Rallying Around the Renegade

by Heiko Wimmen | published August 27, 2007

For background on Lebanon’s political paralysis, see Jim Quilty, “Winter of Lebanon’s Discontents,” Middle East Report Online, January 26, 2007.

Back in the fall of 2006, student elections at the American University of Beirut produced an unexpected aesthetic: female campaigners for the predominantly Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of the ex-general Michel Aoun sporting button-sized portraits of bearded Hizballah leader Hasan Nasrallah on their stylish attire. “Hizballah stands for the unity and independence of Lebanon, just as we do,” went the party line, as reiterated by Laure, an activist business student clad in the movement’s trademark orange. “And imagine, the Shi‘a and us,” she mused, off-script and with a glance at her co-campaigners, covered head to toe in the black gowns of the staunchly Islamist party, but spiced up with bright orange ribbons for the occasion. “How many we will be.”

Just how many became clear soon enough, when Aoun joined Hizballah’s attempt to bring down the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora through public pressure later that year. While actual numbers are notoriously hard to come by,[1] the two main rallies held on December 1 and 10 clearly rivaled the demonstration that brought about the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon 18 months before. Followers of Aoun, who stand out in their blazing orange gear, accounted for an apparent third of the masses. Once again, predictions that Aoun’s alliance with the “Party of God” would dispel his support in the Christian community were proven wrong.

Return of the Renegade

Throughout his political career, Michel Aoun’s bold maneuvering, boisterous, often ranting discourse and utter disregard for the complex rules and false niceties of the Lebanese political scene have made him one of the most divisive figures therein. To his admirers, he is the strong leader who can rise above the fray of perennial internecine conflict, clear out a divided and despised political class bent on the pursuit of factional and personal interest, and achieve longed-for, but ever elusive national unity. Likewise, Aoun has earned himself the intense loathing (even by Lebanese standards) of the members of exactly this political class (and their followers). Rather than a champion of secularist nationalism, they consider Aoun to be an irresponsible rabble rouser who threatens to upset the delicate balance of sectarian power sharing, and his calls for reform and a shakeup of public institutions to be thinly veiled Bonapartism. Aoun’s loud populism is seen as not only gauche but also a challenge to the country’s Byzantine political game, whereby decisions and distributions of spoils are supposed to be worked out behind impenetrable smokescreens of lofty principles and diplomatic cant. For the Christian part of this political class, he is also an upstart trespassing on territory that is rightfully theirs. “To his supporters,” as one journalist sums it up, “he is a Lebanese Charles de Gaulle seeking to unite this fractious country and rebuild trust in its institutions. To his critics he is a divisive megalomaniac willing to stop at nothing to become president of Lebanon.”[2]

Another constant feature of Aoun’s volatile career is the persistence with which his popular support has bounced back every time his opponents have declared it spent. In 2005, after 15 years in exile, most observers and competitors considered the retired general, then 70, a figure of the past.[3] His announced intention to descend upon Lebanese politics like a “tsunami” was widely derided as being not only in bad taste (coming, as it did, only a few months after the disastrous tsunami in the Indian Ocean), but the delusion of an empire builder who had missed his moment. Already in the 1980s, Aoun’s assertive posture, in contrast to his physical stature, had led wags to give him the nickname “NapolAoun.”

The returned exile was taken lightly in the lead-up to the May-June 2005 parliamentary elections that followed the collapse of the pro-Syrian government and the departure of Syrian troops. In the absence of real political parties—most parties restrict their activities to organizing support for their powerful, sect-based leader and the field of candidates riding on his ticket—Lebanese election campaigns are typically dominated by complex bargaining over joined lists and alliances between these confessional chieftains. Expediency is often the only glue keeping such alliances stuck together, though often not far beyond election day. Within the bargaining, the number of “safe” slots offered to a potential ally on a joined list usually reflects his expected electoral strength, or the number of votes that he would be able to mobilize in support of the joined list. During the traditional bazaar in 2005, Aoun was offered a meager seven to eight seats at best in return for joining the unified opposition list. He refused, causing the first major rift in the broad “Syria out!” alliance.

