Michael Aoun eyes the presidency in a divided Lebanon

Mr Aoun’s expectations may be higher than his chances, says Michael Young

Lebanon is fast approaching the end of the month-long period in which it must elect a president to succeed Michel Suleiman. Parliament votes for the president, and until now no consensus has emerged behind any candidate. But one man who still has hopes is Michel Aoun, the head of the largest Christian bloc.

Mr Aoun’s expectations may be higher than his chances. Last week a senior Lebanese politician told me privately that he feared that Mr Aoun, a former general who headed a military government between 1988 and 1990, would be backed by the Future Movement of Saad Hariri, a former prime minister. The politician said he was on his way to Paris to meet the Saudi foreign minister Saud Al Faisal to determine if Riyadh, Mr Hariri’s political patron, supported Mr Aoun.

But the news early this week was contradictory. The Lebanese daily Al Safir, quoting someone familiar with Mr Al Faisal’s meetings, said the prince had not endorsed Mr Aoun. Allegedly, he declared: “We in the kingdom have not forgotten this man’s history”, particularly his opposition to the Saudi-devised Taif Accord that helped end the Lebanese civil war.

This came after one of Mr Aoun’s rivals, the head of the Lebanese Forces Party, Samir Geagea, revealed that in a meeting with Mr Hariri in Paris, the latter broached the idea of Mr Aoun as a consensus candidate. Mr Geagea disagreed with him, but the exchange only increased speculation that Mr Hariri was still considering ordering his bloc to vote for the general.

In reality, Mr Aoun’s chances appear more remote than many believe. To speak of a candidate is often a way of burning him, since such speculation mobilises opposition to a candidacy. Not surprisingly, many of the politicians who predicted an Aoun victory also happened to strongly oppose such an outcome.

Mr Aoun’s history is that of a man who has scored periodic political successes, but has never managed to cash them in for the one prize he most desires: the presidency.

In 1989, as army commander and head of the military government, he embarked on a so-called “war of liberation” against Syrian forces in Lebanon, attracting many Lebanese fed up with Syrian hegemony over their country. When the Taif Accord was negotiated, however, Mr Aoun rejected it, saying it did not specify a clear timetable for a Syrian withdrawal.

It didn’t, but what bothered Mr Aoun most was that Taif circumvented him, when his aim was to be named president. Within months he was caught up in a new conflict, this time with the Lebanese Forces, and the internecine Christian war doomed Mr Aoun’s chances of reaching office. In October 1990 he was ousted by the Syrians and fled into exile in France.

After Mr Aoun returned home in 2005, his presidential ambitions soared. He won a large share of the Christian vote in parliamentary elections, then allied himself with Hizbollah against the March 14 parliamentary majority, hoping this would improve his chances of succeeding President Emile Lahoud. In fact, all it did was alienate the majority he needed to win the vote, allowing Mr Suleiman to emerge as a compromise.

Time and again Mr Aoun wantonly took positions that he knew would anger Lebanon’s Sunnis. His alliance with Hizbollah was the primary beef against him. But it did not stop there. When the Syrian conflict began in 2011, the general openly sided with the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, which many Sunnis took as an affront.

Most damagingly, Mr Aoun publicly questioned the Taif Accord, which amended the Lebanese constitution and severely limited the president’s powers. The general sought to revise Taif and reverse this. The position was popular among Maronite Christians, from whom the president comes, but it alarmed Sunnis, who did not want to see a concomitant weakening of the council of ministers, headed by a Sunni Muslim.

The perception among Sunnis that Mr Aoun was hostile to their community meant that when the general moved closer to Mr Hariri months ago, many viewed this as rank opportunism. Here was Mr Aoun looking to build ties with a politician whose support he needed to become president.

In an effort to avoid being shot down as a candidate early on in the election process, Mr Aoun never officially declared his candidacy. Instead, he presented himself as a compromise figure, available when all other major candidates failed to win. This tactic worked for a time, but as the deadlock over the presidency persisted, Mr Aoun was dragged into the discussion, provoking divisiveness. His triumph became less likely.

Ultimately, to win, Mr Aoun needs Mr Hariri’s support. If Mr Al Faisal was quoted correctly, and if his comments reflected the official Saudi view, then Mr Hariri will not vote for Mr Aoun. But Mr Hariri does have a vested interest in maintaining good relations with the general in order to reduce his reliance on Hizbollah. Mr Aoun, too, benefits from such ties, so he can play Mr Hariri and Hizbollah off against each other.

If Mr Aoun has been ruled out, the lesson must be a bitter one for him. He is 80, and his chances of ever becoming president are just about nil. No matter what his convolutions, no one can ever fully trust a man who has played destructive politics the way he has. For the general, provoking conflicts was often a clever way of rallying his base. But it also created many enmities.

Almost two decades ago I visited Mr Aoun in his French exile. He struck me as a man shaped, alternatively, by mistrust, vindictiveness and isolation. These are hardly ideal qualities for a man who, as president, must embody Lebanon’s unity.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling

Published: May 21, 2014 04:00 AM

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