. Furthermore, following past precedent, filling these positions, especially the commander of the army, is a prerogative of the incoming president.

Aoun, however, saw things differently. Following Aoun’s logic, he declared that the cabinet has no right or pretext to defer the discharge of the current commander. Conveniently enough, Aoun, himself a former commander of the army, demanded that his other son-in-law General Shamel Roukouz, the current commander of the elite Special Forces regiment, be appointed the next commander of the LAF.

The refusal of the cabinet to accommodate Aoun’s wishes led the latter to amplify his attacks against Salam culminating in his call for a quasi-mutiny to defend the rights of the Christians and “to safeguard the role of the president”. Aoun’s crusade to reclaim 100 years of lost Christian rights transpired in a weak showing of a few hundred orange-dressed FPM supporters.

The Lebanese would amusingly watch as these “angry demonstrators” paraded through the streets of the capital with their party flags and finally clashed with the Lebanese army which prevented them from going through with a theatrical attempt to storm the Grand Serail, the headquarters of the Prime Minister of Lebanon.

Concurrently, Gibran Bassil attempted to disrupt the opening of the cabinet session by taking the floor without being recognised by the presiding officer, in this case PM Salam. Bassil accused  Salam of violating the constitution and usurping the power of the president. Salam’s response to this deliberate impudence was a reprimand of these juvenile acts.

Ultimately, by endorsing these chaotic actions, Aoun wanted to portray himself as the strongest Christian leader who was not afraid to go all the way if needed. But Aoun also knew quite well that Geagea, who had opposed the FPM in an earlier riot in 2006, would this time remain idle.

Geagea’s decision to refrain from taking any action perhaps stems from the fact that Aoun’s populist rhetoric resonates with Geagea’s own supporters who equate the feebleness of the Christian political establishment to outward factors. Aoun’s allies on the other hand, mainly Hezbollah, gave their presidential candidate verbal support which at the end of the day would make his quest for the presidency yet more challenging.

While Aoun and his supporters might abide by the chaos theory, at least based on their recent actions, the road to restoring the so-called glories of the Christians lies elsewhere. Some of the Lebanese, Aoun amongst them, should realise that a return to the pre-Taef system is not only a constitutional impossibility but also pursuing it amounts to a form of political suicide - mainly because it would be sending a message to the Lebanese Muslims that they are not equal partners but rather second-class citizens. Moreover, the Lebanese Christians are missing out on a rare chance to become the mediators of the Sunni-Shia schism which has engulfed the region.

In the 15th century AD, Pope Leo X described the Maronites as being “a rose among thorns, an impregnable rock in the sea, unshaken by the waves and fury of the thundering tempest”.

The Christian political establishment, or what remains of it, has to always keep in mind that their ancestors have survived over the ages not because of brutal strength or by being thorns, but rather because of political savviness and smart positioning. Chaos can only bring on more chaos for both the Christians and the Lebanese at large.

- Makram Rabah is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University’s history department. He is the author of “A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967–1975” and a regular columnist for Now Lebanon. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Lebanese Christians, supporters of opposition leader General Michel Aoun, hold a picture of Aoun (R) meeting with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah outside Mar Michael church following a mass for last week's victims who were killed during riots near the church in Beirut's southern suburbs, 3 February, 2008 (AFP)