Riding on the wave of mass gatherings peaking with the demonstration of March 14, 2005—the date which would provide the name for Lebanon’s current governing coalition—the alliance forged between Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, the son of the slain former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, Saad, and an array of anti-Syrian Christian politicians was confident of winning a parliamentary majority, or even the two thirds of parliamentary seats necessary to impeach President Emile Lahoud,[4] the most stubborn pupil of Syrian tutelage in the country. The March 14 forces even struck a deal with the Shi‘i parties Hizballah and Amal, who had just expressed their gratitude to Syria with a huge demonstration of their own, hoping that Shi‘i votes would tip the balance in enough districts to achieve the coveted two-thirds majority.

Reality intruded during the elections in Mount Lebanon on June 12, when Aoun’s slate of no-names trounced the united opposition list in the Christian heartlands, winning 21 seats and leaving the opposition with only a modest majority (72 out of 128) in the new parliament. To the surprise of everyone, it emerged that a significant majority of the Lebanon’s Christians, and a good percentage of those who had taken to the streets to fight for independence and a Syrian withdrawal only two months before, were actually supporters of Michel Aoun.[5] “Countrywide, Michel Aoun garnered around 42 percent of the Christian vote in 2005,” says Lebanese pollster Abdo Saad. “In some parts of the Christian mountains, that percentage would reach above 70.” Counting political allies in the north and the Bekaa Valley, some two thirds of Lebanon’s Christians were rallying under the orange banners of the renegade general.

Pulling the Lion’s Tail

One major reason for Aoun’s recurrent mass appeal doubtless lies in his long-standing anti-Syrian credentials. The military resistance he mounted in 1989-1990 to the Saudi-sponsored and US-approved Pax Syriana intended to tamp down the Lebanese civil war turned out to be a costly failure. Yet his warnings against welcoming Syrian involvement in the country were soon enough proven correct. Among Christians, in particular, resentment festered throughout the 1990s over the arbitrary and parasitic reign of the Syrian secret services and their Lebanese stooges. But after the disbanding of the Lebanese Forces, the strongest Christian militia-cum-party during the late 1980s, there were no political structures to organize and feed on this resentment. Aoun did not leave behind a party either when he fled the country, but he did inspire an amorphous movement of mainly young followers. Galvanized by his hyperbolic Lebanese nationalism and his bold confrontation with the feared Syrian regime and the loathed militias, these supporters (with many Muslims among them) eventually imagined the general as a national redeemer, and flocked to the presidential palace by the thousands in late 1989, in order to form a “human shield” against an expected Syrian attack.

After Aoun’s defeat, his backers returned to their universities, from whence they continued political action against the Syrian presence in impromptu networks. While sometimes quixotic or even chauvinist in character—as with their harassment of migrant Syrian workers and greengrocers—the Aounists won a reputation of standing tall in the face of the relentless repression of Syrian-controlled government forces and thugs. When the Pax Syriana started to crumble after Hafiz al-Asad’s death in 2000, their university-based networks already stretched into the fourth post-civil war cohort, while many of the activists who had congregated around the presidential palace in 1989 were now urban professionals, often working in communications and the media. Thus, when the time came for action in early 2005, the Aounists were able to field a uniquely effective crowd: experienced in spontaneous, decentralized political action under adverse conditions, media-savvy and endowed with a Westernized veneer that would capture the sympathy of an international audience. Says Khalil, an information technology engineer in his late twenties: “I got involved through friends from the university, who were on these electronic networks. Yes, we wanted to get rid of the Syrians—that was our goal, and back then, [the Internet] was the only place where you could say that. So that’s where I felt I belonged, and when word was spread that action was supposed to take place here or there, I would go. But I’d never think of becoming a member of a political party.”

