Michel Aoun's supporters revere him as a reforming hero, the only man able to repair a nation's woes - and he agrees. Elias Muhanna reports
Bring it Aoun
Michel Aoun's supporters revere him as a reforming hero, the only man able to repair a nation's woes - and he agrees. Elias Muhanna on the overlooked core of Lebanon's opposition. When General Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), took to the stage at a campaign rally in south Beirut two Saturdays ago, a sea of citrus-coloured flags - the orange banners of his own party alongside the yellow standards of Hizbollah - churned before him. The choice of venue was strategic and symbolic. One kilometre to the west lay Haret Hreik, the mixed Christian and Shiite neighbourhood where Aoun was born in 1935. A kilometre to the east, perched in the foothills above Beirut, sat the presidential palace, the scene of his defeat at the hands of the Syrian Army during the civil war. And lying just to the south was al Dahiya, the epicentre of Hizbollah's military resistance, much of which was bombed to rubble by the Israeli Air Force in the summer of 2006. The bespectacled general glared out over the lectern into the falling dusk. "Why do they reject the Third Republic?" he bellowed, referring to his rivals and invoking his party's ambitiously- titled electoral platform. "Is the strengthening of democracy and the creation of a secular state that safeguards equal rights for all of its citizens the reason for their rejection?" Like his electoral ally Hassan Nasrallah, Michel Aoun is a deeply polarising figure in Lebanon. A Christian general who led the Lebanese Army against various adversaries during the civil war - including the PLO, Lebanese Christian militias and the Syrian Army - he has, since 2005, locked horns repeatedly with the March 14 coalition, an alliance of several parties backed by the United States that holds a slim majority in parliament. Now Aoun - whose career in politics stretches from his days as the leader of the resistance to Syria's occupation of Lebanon to his rapprochement with Damascus two decades later - is at the helm of an opposition campaign that vows to replace the corrupt structures of a troubled republic with a new order. To his supporters, Aoun is a larger-than-life figure who has come to lead Lebanon's Christians - weak and divided since the end of the civil war - back to their former prominence, and to set the country on a path to national reconciliation and economic sustainability. To his detractors, "Napolaoun" is a power-obsessed megalomaniac who will do anything - even join forces with his former arch-nemesis Syria and its Lebanese allies - in order to fight his way to the top of Lebanon's political hierarchy. If the opposition prevails on June 7, headlines around the world will read "HIZBOLLAH WINS" even though the Shiite party is likely to hold no more seats in parliament than the dozen or so that it occupies today. It will, in fact, be the gains of the Free Patriotic Movement - and the affiliated parties of its Change and Reform Bloc - that will push the opposition into the majority, giving Aoun and his allies control of the largest block of seats in parliament. Analysts and commentators have produced millions of words in an attempt to understand Hizbollah and its intentions, but Aoun and his movement have been overlooked. The FPM touts its ambitious and sweeping reform agenda, but the party - which sent representatives to parliament for the first time in 2005 - has only a brief track record in government and a leader renowned for his mercurial behaviour. Predicting the country's course after the election is impossible, but it is clear that Michel Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement are poised to play a major role - one that will test the party's sincerity and determination to reform what it regards as a weak and ineffectual state.
At noon on a weekday in May, Alain Aoun's campaign offices are bustling. Volunteers talk on cell phones as they weave briskly between rooms, handing out press materials and schedules. Along one wall is a swath of campaign posters displaying the faces of the Change and Reform candidates for the mixed-constituency district of Baabda, a narrow strip extending from the coast just south of Beirut into the surrounding hills, where the 37-year-old Aoun, a nephew of the general, is running for a parliamentary seat. A telecommunications engineer by training, the candidate - who bears a strong resemblance to his uncle but projects a rather more circumspect and bookish air - sits at a large table in a makeshift conference room with exposed rafters and loose wiring. Covering a wall behind him is an enormous map of Baabda with colour-coded annotations scribbled alongside the names of towns and villages, corresponding to some kind of campaign strategy. He squints at his own handwriting in a leather-bound agenda, scanning his appointment schedule for the rest of the week: meetings at municipalities and the homes of local families, after-church coffee hours, press conferences, campaign rallies in the larger towns of the district, and more. "The strategy is basically to see as many people as possible," says Alain. "We're constantly moving." Four years ago, March 14 won this district with the help of an electoral law that joined it with a neighbouring region under the political sway of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. The law, in an ironic twist, had been drafted for the 2000 elections by Ghazi Kanaan, Syria's chief intelligence officer in Lebanon, with the primary aim of ensuring the rise of yet another puppet government subservient to Damascus. Still in place in 2005, it helped return some of the very same players to power, albeit on the back of a strongly anti-Syrian platform, due to the public outcry against the murder of Rafik Hariri. One of the principal features of the "Ghazi Kanaan