Mansour Raad is the pen name of an Arab journalist who recently left Beirut and has followed the Lebanese war closely. Joe Stork spoke with him in Europe in late November 1989.
Who is Gen. Aoun and what does his “war of liberation” represent?
Michel Aoun is a manifestation of a populist, anti-establishment, anti-warlords movement within the eastern Christian sector. He represents a new breed of officer — professional, educated lower middle-class people fed up with the old political and clerical establishment, such as those who negotiated the agreement in Ta’if. And fed up, too, with the rightist militias which have played a dominant, exploitative role economically and politically in the name of resistance to Syria. Whenever a deal surfaced that would include them, they were ready to sell out their slogans and join the caravan.
This grassroots protest movement developed into the angry and frustrated pro-Aoun movement. Until very recently someone like [Lebanese Forces leader] Samir Geagea was keeping a very neutral, silent position. Now he asserts he will fight with Aoun against Syria because he could see he was losing his political base to Aoun’s nationalist movement.
Is it nationalist or a movement to restore Maronite hegemony?
This is one of the most paradoxical features. Aoun presents himself as defending the integrity of Lebanon from Syrian domination. This goes against the logic of some of the Christian deputies and some of the Christian parties. Why all this fuss about Syrian threats, they say. After all, the Syrians are mainly in Muslim areas. Why wage a war for that? If the other side likes them, let them stay for 15 or 50 years, who cares?
So the pro-Ta’if argument among the Christians is one of accommodation with Syria as long as they preserve their own enclave. Aoun opposes this partitionist logic — otherwise he would become a warlord like any of the others. If he had said yes to the Ta’if agreement, he would certainly have gotten the biggest share of power in the eastern region. He would be the one who had delivered the region to the Ta’if agreement. Instead he chose to throw over the table. I’m not saying that this is the most rational thing to do, just that his logic is not separatist. On the contrary: It’s a simplistic, generally naive nationalist logic.
How did he emerge as Amin Gemayel’s choice?
He was threatening to take things into his own hands, and in the last 15 minutes of his term Gemayel signed the decree. Gemayel tried several times to remove him as chief of the army in 1987-1988. Aoun was very opposed to Gemayel in the last two or three years. In the summer of 1988, Aoun was the candidate of West Beirut. Magazines like al-Shira‘ were endorsing him as the “general of the solution.” He was the candidate of the Shi‘i officers of the Lebanese army.
Aoun is the son of a poor peasant. He was brought up in Harat Hurayk, a mixed Maronite-Shi‘i neighborhood in the southern suburbs. He has a lot of links with the Muslim officers. His problem is that he doesn’t have a double language. What he thinks, he says. He has nothing of the Levantine political culture. He is not aware of all the complexities of the regional system. He thinks of international relations in moral terms, which leads him to take all kinds of unreasonable steps.
Does he have a social base outside of the Christian areas?
In the Muslim areas, in the beginning, he had a lot of popularity. But because of the logic of the confrontation and because he’s a military man, he practiced this random shelling and bombardment. The people being shelled by the guns of Aoun naturally find it hard to support him. Yet when West Beirut was being shelled, for instance, people would say, “Our artillery men are much more accurate than the Syrians.” I would ask, what do you mean, our artillery men? They meant the Lebanese army under Aoun!
Aoun is popular also because the militias are very unpopular, in both east and west. This certainly does not absolve him from the failure to develop a political platform, to show he is as interested in power sharing and reform as in liberation. His adversaries present him as someone trying to reestablish Maronite hegemony. This is not the case, in my opinion, but he didn’t take convincing steps to disprove that and to develop a broader national consensus.
Does the Ta’if agreement provide for this?
The Ta’if agreement has two parts. The power sharing part is a reasonable reallocation based on the National Pact of 1943, shifting the center of gravity from the president toward the council of ministers and altering the Christian-Muslim distribution from 6-5 to a 50-50 system. It is a kind of federalization of the system: The council of ministers makes the major decisions by a two-thirds majority, which means that any major community can block a decision — Maronites, Shi‘a or Sunnis. No one has objected to this part, including Aoun.
The second part concerns the Syrians. Ta’if says only that two years following the implementation of all the political reforms, the Syrians would withdraw to the Bekaa Valley and to points in the mountain between the Bekaa and the coast. The future disposition of Syrian troops would then be discussed and agreed upon between the Syrian and Lebanese governments. The problem is that Ta’if does not even assert the principal of total withdrawal. And when will Syria and its Lebanese allies agree that all the reforms have been implemented and the two-year countdown should start?
Those who favor Ta’if argue that we should get what we can now. We are as eager as you to get Syria to withdraw, they are saying to Aoun, but we think that the best way is first to implement the reforms and reconstitute the state. Then we’ll be in a stronger position to ask the Syrians to withdraw.