While this anti-political, or rather, anti-Establishment, posture found among many Lebanese who grew up during the last years of the civil war resonates with Aoun’s hostile relationship with many Lebanese politicians, some 40,000 Lebanese—nearly 70 percent of them below the age of 30—have decided otherwise, and become card-carrying FPM members through a registration process initiated in late 2006, after the movement officially converted itself into a political party. “All these young people who took to the streets back in 2005 learned one very important thing,” says Sami Ofeish, a political scientist at the University of Balamand in the north of Lebanon. “Politics to them is no longer something that happens on a different planet. They had the experience that if they take action, they can actually make things happen. So one would expect that this generation would develop an attitude very different from that of the preceding years.”

“It was one of the most moving days of my life,” recalls Alain Aoun, the general’s nephew and one of the major party activists, over a cup of coffee in the trendy Christian neighborhood of Gemayzeh. “It showed that Lebanese can come together over an issue, and forget about religion and sects for the sake of the country. That was a very emotional experience.” Switching to the more recent demonstrations mobilized in alliance with Hizballah, his assessment turns significantly more sober: “These rallies prove that if you have leaders who make a conscious effort to find common ground, their followers will be able to meet, even if they have never talked before. Yes, we are very different, culturally, socially—but those are also people who live in this country. They are one third of the population, and we have to live with them. As long as difference causes offense, this country won’t get anywhere. So this also was a step ahead.”

Strange Bedfellows

Beyond such heady arguments in favor of a more inclusive society, one central motive for Aoun’s move toward Hizballah in early 2006 undoubtedly lay in the consistent attempts of the March 14 coalition to freeze the FPM out of the political process even after it emerged as the strongest player in the Christian camp. Just why an alliance that ostensibly saw Syrian influence as the paramount threat to Lebanese sovereignty made no serious effort to coopt such a staunchly anti-Syrian, Lebanese-nationalist partner, and instead formed a government including Hizballah and Amal, who made no secret of their continuing strategic partnership with Damascus, remains something of a mystery. While some may have entertained the optimistic (and, in hindsight, delusional) idea that involving Hizballah in government offered a chance of containing or even redirecting its resistance activity,[6] the difficulty of removing the remaining vestiges of Syrian influence while coopting Syrian allies soon became clear enough. No two-thirds majority materialized to impeach President Lahoud (despite the fact that the parties now making up the government controlled more than four fifths of Parliament), and when the majority pushed for the establishment of an international tribunal to try the assassins of Rafiq al-Hariri (presumably including people high up in the Syrian regime) in late 2005, the Shi‘i ministers responded with a six-week walkout prefiguring the current government crisis.

So what stood in the way of including Aoun instead, a move that would have provided the new government with the support of 93 MPs with no pro-Syrian leanings, well in excess of the desired two-thirds majority? For one thing, it was clear that the FPM would only support an impeachment motion against Lahoud if the name of the one and only candidate to replace the sitting president would be Michel Aoun—meaning that, rather than filling the position with a compliant nominee of their own, the majority would have had to deal with an independent player with significant popular support. “For all of their anti-Syrian rhetoric, Hariri and Jumblatt preferred to leave Asad’s man in the presidency rather than bow to the wishes of nearly three quarters of the Christian electorate and accept Aoun’s ascension,” concludes Gary Gambill, a seasoned Lebanon analyst with obvious sympathy for the general.[7]

But even without ascension to the presidency, assuming a key government portfolio would have finally allowed Aoun to rid himself of his greatest handicap: the image of erratic brinkmanship he acquired during the war and, in the minds of his opponents, retains (witness his alliance with Hizballah and formerly pro-Syrian politicians). Newly endowed with “stateman-ish” respectability and official leverage and commanding the majority of the Christian popular vote, Aoun would almost certainly have been able to erode the position of his opponents in the Christian camp even further.