Law", as it has disparagingly been dubbed by the Aounists, was the drawing of districts in such a way that would marginalise the effect of the Christian vote, with the intention of curtailing the largely Christian resistance to the Syrian occupation. Since then, the passage of a new electoral law with smaller, more confessionally homogeneous districts has changed the dynamics of the competition in places like Baabda, leading the FPM to believe that it can sweep the district's six seats. "The numbers look very good," says Alain, speaking in measured yet confident tones. "We chose our candidates on the basis of extensive polling, so we feel that the results will be positive." When I suggest that the outcome of Baabda's election could be decisive in determining the national majority - 65 seats out of a 128-seat parliament - Alain demurs: "Our numbers put us in a very good position across the country, not just in Baabda. I think the FPM and our allies in Change and Reform will win around thirty-five to forty seats, if not more. In that case, we'll be the biggest bloc in parliament." Both the majority and the opposition are looking to these elections as an opportunity to secure a clear mandate after the political morass of the past four years, characterised by war, instability, and paralysis at the highest levels of government. The FPM's campaign has taken "change" as its mantra, depicting March 14 and its vaunted "Cedar Revolution" of 2005 as so much window dressing on the same old class of politicians who previously collaborated with (and profited from) the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. Michel Aoun and his allies blame this political establishment for the state's massive public debt, the rampant corruption and inefficiency, and the lack of a clear plan to resolve Lebanon's many systemic problems, while presenting themselves - the perennial outsiders of Lebanese politics - as the only party truly committed to challenging the status quo. "Our goal is to overhaul the entire system," says Alain Aoun. "Because we've never been in power, we don't have this built-in sense of which reforms are politically correct and which are supposedly off limits. We're going to move forward with our programme, no matter what." He pauses, fixes me with a serious stare, and adds: "Like a bulldozer." The FPM programme gestures less towards an incremental approach for reforming the existing power structure than towards a replacement of the foundations upon which the state apparatus rests - hence the grand title, "The Third Republic". Lebanon's Second Republic was established after the end of the civil war, and its founding document - the Ta'if Accord - maintained the sectarian nature of the political system while simultaneously calling for the eventual elimination of political sectarianism through the creation of a senate and the adoption of a non-confessional electoral law. None of these reforms have ever been pursued, and the system of patronage politics and the concomitant corruption and mismanagement that it facilitated in virtually every government sector - from the public school system to the electricity authority to the judicial branch - have persisted until the present day. This despite the fact that addressing the problem of political sectarianism is a sentiment widespread among Lebanese of every confession and ideological persuasion. "Something drastic has to be done," says Alain Aoun, "and we are the people who will do it." While the FPM is not the only party to have released an electoral platform (just as it is not the only party calling for the separation of religion from politics), it has led the way in the effort to make this an election of issues, rather than a one-dimensional referendum on Lebanon's sovereignty and its independence from Syria, as was the case in 2005. This effort has succeeded in certain respects, as attested by the proliferation of other party platforms, elaborated with varying degrees of detail and polish. Between 1990 and 2005, when elections were formalities rigged by Syria and boycotted or ignored by most of the electorate, political platforms were largely nonexistent. But the end of the Syrian occupation in April 2005 opened a void in Lebanese politics, forcing political parties into a competition to advance their own distinct visions for the future of their state. Practically overnight, it seems, elections suddenly matter, and the Lebanese have embraced the trappings of Western-style campaigning - relentless polling, sophisticated messaging and televised rallies - with such vigour and fluency that it is easy to forget that this is largely uncharted territory.
While the traditional bases of Lebanon's Sunni and Shiite parties remain secure, the fight for the Christian swing vote has been particularly intense, creative, and expensive. Roadways within the Christian areas of the country have been positively blanketed with billboards, becoming the stage upon which a provocative and witty discourse of messaging has played out. The FPM campaign has relentlessly assailed the stewardship of the present government, pushing a one-note message of change, while March 14's campaign advertisements have sought to depict an opposition victory as utterly catastrophic for Lebanon, with billboards showing destroyed buildings, tattered flags and ominous warnings of the ruin that will be brought down upon the heads of the Lebanese should Hizbollah and the FPM prevail. Despite the attempts of both coalitions to project a nationalist and multiconfessional image, there is no mistaking the efforts to exploit old sources of sectarian, tribal and clan loyalties in order to court votes, especially among Christians. At the end of the day, the 2009 elections will, in a way, test the persistence of these loyalties, as partnerships are struck between the unlikeliest of allies and unfamiliar ideologies are tried on for size.