What does the Ta’if agreement represent for Syria?
On the regional level it reflects Syria’s declining but still significant position in Lebanon, and a realignment in the Arab world. From 1980 to 1988, Syria was at the height of its regional influence, due to Egypt’s eclipse after Camp David and Iraq’s preoccupation with the war in the Persian Gulf. But Syria’s prominence did not have a very strong political or economic basis; as soon as Egypt and Iraq returned to the center stage of Arab politics, Syria’s weight declined. An early manifestation of this was the peace initiative by the PLO, which owed primarily to the intifada, but also to Syria’s new circumstances. A second sign was the creation of the new axis between Egypt, Iran, Jordan and Yemen — the Arab Cooperation Council — which formalized the important alliance that developed during the Gulf war and added to Syria’s sense of isolation and encirclement.
Syria’s only remaining card was Lebanon. In the summer of 1988, when [Lebanese] President Amin Gemayel’s term was nearing its end, Syria could have decided on a strategy of conciliation and backed a candidate acceptable to the key Lebanese factions who was also attuned to Syria’s needs. But because they were feeling threatened, they backed a candidate most reliable from the Syrian perspective but unacceptable to key Lebanese sectors. This led to the current crisis: The pro-Syrian elements could not command a majority, and so for the first time since independence Lebanon was without an elected president, beginning in September 1988. From then on Lebanon had two contending prime ministers — Salim al-Hoss, the formal, acting prime minister, and Michel Aoun, designated at literally the last minute by Gemayel as interim prime minister in charge of executive affairs pending the election of a president.
While Ta’if showed Syria’s relative decline, it also demonstrated its capacity to strike new alliances. From 1980-1988, for all practical purposes, the Arab community had left Lebanon in the hands of Syria. The Arab summit in Casablanca and the Arab tripartite committee were indications that the Arab states no longer considered Lebanon an exclusively Syrian domain.
But what happened at Ta’if involved more than Lebanon. Some Arab countries, mainly Saudi Arabia, were not enthusiastic about this new Iraq-Jordan-Egypt axis. To counterbalance it, they moved to realign with Syria, which translated into different versions of the Arab peace plan. The first version, in July 1989, was much more explicit on the issue of Lebanese sovereignty and Syrian withdrawal, and Syria rejected it. Two months later, a second version appeared, this one more favorable to Syria. It became the basis for convening the Lebanese parliament in Ta’if.
We should include in the regional factors Iraq’s revival of its old feud with Syria. Iraq contributed money and arms to the Lebanese Forces, the army units under Aoun, the PLO — whoever was willing to contest the Syrian presence in Lebanon. That only increased Syria’s determination to crush any such movement.
It seems that Ta’if has only postponed the confrontation.
Saudi Arabia perhaps could have played a more active role in trying to deal Aoun in by getting more concessions from the Syrians. Why not consider him at least as important as [Druze leader Walid] Jumblatt? Why make him the scapegoat? After all, if Ta’if was possible, it was because of Aoun. Otherwise Lebanon could have stayed in the Arab political freezer for five more years. It seems the Saudis thought they could broker a deal with the old political establishment. They relied on Syria to twist the arms of people like Jumblatt and [Amal leader Nabih] Berri, which Syria did. The problem was Aoun. Who could deliver Aoun? Not the US. Aoun was on very bad terms with the US. Washington considered Aoun a troublemaker; he didn’t go along with the red lines and the condominium approach — Israel to the south and Syria to the north — which has been the general basis of US policy since 1976. The Saudis tried the French. They even tried to buy him out. Tell us what’s his price, they said. All of them, including the Syrians, misunderstood the depth of the popular movement identifying with Aoun.
Aoun’s movement is very mixed politically. Part of it is generational, middle-aged and younger groups against the old establishment. Part of it is a class cleavage. Aoun was always treated very contemptuously by the establishment. From what family does he come? We don’t even know his father, and we will not receive him in our salons. For this traditional Lebanese Christian and Muslim bourgeoisie, he’s an employee who should be dismissed with a signature. This is somehow comparable to what happened with the Shi‘i community over the last 10 or 20 years. In the Christian area, because the upper and upper-middle classes are relatively larger, this challenge took longer to develop. It could develop along quasi-fascist lines. I’m not saying it’s a democratic movement.
Bashir Gemayel was tapping into this, too, wasn’t he?
Not really. Bashir was a bridge between the bourgeoisie and some of the popular classes. His lieutenants were from well-to-do families. There was a generational split, but not a class one. He recruited from the sub-proletariat, the very depoliticized. Aoun’s backing is much more in the popular classes in the classic sense — workers, professionals, teachers, students, clerks.
How do the other communities see the Ta’if agreement?