Hostile Brothers in Faith

The long-standing mutual antipathy between Michel Aoun and the traditional Christian leadership may have been a key reason why the ruling coalition shunned the FPM. Many observers attribute this animosity to unsettled accounts, in particular between Aoun and the leader of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, the two of whom fought a devastating war in 1989. Both men and their followers, so the argument goes, are still fighting the battles of the past. Considering that in Lebanon not only political office but also political and party allegiance are often hereditary (even in supposedly ideological currents like the Communist Party), such hypotheses seem to make sense at first glance. But they still fail to explain how Aoun’s party was able to wrest such a significant amount of support away from the traditional Christian leadership, represented first and foremost by the Gemayel family, whose scions Bashir and Amin were both presidents of Lebanon. In the 2005 elections, Pierre Gemayel (assassinated in November 2006) scored only 29,412 votes on his family’s home turf, compared to 48,872 for the least successful Aounist candidate, and was only elected to Parliament because the FPM list left one Maronite slot free.

One reason may be the continuous decline of the traditional Christian leadership in the second half of the 1980s, after the assassination of Bashir Gemayel removed the one figure capable of maintaining the precarious alliance between Lebanon’s powerful Christian bourgeoisie (of all denominations) and the increasingly militant Christian lower middle class (mainly Maronite) by means of personal charisma. With his brother Amin increasingly sidelined by the ruthless militia-based leadership of Samir Geagea, and the political project of a Christian-dominated Lebanon under US and Israeli auspices falling apart, more and more Christians despaired of their future in the country. Large-scale displacement of Christians in the mid-1980s (wrought to a great extent by Geagea’s ill-conceived military adventures in the southern parts of Mount Lebanon) also meant that parochial means of mobilizing support would reach fewer and fewer people. The displaced, on the other hand, would either be hell-bent on revenge and join or support the militia, or would turn their resentment against a leadership that had failed them, and become susceptible to the discourses of national redemption that Aoun successfully projected.

“The FPM fared best where there was no locally based Christian leadership,” observes pollster Abdo Saad of the 2005 elections. “Political families like the Gemayels in Matn or the Franjiyyas in the northern province can still hold some ground since they traditionally represent the area. But where people vote for a political program rather than for a political tradition, the FPM swept the Christian constituencies with next to no resistance.”

Preliminary research into the social composition of the FPM and the Lebanese Forces also suggests that class is a defining difference between the groupings in the Christian camp, adding a dynamic to their frequent clashes. The French geographer and anthropologist Beltram Dumontier, who has conducted fieldwork in the Beirut suburb of ‘Ayn al-Rummana, describes the two groups this way: “Youths who do not pursue a university education will often be either unemployed or doing menial jobs. So their social networks, as well as their financial situation, are conducive to making hanging out in the streets of their quarters their main pastime and mode of socializing. And so they get involved in a very male subculture of street life, prone to violence, centered on the idea of ‘defending the quarter,’ and this is how the foot soldiers of the Lebanese Forces are recruited. On the contrary, those who do advance in the educational system spend most of their time away from the neighborhood. Their environment of political socialization is the university, where they meet people from other areas or communities on an equal footing, and where political action will tend to be around more complex issues. I have encountered more than one family where one brother was with the Aounists and the other with the Lebanese Forces, and always the political preference corresponded to education.”

Struggle for the State

The profile of a comparatively well-educated and upwardly mobile following, which hence shows a strong preference for meritocracy, sits well with the perennial spiel of the FPM: attacking corruption, and arguing for a strong and efficient state. In contrast to the authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Syria, the corruption and clientelism in Lebanon are actually results of a weak state. Power traditionally resides with an alliance of ruling families who divvy up the state and its prerogatives among one another according to the relative balance of power, and obtain loyalty by redistributing parts of the proceeds among their constituencies. Conventionally, this arrangement is of course described as a “national pact” between religious communities designed to enable coexistence and protect minorities from marginalization. But while Lebanese politicians are always concerned to be seen as vigilant guardians of communal interests, they typically have no problem joining ranks with representatives of other confessions to marginalize their co-religionists. Even long-time foes will suspend their differences as soon as any serious attempt is made to shore up the independence of the state, and join ranks to ward off any such challenge to the order of things. The system is also open to newcomers empowered by political and/or macro-economic change, for instance, Amal leader Nabih Berri, propelled into prominence by Syrian backing in the 1980s or Rafiq al-Hariri, elevated by petrodollars and Saudi patronage in the 1990s. Such newcomers may push out some of the traditional players, but are usually careful to preserve the rules of the game.