No alliance of the post-Syrian era has been more surprising than the pact between the reform-minded Christian secularists of the FPM and the conservative Shiite Islamists of Hizbollah. On February 6, 2006, the two parties held a joint press conference in which they announced the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding. The document, developed over a period of several months by senior officials from both sides, outlined a common vision on 10 issues, including electoral reform, Lebanese-Palestinian relations and the matter of Hezbollah's weapons. The press conference - held for symbolic reasons at a church near the old wartime border between East and West Beirut - was reportedly the first time that Michel Aoun and Hassan Nasrallah had ever met in person. The announcement stunned the country. Many young FPM partisans, as well as members of leftist parties and opponents of political sectarianism, considered it a courageous step by two parties eager to put a long history of antagonism behind them. For others - including many FPM supporters who were already uneasy with their party's opposition to the burgeoning March 14 movement - the memorandum with Hizbollah was a step too far. Joining forces with a party long regarded as a proxy of Syria and Iran and dismissively labelled a "terrorist organisation" by Aoun as recently as 2003, proved too much for some to stomach. In the words of one disillusioned supporter - a relative of mine - the decision was "incomprehensible". "When Aoun returned in 2005, we were ecstatic," he said. "We gave him all of our support. Now look what he's gone and done." It was indeed an astonishing turn for a movement established as the vanguard of Christian resistance against the Syrian domination of Lebanon, and for Michel Aoun himself - a primary symbol and champion of this resistance - who had carried his war against Syria from the streets of Beirut to the halls of the US Congress. Born to working class parents nine years after the establishment of the Lebanese Republic, Aoun joined the Lebanese army in the mid-1950s and rose up through the ranks to become its youngest commander-in-chief at the age of 49. During the waning years of the civil war, Aoun was appointed prime minister of a military government by the outgoing president, Amin Gemayel, a move that was challenged by the Syrian-backed prime minister, Salim al Hoss. As the conflict deepened, Aoun declared a "war of liberation" against the Syrian army, and the two sides waged destructive artillery battles in Beirut for several months. In October 1990, Aoun's fight against the Syrian military occupation ended in defeat and exile. Under siege in the presidential palace on the morning of October 13, he reportedly made his decision to surrender after hearing Syrian warplanes over Beirut, a clear sign that the assault on his forces had received the approval of the United States - whose ally, Israel, controlled Lebanese airspace. Through the mediation of the French embassy, he was eventually allowed to leave the country, thereby removing one of the last effective obstacles to the coming Pax Syriana. For 15 years, Aoun continued to direct the struggle against Syria from Paris. In Lebanon, the resistance was diffuse. "There was nothing called the Free Patriotic Movement at that time," according to Ziad Abs, a member of the FPM's political bureau, who says he was arrested at least 30 times by the Lebanese security services. "We were a bunch of student groups, social clubs and professional associations that weren't aware of each other at all. When we did meet members from other groups, it was usually in jail." Young, middle-class, mostly Christian professionals who had congregated in university organisations in the shadow of the Lebanese political establishment became a major source of support for the burgeoning Aounist movement. In the absence of a political organisation, resistance to the Syrian occupation became a fervent moral cause. The atmosphere of intimidation during the 1990s forced the movement's leadership to meet abroad, where, in 1996, the Free Patriotic Movement was officially established under the presidency of Aoun. Meanwhile, the Syrian-Saudi condominium in Lebanon had ushered in a period of stability, facilitating reconstruction efforts and enabling the rise of a powerful prime minister in Rafik Hariri. Lebanon's apparent economic revival led many to conclude that Syrian tutelage was an acceptable price to pay for stability; as such, the FPM - with its message of implacable opposition to Syria - had little tangible presence in Lebanese politics and no international profile, even as the movement became increasingly organised and attracted growing support. This state of affairs changed entirely in 2003 when America sought to enlist Syria's participation in its Iraq war effort. Syria's refusal, coupled with the rise of the neoconservatives in Washington, opened up a space for Aoun to plead his case for Lebanese sovereignty before the Bush administration. Travelling to the US that year, Aoun hailed the Iraq war and urged the Americans not to stop in Baghdad, saying "There are despots throughout the region that may fall like dominoes... The American action may bring the Middle East into the 21st century." Aoun himself testified before Congress in favour of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, calling for an end to the Syrian presence in Lebanon - now termed an "occupation" by the US government. Aoun's hopes were realised a