Aoun’s Change & Reform: Back to the Future Joseph Hitti/October 31/2022
When Michel Aoun was the rebel against the corrupt political establishment, those with progressive ideas stood firmly behind him. He was from the lower Christian middle class of Lebanon, and not from the traditional feudal families. He came into politics because of his army background.
We once asked Michel Aoun over a conference call from the United States to Paris what were his political plans after the end of the Syrian occupation. Did he have a program? Does he have an outlook on what to do with a failed political system? At the time, our fight was exclusively against the Syrian occupation and its proxies in the Lebanese political establishment. We wanted Aoun to return from exile and “do something” for the future. Aoun’s response was that he wasn’t going to do politics after the end of the Syrian occupation; he was going to be more of a statesman, a leader above the fray of petty politics; Now that “liberation” (ta7reer, تحرير) was over, he was going to lead the Lebanese into “self-emancipation” (ta7arror, تحرّر).
In all his writings, interviews, and conversations during his exile, Aoun displayed a progressive forward-looking outlook that was couched in international law and the norms of international relations between countries. He often referred to United Nations charters and conventions. He was addressing himself exclusively to the West – France, the United States, etc.). He never used China or the Soviet Union or Iran as his references for how things should be in Lebanon. He was a harsh critic of the Syrian regime’s abject human rights record and poked the conscience of Western powers on how they acquiesced to placing Lebanon under the tutelage of the tyrannical Syrian regime. He made comments expressing his sympathy for Israeli citizens being killed by Palestinian suicide bombers. He referred to Etienne Sacre, aka Abu Arz, as “one of us”, when Abu Arz had engaged directly with the Israelis and fled to Israel after Hezbollah took over the south from the Israeli occupation. Check Aoun’s 2002 interview with the MTV television station [ https://lebanoniznogood.blogspot.com/2022/07/aouns-legacy-unprincipled-greed-for_11.html ]. He rejected Hezbollah’s denial of the right of Israel to exist. He lobbied Zionist members of the US congress against the Syrian occupation and sponsored the 2003 Syria Accountability Act in the US Congress.
Then in comes Gebran Bassil circa the fall of 2005. I met him at a hotel in Washington DC when he accompanied Michel Aoun for the first time on a trip to the US during which Aoun stopped in Washington and Boston. After umpteen rejections despite invitations from Congress, Aoun was finally given a visa by the US State Department immediately after September 11, 2001, and that was in October 2001 when Aoun made his first trip to the US. But it was only in the fall of 2005 that Bassil walked in with Aoun to the Washington DC hotel room where we were waiting. Bassil gave us the impression of being a bazaar merchant with a braggart yet sneaky disposition. For us Lebanese Americans who had learned to play by our host country’s rules, Bassil did not inspire trust. He struck us as a traditional Lebanese wheeling-dealing political wannabe whose discourse was vindictive and angry and unlikely to make US political stakeholders sympathetic to his cause. Bassil was not like Aoun. He was more like typical Lebanese politicians: mercurial, uncommitted, argumentative, and rejecting dialogue. To those of us Lebanese Americans who had placed their every hope in Aoun’s forward-looking, almost pacifist, approach, we cringed at Bassil’s sudden eruption into the Aoun circle. And that is when things began to change.
By November 2005 when Aoun came to DC and Boston – after the February 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri and the eviction of the Syrian occupation forces – we began hearing complaints from Aoun’s domestic circles about our standard criticism of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah in our communications with the US media. Then the bomb dropped with the announcement of the February 2006 Memorandum of Understanding between Aoun’s Tayyar (Free Patriotic Movement, FPM) and Hezbollah, a seismic shock at what was counter to everything we had stood for during more than 15 years. The Aoun movement began splintering: On one hand, those who endorsed the new love affair with their erstwhile enemy began proffering the idiotic argument that fundamentalist Shiites were better than fundamentalist Sunnis, or the more realistic argument that because the Americans had contributed to Lebanon’s miseries, we ought therefore to turn against them. On the other hand, there were those who couldn’t fathom such a switch because it undermined everything we had stood for for decades. We tried to rationalize it as a tactical, not a strategic move, and initially we went along cautiously but unconvinced.
By early summer in June 2006, things came to a head. We started receiving threats from Beirut, specifically from the Expatriate Committee of the FPM. We were ordered to stop criticizing Syria and Hezbollah. In retrospect, we now realize these were Bassil’s orders. We countered that, as American citizens, we couldn’t even be members of foreign political parties, and morally we couldn’t be part of an alliance with a terrorist organization that was second to Al-Qaeda in the numbers of Americans it killed. We argued for more freedom of action, for coordination rather than obedience, for a smarter way of doing things than frontal confrontation… But Bassil’s FPM was no longer Aoun’s FPM. Between February and June 2006, many of the early Aoun supporters had announced their divorce from the FPM. Within a couple of weeks, Aoun’s former enemy and new ally, Hezbollah, triggered the devastating July 2006 war with Israel.