Politicians speaking about the national interest, the constitutional process or the integrity of institutions are rarely doing more than paying lip service, and are typically using these concepts as weapons in the eternal struggle for more influence and positions, which can then be used to twist the rules of the game even more in one’s favor, so as to dole out even more government favors to one’s followers. A classic example is the paving of roads in rural areas in election years, expected to translate into votes for the candidate whose “influence” in the capital supposedly enabled him to “secure” such services, and to discourage votes for less well-connected challengers. Politicians of this type are referred to as “asphalt MPs” in local vernacular, a play on the double meaning of the Arabic word for asphalt (zift), which also means “dirt” or “crap.”

“When my son left high school, there was an opening for some 200 recruits in General Security,” recalls a Sunni from Beirut. “We found out that some 70 would go to Sunnis. And to get one of those, you needed to go to Rafiq al-Hariri. It was as simple as that: Sunni jobs are distributed by the strongest Sunni leader. So we used a contact to a person very close to Hariri, and things worked out. After that, we all became his followers. Because if he doesn’t care for us, then nobody else will.” In Lebanon, everybody knows at least ten stories of this category, and while contempt for the politicians involved is universal, so is the urge not to be left behind in the scramble for the spoils. Yet Alain Aoun is determined that the rules of the games must be changed: “Until now, the logic is: I take office, so now it is my turn to steal and patronize my people. We need to break this cycle. A few honest guys on the top level can make a hell of a difference, and send a message down through the ranks.”

The most capable and honest guy to initiate this process, one infers, will be nobody but the general himself. Drawing on his personal history as a career officer who rose up from poverty due to diligence and integrity (Aoun famously had to skip a year of high school due to lack of funds and made up for it by squeezing the curriculum of two years into one), Michel Aoun is presented as an unlikely Hercules uniquely qualified to clean out the Augean stable of Lebanese politics.

That might be easier said than done, agrees his nephew, after weathering several cell phone calls from party affiliates trying to arrange for jobs at Orange TV, a new Arabic-language TV station set up by the FPM. “See, this guy who just called wants me to hire a girl who has a degree in theater and no experience in TV. I have no problem to arrange an interview for her, but that’s not what he expects from me. He doesn’t want me to give her a fair chance. He wants me to give her a job without any competition or check of her qualifications. To eradicate such a mentality will take a long time, but you have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is at the top of the pyramid. If the rulers are corrupt, and not even ashamed, then what do you expect from society?”

Often dismissed as sheer populism, the FPM’s call for imposing transparency and stamping out corruption and clientelism—however realistic an objective it may or may not be—thus threatens to disrupt the very system on which the power structure is built. With trademark exaggeration, Michel Aoun vowed to “confront political feudalism” upon his return from France in May 2005. While clearly a swipe at the likes of Walid Jumblatt (who happens to be the heir of a “real” feudal line), Saad al-Hariri and Amin Gemayel, such pronouncements cannot have been pleasing to any of the politicians who prefer the rules of the games as they are. As Gambill puts it: “FPM control of a major ministry is a red line for the [March 14] coalition mainly because Aoun would have absolutely nothing to lose by acting on his pledges to clean up government, even if his motives are completely self-serving.”

While potentially endangering vested interests, a program emphasizing transparency and meritocracy is likely to appeal to the educated middle classes forming the backbone of the FPM, whose life chances are hampered by systemic clientelism and sectarian red tape that often extends into the private sector. Barred from many attractive jobs for lack of connections, unable to initiate meaningful economic activity of their own for lack of capital and, again, lack of opportunities in an environment where many market segments are controlled by fat cats who easily squeeze out new competitors, they stand to gain from any change. Accordingly, the economic outlook of the FPM shows conservative or even neo-liberal leanings, with a high premium on encouraging free competition, world market integration and downsizing a state bureaucracy bloated by clientelism. “Aoun’s followers are those who lose out in the Lebanese clientelist system,” concludes Dumontier, “not those who are near the bottom of the social ladder. The latter need protection to get their very modest jobs and benefits, and wasta (connections) for them is a matter of survival. And not those on the top level, either—they are the ones who hold the keys, and more transparency would take away from their power. It is those who could do better for themselves if the system were to become more open and meritocratic.”