year and a half later, when massive demonstrations following the assassination of Rafik Hariri in Beirut led to the resignation of the puppet government and the departure of the Syrian Army. Aoun returned to Lebanon in triumph on May 7, 2005, ten days after the last Syrian soldier stepped over the border. Within weeks, Lebanon's first free parliamentary elections in decades saw the victory of the March 14 coalition in a power-sharing agreement with the country's two Shiite parties, Hizbollah and Amal. The Change and Reform Bloc - which comprised Aoun's FPM and several (mostly Christian) allies - won 21 seats, greatly surpassing expectations. However, when talks broke down between Aoun and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora over the number of ministerial portfolios accorded to the FPM in the national unity government, Aoun decided to withdraw entirely and remain in parliamentary opposition. Less than a year later, the Memorandum of Understanding with Hizbollah was announced. Explanations for why the FPM decided to formulate its memorandum with Hizbollah are manifold. A common reading is that the relationship between the two parties is based entirely on expediency: essentially, that Michel Aoun wanted to use an alliance with the pro-Syrian camp in order to impose himself as president of Lebanon after the expiration of Emile Lahoud's term in 2007. There may be some truth to this theory, particularly in light of recent revelations that Aoun had come to an agreement with the Syrian regime in April 2005, stipulating that he could return to Lebanon as long as he did not join the March 14 chorus calling for the impeachment of the pro-Syrian Lahoud - with the presumption that Aoun expected to be ushered in as the obvious replacement. With the fast lane to the presidency blocked by Syria, the theory goes, Aoun had to find an alternate route to fulfil his presidential ambitions. This account of political manoeuvring during the heady days of 2005, however, tends to ignore Aoun's longstanding distaste for the parties who rode the surge of anti-Syrian sentiment into power. The FPM view of the political figures who led March 14 - above all, the Hariri family and Walid Jumblatt - regarded them as little better than the Syrian occupiers themselves. To Aoun and his party, Rafiq Hariri was an unambiguous symbol of the corruption and cronyism of the Syrian era, and the primary beneficiary of the Ta'if Accord, which had redistributed power within both the legislative and executive branches of government at the expense of Lebanese Christians. Relegating his party to serve as just another standard-bearer for the Cedar Revolution led by Hariri's son Saad proved to be highly disagreeable to Aoun, who considered himself - by virtue of his status as the most popular Christian leader in Lebanon - entitled to lead such a movement. Supporters of the alliance, on the other hand, suggest that it is a long-term strategy based on a perceptive reading of regional and domestic political trends. Ghassan Moukheiber, an MP in Aoun's Change and Reform Bloc, argues that "for the last few years, the General has gone through a realist phase. He looks at the political situation here from a different perspective than he used to." According to Moukheiber, Aoun has come to the realisation that the best way to solve Lebanon's problems "is to bring everyone to the table, without isolating anyone". This strategy, which represents a dramatic shift in the FPM's political orientation, might be called compassionate containment. Recognising that any attempt to disarm Hizbollah by force would lead to civil war, the FPM has sought to situate the process of disarmament within a larger political framework while also coming to agreement on the nature and scope of the resistance's military objectives. While this is not the first attempt by the political establishment to influence Hizbollah's activities through negotiation - several rounds of national dialogue talks since 2000 have all put the issue of the resistance on the table - what is unique about the FPM approach is the degree to which it seems to be based on a willingness to give Hizbollah an equal stake in articulating a vision for producing long-term stability in Lebanon. "The Memorandum of Understanding was not thrown together haphazardly for electoral reasons," says Ziad Abs, who was one of the two FPM officials who helped draft the agreement. "We had many long discussions, sometimes very tough ones, with Hizbollah before we were all satisfied. Every single paragraph, every word, was given to both parties' leaderships, who then made revisions which had to be checked with the other side, and so on and so forth. The whole process took months." Alain Aoun says that the experience of drafting the agreement brought the two parties closer together, and that the resulting bond has already translated into tangible returns. "What we're trying to do is build trust," says Alain. "If we disagree about something, they are not going to accuse us of being Zionist collaborators. Take Nahr al-Bared," he says, referring to the Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon where the Lebanese Army fought a bloody three-month war with an armed Islamist group called Fatah al Islam. "Hizbollah was completely against the army going into the camps, and even called it a 'red line'. For the FPM, there was absolutely no question that the army had to intervene, and we told that to Hizbollah. They backed off, and the army went in."