Over the next few years, Aoun’s political discourse and conduct evolved into the complete opposite of everything he had said and done during his tenure as the head of the transitional government (1988-1990) and during his exile (1991-2005): An apologetic rapprochement with Syria and Iran, an advocate of Hezbollah’s so-called resistance, acute enmity towards the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, etc. What was bad became good and vice-versa. For example, the occupation by Israel of the Shebaa Farms, which Aoun had labeled as a lie prior to 2005, became an accepted fact justifying Hezbollah’s continued “resistance” even after the 2000 Israeli withdrawal from the border strip. The patriotic heroes of the border strip who had fought to maintain a Lebanese legitimacy over the south became vile traitors dealing with the “enemy”.
Domestically, it became clear that Aoun and Bassil’s plans for the FPM were less about reforming the Lebanese political system than about seeking revenge against the Sunnis who had waged the 1975-1990 war against the Lebanese State using the Palestinian guerillas as their militia. The Sunnis had allied themselves with the Syrian regime to kick Michel Aoun out of Baabda, and thus emerged as the grand victors through the Taef Agreement. The Sunni Prime Minister now held the constitutional authority that the Christian President, now a figurehead, formerly had. The ascendancy of the Sunnis was exemplified by the rise of Rafik Hariri who became “Mr. Lebanon”, a larger-than-life politician with money and the backing of Saudi Arabia and the West.
The objective of the “Change and Reform” parliamentary bloc of Bassil and Aoun was not what many had hoped. Many enlightened Lebanese believed it was time to lead Lebanon into the future with new ideas, establish new secular foundations on which to improve the decaying political system. Whereas the Aoun movement was initially all about secularizing the political system and pushing religion to the background, Aoun and Bassil became “defenders” of Christian rights. Whereas Aoun had many times stated that there are no “minority rights”, only universal “human rights”, he now advocated protecting Middle East Christians against the radical “Daeshi” Sunni Muslim assault, as if his subservience to the diktats of the radical Hezbollah Shiite Muslim assault was non-existent. What initially appeared to be mere tactical moves became an avowed Dhimmi enslavement to any fanatic Muslim that could help against the other fanatic Muslim in order to make gains for a fanatic Christian fringe. By this time, we came to terms with the fact that the objective of Aoun, led on a leash by Bassil, was to take Lebanon back to the 1970s and 1980s, avenge his humiliating defeat, and restore some useless pathetic powers that the Christians had lost. In other words, “Change and Reform Backwards”, an oxymoronic idiocy typical of the primitive mindset of Lebanese mountain peasants, Christian and Muslim alike, and not much different from Aoun’s own Christian enemy brothers like the Phalangists or the Lebanese Forces.
The abysmally “creative” tactic of the Aoun-Bassil tandem in the face of the chronic obstructions by the Sunnis of all Maronite administrations since independence was to return the favor as is, regardless of its potential disastrous consequences. Their sole focus became to obstruct all Sunni Prime Ministers’ administrations, using the same sponsors that the Sunnis had use against Aoun: Syria and Hezbollah. As we see today, the Aoun-Bassil marching order is obstructing the election of a new president in 2016, and now again in 2022, obstructing the formation of a new government, obstructing the investigation into the Beirut harbor explosion, obstructing the appointment of new judges, turning a blind eye to Syria’s smuggling rape across the border, etc., all of it without any sublime objective. Bassil is all about blind revenge and has no serious proposal to put on the table to evolve the sclerotic political system.
In conclusion, it may well be that Aoun and Bassil deliberately want to dismantle the entire structure of the Lebanese State in order to rebuild it from scratch. A lofty goal perhaps, but if true, why not say out loud what their ulterior objective is? Is it separation from the Muslims in the form of partition or a federal system? Aoun and Bassil believe one of two things: Either the present system is fine and all they want is to restore the preeminence of the Maronite Christians, which is only tenable if you include a military defeat of the Muslims; or they want to overhaul the system but have yet to make any concrete proposal. The primeval lord in Bkerki naively thinks that the system is fine as long as we declare its neutrality, as if the Muslims will accept neutrality (there is not one neutral Muslim country around the globe), and if the Muslims do accept neutrality, what guarantees are there that they won’t recant later? The real question is how can the Christians of Lebanon continue to believe as sustainable the fact that 35% of the population (i.e. the Christians) are entitled to 50% of all posts in the administration, in addition to the posts of President, Central Bank Governor, Army Chief, and Chief Judge on the High Judicial Council among others, when they know that the Muslims had already rejected a 50-50 division when the Christians were still 50% of the population?
With Aoun on his way out, both politically and biologically, we are left to wonder if Bassil has any idea what to do after Aoun is gone. Bassil has surfed very easily on his father-in-law’s coattails; Aoun insisted several times on appointing Bassil to a ministerial post in the government when the latter had repeatedly lost in the elections, contradicting Aoun’s own pounding his fist on the table at the 2002-2003 founding of the FPM in Paris and yelling at all present that “only those who prove themselves in elections can become party cadres or ministers”. It’s a sorry sight to see that what promised to be a game-changer in Lebanese politics, especially among the Christian community, has turned out to be yet another political family farm like all the others, with cronyism, leader worship, promiscuity with violence, corruption, and all the rest of this archaic feudal system in which Lebanon claims to couch its pseudo-democracy.