Sectarian Secularists

Still, and despite the secularist rhetoric wielded by Aoun and his lieutenants, one of the most important cards for the FPM among its predominantly Christian following appears to be the sense of being once again excluded in the post-civil war political order—only this time, and worse, not by the Syrians, who were, after all, outsiders and occupiers. This time the Aounists feel marginalized by other Lebanese and, still worse, by nobody less than their age-old nemesis, the Sunnis, manifest in the overbearing presence of the Hariri family and its political machinery, the Future Movement. Secularism as professed by the Aounists thus shows a tendency to turn into a sectarian discourse[8] directed mainly against a perceived Sunni takeover of state institutions, and prone to resurrect the eternal Christian fear of being “drowned” in a sea of more than 250 million Muslim Arabs surrounding Lebanon, the only country in the region to guarantee them full legal equality.

The “mother of all injustices” against Christians quoted by supporters of the FPM is the election law, drawn up in the year 2000 by the chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, the late Ghazi Kanaan, and applied again in 2005. Designed with the clear intention of minimizing the impact of the notoriously anti-Syrian Christian electorate, the Kanaan law “diluted” the Christian vote in many districts by combining Christian with significantly more populous Muslim areas.[9] As a result, only 18 out of 64 Christian MPs were elected in majority-Christian districts, while the remaining Christian MPs were practically elected by Muslims—Sunnis and hence Hariri in the north and Beirut, Shi‘a and hence Hizballah and Amal in the south, Druze and Shi‘a in the southern part of Mount Lebanon. There is irony in the fact that what was meant to further Syrian interest back in 2000—largely by favoring Hariri, who was then still a loyal supporter of the Pax Syriana—vastly skewed the results in favor of the anti-Syrian coalition in 2005.

Such irony, however, was completely lost on the majority of Christians represented by the FPM. From their perspective, the election of 2005 and its aftermath only continued their post-war decline, a process marked by Muslim-dominated governments with fig leaves of Christian participation. This impression was reinforced by the less than impressive performance of the Christian representatives in the Siniora government. Saudi money (the younger Hariri holds Saudi citizenship, and his business network is entwined with Saudi interests), it was induced, had replaced the tutelage of the Syrian secret services, with the blessing of the US, who would sign Lebanon over to a regional power it needed for greater designs, just as it did in 1990 when Syria was an indispensable part of the coalition to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. So pervasive became this impression that the Conference of Maronite Bishops felt compelled to issue a stern warning against an impending “Islamization” of Lebanon in late June, and Samir Geagea was quoted (and promptly denied) saying, “I don’t even talk to the Saudis. I talk to their masters, the Americans, and they talk to them on our behalf.”

From the perspective of Christians close to Aoun, however, talking to the Americans was pointless, for the Sunni ascendancy was seen as not at all accidental, but rather part of a strategic realignment that puts Sunni Arab regimes, and in particular Saudi Arabia, at the center of a pro-US alliance against purported radicals. “In the fall of 2005, Washington was facing a stark choice of what to support in Lebanon,” wrote Jean Aziz, who has since become the director of Orange TV. “It could choose either a pluralist, consensual system that may have set an example for the dialogue rather than the clash of civilizations, or a Sunni Muslim system with American leanings and pliant to American interests, a model for American presence in the region.”[10]