The paradox is that comparable elements on the western side were hoping that the agreement would help them reduce the role of their militias and reconstitute the state. While the east side militias were much more favorable to Ta’if, the west side militias saw in it a reduction of their role. Within the Shi‘i community, and the among Sunnis of course, there was a lot of disaffection toward the militias but no real alternative leadership. People like al-Hoss have no mobilized social base like Aoun. The drama in the opposition of Aoun and al-Hoss is that they share an orientation toward the state and reconstruction but they were forced by events to become adversaries. Both oppose the militias, both are hated by the militias. Both are non-traditional, honest, self-made types, backed by their own lower middle classes and educated professional groups. But because of the Syrian role, they were forced into unnatural alliances — Aoun with Geagea, al-Hoss with Berri and Jumblatt.
There is no structured alternative leadership on the west side. And the balance is different. There are three very significant groups there — the Shi‘a, the Druze, the Sunnis. On the east side, because of the predominant weight of the Maronites within the overall population, there’s essentially one sector.
The Shi‘a are now polarized between Amal and Hizballah. Partly this reflects their outside backers, Syria and Iran, but also the instability within the community itself and the tension between a civilian, professional type of leadership and a more religiously oriented leadership. It’s difficult in this context for a civilian, progressive Shi‘i alternative to appear. The progressive wings of the Shi‘a which were prominent in the late 1970s have been suppressed or marginalized by the two militias.
Among the Sunnis, even more than before, fragmentation prevails. They are geographically divided into three cities and two rural areas. In each of these they have been overwhelmed in terms of population and political power — by the Palestinians in Sidon, by the Shi‘a in West Beirut, by the Syrians and ‘Alawis in Tripoli.
And within each community some sectors have concrete interests in maintaining things as they are.
Over these years of war certain elements have built their political power and accumulated wealth on the perpetuation of the conflict. In the name of protecting different communities against external threats, they have extorted taxes and protection money, dabbled in all kinds of trafficking, set up their own economic investments, media outlets and quasi-administrations. They’ve built small, embryonic states. They know that in any reconstituted Lebanese state, their impact and their role will be much reduced, and they will be held accountable for many things they have done.
What reason is there to think that these vested interests can be overcome? Are we counting on regional developments to impose stability where internal dynamics don’t allow it?
We are counting on the conjunction of the two. All of the parties perceive that there is going to be a settlement pretty soon, that the regional and international systems are not going to tolerate the situation much longer. So we are now seeing attempts at redefining the terms and conditions for settlement. There is no longer any strong will in the population for continued confrontation. The only remaining potential energy for confrontation would be against the external actors — chiefly Israel and Syria.
The militias still possess considerable spoiling power.
Sure, they would like a settlement that would resemble the status quo. By settlement I mean a termination of the hot war in its most intensive aspect. This might be along the lines of the 1977 pause, for instance, that stopped the fighting but kept many of the forces in place. This is the worst possibility. Or it might be a real resolution of the conflict. Or some partial containment of the war, partial reconstitution of the state, partial withdrawal of foreign troops, but not a real resolution. Some aspects of the Lebanese conflict are linked with larger conflicts that wait to be settled, like the Palestinian-Syrian-Israeli triangle and also the tensions between Iran, Syria and Iraq.
The influence of the US on this conflict has become marginal, but Washington could play a stronger role in convincing Israel that a reconstituted Lebanese state would better serve its security interests than continuing to stir up internal strife through their auxiliary forces. The US could also back UNIFIL more seriously in the south. And certainly a US concept of the “peace process” more balanced in its Israeli-Palestinian and its Syrian-Israeli components would be helpful.
There is no longer a progressive front in Lebanon. Where are the forces in Lebanese society that will campaign for a more democratic and secular political system?
The problem is that now this potential group is divided, pro- and anti-Ta’if. But this debate will probably soon be outdated. It is now more and more clear that this agreement in its present form is not sufficient to settle the major issues. There have to be additions or supplements if it is going to work. The debate is going to move more toward this than to total acceptance or rejection. We might see the next months spent finding the version that would be acceptable to Syria through the persuasive efforts of the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia and the US, and acceptable to the east enclave through persuasion from other quarters, like France and the Vatican.
What can we expect from Elias Hrawi, the new president?
He’s less sophisticated than [assassinated president Rene] Mouwad, a little more impulsive. He never went to college. He’s a notable, an agro-businessman with interests in the Bekaa. For a time he was close to Bashir Gemayel; later he got on better terms with the Syrians. He’s a guy who takes advantage of each moment.
Now he’s in a very difficult position. If he moves militarily against Aoun, he loses politically, not only with the Christians but with most of the population. If he doesn’t, he looks weak and could become irrelevant very quickly. He’s not in good shape at the start. But under the new system, theoretically, the president is not as important as he used to be. The Lebanese might still come to some form of accommodation, with Hrawi or without him.