Critics of the FPM argue that its agreement with Hizbollah is based on a naive reading of the Shiite party's intentions and its raison d'être. "If you came to Hizbollah and offered more political power for the Shiites in exchange for giving up their arms, they would shoot it down in a second," says Michael Young, the opinion editor of the Daily Star. "Hizbollah is a party that needs instability to survive. So, a project of exchanging arms for political stability is not in their interests." This line of argument is hardly unfamiliar to the Aounists, whose position on Hizbollah was, for years, very similar to Young's. Even today, one senses that the old instincts are never that far beneath the surface - particularly among the FPM's electoral base - but that the party is willing to tread water on the question of Hizbollah's weapons as long as it has the latitude, and the votes within parliament, to pursue its reform programme. "Even if I agree that the weapons are a problem, how does that have anything to do with the fact that we need a new electoral law, or that we need to fight corruption, or that we need to protect our environment?" asks Alain Aoun. "The March 14 forces have made Hizbollah's weapons their only issue while they neglect every other problem in the country, from the public debt to the electricity blackouts. We have a different approach." What lies ahead for Lebanon? If the past four years are any indication, the election result is unlikely to lead to a brisk and decisive changing of the guard. Due to the tortuous nature of consensual politics, the choice of a prime minister and the formation of the government are likely to take time and require extensive deliberation. The nationwide stupor brought on by election fever - with all its promises of change and renewal - is bound to be followed by a rude awakening when politics resume their usual course on June 8. This should not distract from the underappreciated reality that Lebanon is in a process of significant change. Having emerged from the deep freeze of post-civil war reconstruction and the tutelage of the Syrian era, a national debate about various existential issues is beginning to take place. Questions about the viability of the consociational system, reform of the electoral law, and a credible defence strategy, among others, are beginning to be asked with increasing urgency, partly because - for the first time in decades - the Lebanese are in a position to answer them. The end of the Syrian occupation unleashed a surprisingly vibrant and energetic debate among ordinary Lebanese, much of it carried out on blogs, online news and social networking sites, and internet chat forums. Most of the political parties now maintain online message-boards, none larger than The Orange Room, a garrulous and impassioned community of Aoun obsessives. Established in 2004, the site has a membership of 18,000 users, and has registered nearly 800,000 comments over 25,000 threads. On any given day, thousands of people log on to debate a wide range of issues, from the latest speech by Hassan Nasrallah (or "SHN", as he is known on the site) to the wiretapping scandal surrounding Aoun's son-in-law Gebran Bassil, the current telecommunications minister. In the run-up to the present election, which has understandably dominated all discussion on the site, amateur political strategists and prognosticators have meticulously dissected every aspect of the upcoming vote, arguing the strengths and weaknesses of individual candidates and presenting elaborate analyses of macro-political trends. Even as the FPM sits on the precipice of obtaining power, the unbounded arguments on its no-frills website retain the air of an aggrieved and strident underground opposition - the legacy of a movement that first took shape as a diffuse network of ideologically-committed university students and young professionals. Just as discussions among fiery partisans on the American liberal political site Daily Kos are infinitely more expressive of the current state of Democratic Party politics in the United States than any staid election platform, the debates in The Orange Room provide an expansive window on the identity and evolution of the FPM, through the opinions, aspirations and grievances of its core supporters. Its pages abound with unabashed veneration of General Aoun (referred to affectionately as "GMA"), undying scorn for the leaders of March 14, and even fierce criticism of the FPM's own electoral allies whenever they appear to deviate from the Aounists' principles. Following the recent disagreement between Aoun and the Amal leader Nabih Berri over whose candidates should contest the southern district of Jezzine, furious Orange Room denizens complained for days about the ingratitude of their allies, citing the sacrifices they believed the FPM had made for the broader opposition cause. The Aounist forums bring home the point - evident in the party's electoral rhetoric but more conspicuous in the candid discussions between its partisans - that the FPM seems to occupy a hybrid position, somewhere between a traditional Lebanese confessional party orientated around a single charismatic leader, and a modern political movement committed to certain ideological principles. Listening to the Aounists talk amongst themselves it remains hard to determine whether their fervent wish is for a new Christian strongman in the form of Michel Aoun or for the secularist agenda that he espouses. In its present role in the opposition, it has been easy for the FPM to criticise the majority without bearing responsibility for the decisions of government. But if the party prevails on June 7 and takes a decisive role in shaping the legislative agenda for the next four years, all eyes will be on the FPM to see if it wields the authority it has long sought to enact far-reaching reforms - or if the party and its allies, safe within the halls of the Second Republic, find its pillars too secure to topple.
Elias Muhanna writes the Lebanese affairs blog Qifa Nabki. He is a PhD candidate in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Harvard University.