Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and Lebanon’s new president, has done what many might have considered impossible until the moment it happened — gaining the acquiescence of Hezbollah to form a new Lebanese government with Saad Hariri as prime minister.
As this column noted last week, Hariri’s return as premier reverses a decline in his political fortunes. Hariri now has the chance to recast the Future Party and the March 14 movement with a perhaps less heavy Saudi hand, and, aspirationally, to form a government that will avoid factional paralysis and, finally, offer a vision and agenda responsive to the needs of the Lebanese people.
Hariri’s success will ultimately depend on Aoun. Although Hariri received 110 votes from Lebanon’s 127 parliamentarians Nov. 3, the vote only took place at all because Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, allowed it to happen. And Nasrallah agreed as a result of Aoun’s deft diplomacy. Despite Hezbollah’s opposition to Hariri, Nasrallah said on Nov. 4, the day after the vote, that he had made “possible facilities for his nomination.” He added, “We are not the negotiating side. Only [parliament] Speaker [Nabih] Berri is entitled to negotiate about forming the new government on our behalf.” Berri, who heads the Shiite Amal, had been a key holdout to the Aoun-Hariri deal but announced his support for Hariri’s bid after a meeting with Aoun on the day of the parliament’s vote on Hariri.
Ali Hashem reports that Aoun, in his speech to the parliament after taking the oath as president Oct. 31, set the tone for a new course in Lebanese politics: “For the first time in years, Aoun seemed cautious while reading his speech. It seemed clear that Aoun the president is not the same as Aoun the party leader, as he was keen to reassure different political factions and address their concerns. While he stressed the importance of political stability, Aoun said his country is currently sitting amid land mines and surrounded by the fires raging in the region. He said his priority is to prevent any sparks from those fires from spreading to Lebanon. Lebanon, he insisted, must stay out of regional conflicts and follow an independent foreign policy in accordance with its interests. Yet in the same speech, Aoun confirmed that Lebanon ‘will not spare any kind of resistance in the struggle with Israel to liberate occupied Lebanese territories’ and ‘will resort to pre-emptive deterrence in dealing with terrorist threats.’”
Hashem adds that “Lebanese Forces Party leader Samir Geagea, a longtime rival of Aoun who recently became an ally, saw the speech as 'promising.'”
Aoun of course does not have universal support, even among Lebanon’s Christian leaders. Sami Gemayel, the head of the Ketaeb (Phalange) Party, opposed Aoun’s deal with Hezbollah. Hashem writes that Gemayel’s opposition is shared by those who would seek to stem the influence of Hezbollah, and by extension Iran, in Lebanese politics. In an interview with Al-Monitor in December 2013, Gemayel blamed Hezbollah for bringing the war in Syria to Lebanon, adding that “if Lebanon was neutral, we had more chances of being spared than we have today.”
Aoun, while an ally of Hezbollah for more than a decade, is also recognized as a fierce Lebanese nationalist and patriot who battled Syrian occupation troops and was forced to flee to France in 1990, returning to Lebanon in 2005 as an ally of Hezbollah and key power broker in Lebanese politics.
In an interview with Al-Monitor in 2013, Aoun explained that Lebanon had been “paralyzed” by the Syria war. His approach as president will likely seek to prevent further spillover of the conflict to Lebanon. In his acceptance speech as president, Aoun said that any eventual solution to the war must include the resettlement of more than 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, whose population is only 4 million.
The test of Aoun’s political choreography will ultimately depend on actions rather than words. More than two years ago, this column described the early threads of a new Lebanese pulse based upon “a new social contract based upon national, not sectarian or factional priorities.” In April 2014, we observed that “the factionalization and fragmentation along political and religious lines may, finally, be blurring. The mere sensing by their respective bases that sudden alliances are being formed across this divide has caused people from each side to drop their old and bygone political slogans and try to find a middle ground. Lebanese citizens may be finding cause and uniting around a new agenda.”
A few months earlier, in February 2014, we had highlighted a plan by Aoun to assimilate Hezbollah’s forces into the Lebanese military as part of a broader regional choreography following a calming of the situation in Syria and a concurrent reduction of tensions on the Lebanese-Israeli border. “This deal could be picked up again,” we wrote, “at the right time, and might facilitate progress on development of energy reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, where cooperation is stymied in part because Lebanon and Israel do not have relations.”
It is only fitting that Lebanon could provide a spark for a new regional compact based on governance, accountability and independence. As we wrote in April 2014, “Lebanon may benefit from an immunity to the sectarian virus, as its own experience with such polarization has led to endemic disappointment with that same rhetoric and false hopes, and an approach to politics that has betrayed its own people and left them with the feeling of being abandoned and powerless in the shadow of agendas that are not theirs. That Lebanon could lead in this new social contract should not be a surprise. Lebanon did its time with its own bloody 15-year sectarian regional war, and still was able to recover and re-establish its cosmopolitan flair. There is a lot to build on. The failures and dashed expectations of the uprisings in Egypt and Syria, which quickly fell prey to regional and ideological agendas and violence, and Lebanon’s own tragic past, could make it an incubator for a new approach to governance that would allow Lebanon to realize its potential, rather than fall victim to the rhetoric and false promise of what was once known as the Arab Spring.”