But then why turn to Hizballah, another party with a clearly Muslim character, and with a political agenda liable to embroil Lebanon deeper and further in regional struggles, something Lebanese Christians have always been loath to do? For Aoun’s detractors, the answer is simple and straightforward: Both Shi‘a and Christians are tiny minorities in a region dominated by Sunnis. In a system where sectarian considerations trump everything else, their alliance against a powerful Sunni-dominated regime now backed by Lebanon’s Sunni neighbors appears almost natural. With only 30-40 percent of the population, and with non-Arab Iran as its main sponsor, Lebanon’s Shi‘a have no hope of ever dominating the system, unlike the Sunnis, who draw economic and demographic strength from neighboring countries such as Egypt, Syria, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, all liable to be controlled by Islamists in the not too distant future. Additionally, Hizballah, with its disciplined fighting units, appears less scary in comparison to Sunni extremists such as Fatah al-Islam, who have been battling the Lebanese army for three months in the refugee camp of Nahr al-Barid, after allegedly being under the protection of the Hariri family—developments dwelt upon by media sympathetic to the FPM.

Alain Aoun does not deny his misgivings about the Sunnis throwing their weight around, but insists that the intentions behind the alliance with Hizballah go beyond sectarian zero-sum games: “One, this country needs to be governed in a very delicate way, and putting only one group in the driver’s seat is a sure recipe for disaster. Two, at the end of the day you need to sit down and talk out all these issues: Under which conditions would Hizballah give up these weapons? How are we supposed to deal with Syria and Israel? We have tried to do exactly that, and the memorandum of understanding that we signed with them contains some positive commitments from their side. Does anybody have a better idea? Does anybody seriously believe that by isolating and pressuring Hizballah, or even threatening them with force, you can make them give up their weapons and behave like a normal political party? I surely hope not.”


The narrow victory scored by Aoun’s candidate in the Matn by-election on August 5, 2007 showed the Christian community to be deeply divided, with both sides claiming moral victory. Judging by the numbers, support for the FPM was dented (40,000 votes, about one third less than the 2005 result), while support for the pro-government Christian camp went up (also by one third). Yet the virtually unknown FPM candidate entered the race in a clearly uphill battle: For one thing, he confronted no less a personage than Amin Gemayel, a former president and the head of one of the most influential Christian families in Lebanon, and on his home turf, giving his opponent ample opportunity to mobilize along parochial and tribal lines. Second, he was running against the father of the MP whose assassination made the by-election necessary in the first place, lending his bid an air of callousness, as many voters felt that the seat rightfully belonged to the family of the murdered man. Finally, the assassination was widely ascribed to remnants of the Syrian secret service network in Lebanon, and Aoun’s attempt to, as it were, reap political gain from the killing provided ample ammunition for portraying his movement as unwittingly or opportunistically paving the way for renewed Syrian influence in Lebanon.

“This is the most damaging accusation,” says pollster Abdo Saad. “The polls show that Aoun’s supporters have no problem with Hizballah as such. What they mind is Hizballah’s attachment to Syria. They have no problem with Aoun’s political decisions, but they take issue with his alliances with formerly pro-Syrian forces. My own wife, who is Christian, used to be all-out for Aoun, but now, the media campaign portraying him as pro-Syrian has succeeded to turn her against him.”

Yet the fact that, at the end of a long election day, Amin Gemayel was unable to capitalize upon these considerable advantages shows that the core support for the FPM remains resilient, and makes it appear unlikely that any force in the Christian camp will be able to challenge Michel Aoun’s position in the near future. For Lebanon, this appears to be a mixed blessing at best: On the one hand, a (most likely sizable) majority of the Christian community seems prepared to look for guarantees of their presence in a majority-Muslim country and an overwhelmingly Muslim region in the institutions of a secular state, rather than hanging on to the doubtful security offered by a ghetto of sectarian privilege. This is a momentous development, when one recalls the 1970s. Yet the party galvanizing such sentiment feels compelled to appeal, once again, to sentiments that all too obviously feed on longing for lost privilege and resentment of the arch-competitor for power in the state. Likewise, for the first time in their history, a (probably less sizable) majority of Christians is prepared to make common political cause with a mass movement following an explicitly Islamist political outlook. And yet it appears that prejudice and racism against Muslims, mixed with resentment deriving from class, have been transposed onto Sunnis and only muted toward Shi‘a, for the time being. Despite the remarkable politicization of young Lebanese that fueled the success of the FPM, the new party also remains a movement centered around a single leader, who is venerated to the verge of personality cult, with a notable tendency to establish a strong family presence in the top echelons, and again, despite a significant number of female activists, to exclude women nearly totally from the upper ranks.

