A Parliamentary Seat As Harbinger Of Presidency?

By Joseph A. Kechichian, Special to Gulf News

Gulf News, United Arab Emirates
Aug 9 2007

The Michel Aoun 2005 political tsunami was downgraded to a hurricane
a few days before the August 5 by-election in the Metn District
of Lebanon.

After final results were posted on Monday morning, it was demoted to a
mere tropical storm and, while still very dangerous, eliminated Aoun
from the coveted presidency. How Lebanese leaders weighed the new
balance of power highlighted inevitable reassessments and probably
clarified the identity of the next head of state.

Because Aoun fought the wrong battle – fielding the candidacy of an
unknown physician, Camille Khoury, among a population that rejected
his alliance with Syria – he doomed his chances to win the support
of a majority of parliamentarians whose votes are required.

Maronites in particular rejected him in droves, as Khoury won with a
tiny majority of less than half a per cent, due to a combination of
the Murr/Tashnag machine that stands accused of ballot stuffing.

In a comic twist, citizens naturalised by then interior minister,
Michel Murr, were bussed in from Syria, believing they would vote for
Hassan Nasrallah, before being reminded that he was not a candidate.

Aoun now faces at least two major dilemmas.

First, sophisticated Hezbollah leaders will contend that Aoun is
no longer the overwhelming Maronite politician and, consequently,
will wait for the first opportunity to sever their relations with a
blemished candidate.

What Nasrallah ultimately wants is power and he knows that it will only
come through effective alliances not by association with a depleted
front. For Hezbollah, Aoun is no longer capable of delivering, now
that the old canard that the former military strongman speaks for a
majority of Maronites/Christians is no longer true.

Second, mature Hezbollah officials are more likely to seek a
rapprochement with Sa’ad Hariri and his Mustaqbal Party (as well as
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora), to agree on a compromise candidate.

Remarkably, Nasrallah recently emphasised the need to fully
implement the Ta’if Accord, and to decentralise the administration of
government. Indeed, the bloodied Ta’if Accord and the 1943 National
Compact, are legitimate agreements accepted by most.

Moreover, the quest for decentralisation is a goal espoused by the
Siniora government, to redress grievances throughout the country’s
outer provinces. Parallel to these meetings, few should be surprised to
hear that Nasrallah and former president Ameen Gemayel met yet again,
to further coordinate their respective agendas.

This will be their third meeting in a year, at a time when few
non-Shiite Lebanese, including Aoun, undertook such contacts.

If Aoun faces specific challenges so do two main losers: the Maronite
hierarchy and the Armenian Tashnag Party.

Because Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir wished to bring the two Maronite
contenders under his wing, and because he failed to broker a working
accord, Bkerke is probably far weaker today than anyone in Lebanon


In the past, Church leaders managed to force consensus but Sfeir
no longer has that capability, especially as secular factions gain
ground. In fact, a third of Maronites in the Metn stood with Aoun
because they sincerely believed that their candidate was independent
of the religious hierarchy.

Equally important is the utter confusion expressed by the Tashnag
Party, even if Aoun referred to himself as "Michel Nasrallahian".

Aside the accolade, Armenians who voted the Tashnag Party preference
did so out of revenge against the late Rafik Hariri who, allegedly,
divided them in the 2000 elections. Even if that were true, post-2005
Lebanon is a different country, so Armenians can ill afford to side
against their historical position: with the "state".

Aoun thus won on the basis of an Armenian vote that, though with the
opposition in 2007, may switch back to the majority in the upcoming
2009 parliamentary plebiscite. How Tashnag leaders extract themselves
from the Syrian-backed resistance is now their challenge.

Given these new realities, the only remaining source of legitimacy is
the army, and that is why few should be surprised if its commander,
General Michel Sulayman is elected the next president of Lebanon.

Ironically, he will probably receive an overwhelming majority of
votes, including the explicit support of Hezbollah. Unlike Aoun,
who was and remains a polarising figure more comfortable at divisions
than alliance building, General Sulayman reunited the military.

Unlike Aoun, General Sulayman has the support of Christians and
Muslims and is, therefore, a unifier, which is precisely what Lebanon
craves for.

While the Aoun tsunami withered at the proverbial vine, and because
everyone wishes for a departure from the status quo, both opposition
and majority groups will be inclined to diligently work on a
nationalist compromise figure.

Since the time is not ripe to change complex election rules, and
because no Lebanese will dare question the loyalty of the military
– especially after Nahr Al Bared – the groundwork for the upcoming
presidential elections is now firmly set.

This means forming alliances, drafting accords and agreeing on detailed
plans to tackle the nations two pressing challenges: security and
the economy.

In politics, timing is everything, and one should not miss too many
opportunities if one is ambitious. Last Sunday, Aoun missed his,
while Sulayman probably sealed a six-year mandate.

Dr. Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books
on Gulf affairs.