Across the Bay

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Sorcerers and Apprentices

Michael Young puts Aoun's victory in the wider Lebanese context with his usual clarity and insight. Required reading.

Two things in particular stood out for me. One was this comment:

If Aoun's victory did anything, it derailed Hariri's chances of becoming the next prime minister. He would have had to be so in order to oust Lahoud, but because Christians will stand by the president in the coming months (unless Aoun leads the overthrow), the idea is dead.
A possible by-product of Aoun's crowning is that he will accelerate the process of his desired entry into the presidency. There is little ambiguity in that he seeks to return to Baabda, and has pragmatically regarded his alliance with Lahoud as the ticket. However, Aoun did not anticipate quite so stunning a victory, and his ego and impatience - no trifles in the first place - may have been decisively tickled. Not only is the general presently the foremost presidential candidate, he may conclude that Lahoud is an obstacle better gotten rid of early. This may lead to hostility between the two men, one that might be prematurely settled by a UN report on the Hariri assassination that is critical of the president.

The "unless Aoun leads the overthrow" part is interesting. Indeed, I made a similar comment in response to a reader: "So, I think Lahoud's ouster has taken a set back. Unless... they can strike a deal with Aoun, agreeing to support him for president if he backs them on ousting Lahoud."

Reader/blogger Mustapha has just alerted me to these statements by Saad Hariri:

"If Gen. Aoun is genuine about change, if Gen. Aoun wants change, we need to change everything. We need to change a symbol of making Lebanon a police state, which is the most dangerous issue that Lebanon has faced."

Is this reaching out to Aoun for his backing to oust Lahoud? It's certainly possible. It should be noted that Jumblat is still sulking and trading punches with Aoun. So Hariri is donig this independently of Jumblat, another necessity that Michael pointed out. If this is indeed the case, and at this point it's too early to tell, then there are two other figures that need to be addressed: the Patriarch and Nabih Berri.

First, Berri. Does Hariri's reaching out to Aoun to see if he would back him in ousting Lahoud mean that Hariri has given up on Berri's return as Speaker? Michael thought that Berri is not likely to return to his post, and that was one of the casualties of Aoun's victory:

Lying in shambles, too, is the plan to extend Nabih Berri's mandate. In trying to build a coalition against Lahoud, Jumblatt and Hariri promised the Parliament speaker four more years. To go through with that project today would be disastrous for communal relations. Hariri would be wise to desist from provoking the Christians further, and only with great difficulty could he name a speaker from within his own movement. Since Hizbullah is still too controversial to do so in the face of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, the smart money is on the former speaker, Hussein al-Husseini.

That was the second thing that stood out for me in Michael's piece. If indeed this is how Hariri is thinking, that means he's setting himself apart from the incendiary tone of Jumblat on this issue. That's good until the latter calms down and accepts the fact that he miscalculated.

As for the Patriarch, it may be a different story. Michael writes:

One already discerns the prospective interplay within a new Christian triumvirate of Aoun, Lahoud and Sfeir. The Maronite patriarch, by mobilizing Christians against the 2000 law, was partly responsible for Aoun's victory. But he's also deeply worried about the general's sudden rebirth as principal communal representative. Aoun is no conciliator, and for Sfeir this can only damage Christian-Muslim relations. That's why the patriarch will side with Lahoud against Aoun if the two generals open fire on one another. His hope is that three years down the road, particularly after Samir Geagea is released from prison, alternative power centers will have emerged from within the Christian community.

That may be true. The question is, can Hariri, Aoun and the Patriarch manage to reach an agreement on Aoun and the presidency? Jumblat's ego may come in the way but he faces the following dilemma: what does he hate more, Lahoud or Aoun? Can he live with Lahoud till the latter finishes his extended term, and settle on a QS candidate (Nassib Lahoud or Butros Harb) or can he live with Aoun as president? That last question is relevant to all involved, actually. Will Hariri decide to ride Aoun's "reform" slogan and use it to continue the purge of the Syrian order, starting with Lahoud? All that remains to be seen.

The Patriarch however has more than a Aoun-Lahoud duke-out to worry about. Aoun's resounding victory over other potential presidential candidates (namely Nassib Lahoud, as Michael pointed out) should be of concern (especially with his alliance with the repugnant, but powerful, Murr). Who says he won't manage to do it again in 2007, even with Geagea out of jail? Won't that attempt at isolating him lead to more fireworks? Who knows.

There's also one more party left out of this equation: Hizbullah. Now that things didn't work out according to plan, and with Aoun holding a significant bloc in Parliament (and he's adamant about not having militias running around), where will Hizbullah stand on Lahoud. Under the Syrians, they had excellent ties with him, and he gave them cover, and they sided with him against Hariri all the time. Clearly things have changed now, but will they hold on to him just to prevent Aoun from reaching the presidency? Again, we'll have to wait and see, especially when the Hizbullah issue is next in line in implementing UNR 1559.

Harry Potter's got nothing on this!