Finally, the inconclusive test of forces between Amin Gemayel and Michel Aoun bodes ill for the already intractable conflict over the upcoming election of a new president—a post traditionally reserved for Maronite Christians—where both men are candidates. Without a compromise, the presidency, which also wields the high command of the armed forces, may be the next victim of the chain reaction of stalemate, disputed legitimacy and mutual boycott that has already paralyzed most of the political institutions in Lebanon. A further disintegration of the state now looks like a real possibility.


[1] Ever since mass demonstrations in Lebanon began, in the wake of ex-Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination in the spring of 2005, all sides have engaged in inflation of numbers to absurd proportions, without any serious regard to material facts, such as the actual surface area of the spots where people congregated. Interview with Lebanese pollster Abdo Saad, Beirut, June 2007. Saad is the director of the Beirut Center for Research and Information (http://www.beirutcenter.info, mainly in Arabic), which conducts frequent opinion polls on political issues.

[2] Hassan Fattah, “Lebanon Divided on Presidential Hopeful Michel Aoun,” International Herald Tribune, January 19, 2007.

[3] Such disregard finds its reflection in the lack of any serious research on the “Aoun phenomenon” thus far -- an omission that this article can only hope to start addressing. This article is based on a series of interviews with party officials and activists conducted in June 2007, in addition to party literature, encounters with activists since the spring of 2005, particularly during the mass demonstrations in December 2006, and preliminary results of a field study conducted in the spring of 2007 by the French geographer Beltram Dumontier in ‘Ayn al-Rummana (a predominantly Maronite Christian quarter of Beirut adjacent to the Hizballah strongholds of Shiyah and Harat Hurayk), which Dumontier generously shared with the author.

[4] It is a point of contention whether the Lebanese constitution actually allows Parliament to impeach a sitting president by any kind of majority. Since a two-thirds majority was not available anyway, attempts at exploring the legal dimension were soon abandoned.

[5] Again, there are no reliable figures as to what extent the Aounist movement contributed to this movement. If the huge turnout attending Aoun’s return from exile on May 7, 2005 is anything to go by, however, it appears safe to assume that the demonstrations in February and March would have looked significantly less impressive without their participation. March 14 is also the anniversary of Aoun’s abortive “war of liberation” (from Syria) launched in 1989 and annually celebrated by his followers.

[6] According to Hizballah, there has been more than one US offer to broker a deal that would trade Hizballah’s weapons for a significant improvement of Shi‘i representation in the political system. Interview with Hizballah expert Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, October 2006. Such ideas resurfaced in the wake of the 2006 war in the columns of government loyalists. See Michael Young, “Offer Reform for Hizballah’s Weapons,” Daily Star, September 28, 2006.

[7] Gary Gambill, “Lemons from Lemonade: Washington and Lebanon After the Syrian Withdrawal,” Mideast Monitor (June-July 2007). http://www.mideastmonitor.org/issues/0705/0705_1.htm.

[8] Such was also the case in the 1970s, when Lebanese Muslims argued for secularism in order to do away with the constitutional privileges accorded to Christians.

[9] The law provides for a first-past-the-post majority system differentiated by sect. For instance, one seat in the district Beirut-I was reserved for a Greek Orthodox Christian, so the Orthodox candidate with the most votes would win one seat, and all votes cast for other Orthodox candidates would have no impact on the composition of Parliament. As in most majority systems, gerrymandering has the potential to distort the popular vote, and has been a temptation for sitting presidents and governments ever since the foundation of Lebanon. Accordingly, each and every parliamentary election in Lebanon is preceded by heated debate about how electoral districts will be demarcated, with the decision typically taken only shortly before election day.

[10] Al-Akhbar, July 28, 2007.

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