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Aoun and the Muslim Tsunami

Bilal El-Amine
Date Published: 
June 28, 2005

The last round of the staggered Lebanese parliamentary elections ended with a bang last Sunday in the north of Lebanon. Most of the final results were predictable: the Harriri-Jumblatt alliance will control the majority in the new parliament with 72 members, the Shia Muslim bloc of Amal and Hizbullah got 35 seats, and the remaining 21 went to Michel Aoun and his allies. Keep in mind that these are not solid blocs and could easily come apart as they get down to work. The Harriri list for example includes a number of right-wing Christian parties and the supposedly anti-Syrian Aoun managed to ally himself with some of Syria's most loyal servants like Michel Murr (Murr was integral to Syrian control of Lebanon as a security and defense minister and must have played a central role in suppressing the mainly "Aounist" student protests in 2000). The big surprise came in the Mt. Lebanon round of voting the previous week as Aoun and his allies made a clean sweep of the heavily Christian Kisrwan-Jbail and Metn districts. Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement got 14 seats and tipped the scales in his allies' favor for an additional 7. This panicked the Harriri-Jumblatt opposition who thought they were on their way to an easy majority-another Aoun upset in the north would deny them outright control of the new government. I am told that Saad Harriri rented the Quality Inn (all of it!) in the northern city of Tripoli for a week to serve as his campaign headquarters, spreading his money far and wide to assure his list a win. In the short time between his return to Lebanon on May 7 and the elections this month, Aoun pulled a political somersault-with a double twist-that left many people utterly puzzled as to what he was up to. In the 15 years he spent in exile, he worked tirelessly to get Syria out of Lebanon. He testified before the US Congress in support of the Syrian Accountability Act and probably had a hand in UN Resolution 1559 which finally ended Syrian control of Lebanon. But even before his return to Lebanon, Aoun was butting heads with the rest of the opposition over who can take credit for expelling the Syrians and therefore deserves the bigger stake in the new government. Lebanon was apparently too small for two oppositions. Christian boss Soon Aoun was striking deals with pro-Syrian politicians, even becoming the number one defender of Syria's last stronghold in the Lebanese state, President Emile Lahoud. It would appear that such unsavory alliances would hurt Aoun's standing particularly among his mainly Christian base who bitterly opposed Syrian rule. But the very opposite happened and Lebanon's Christians flocked in large numbers to vote for Aoun, making him a major player in the coming period. No one, not even Aoun could have imagined this course of events. You can only understand what happened after you factor in Lebanon's sectarian politics, which everyone agrees, animated the parliamentary elections from beginning to end. By the time the voting reached the Christian heartland of Mt. Lebanon, it appeared to them that a Muslim tsunami-made up of the Harriri-Jumblatt-Amal-Hizbullah quartet-was about to swallow them whole, so they turned to Aoun to save them from oblivion. Aoun has always maintained that he is a strict secularist and wanted to lead a multi-religious movement. Unwittingly perhaps, he has now become Lebanon's new Christian boss, or zaim in Arabic. The question remains where does Aoun really stand, who are his supporters, and what do they want for Lebanon? Many have accused the former army general of having shady Washington connections, particularly with the neocons and even the Israeli lobby. Others, among Muslims as well as Christians, say he is the best hope for Lebanon and point to his unstinting opposition to sectarianism and corruption, the two plagues of Lebanese politics. He is probably somewhere between, closer to a Lebanese nationalist (right leaning but with populist overtones) that nevertheless still falls within the general outlook of the Christian right. Internally, Aoun represents a break from the failed strategy of Maronite power that crashed and burned in the civil war. His movement reflects a willingness to try another, perhaps less confrontational strategy-maybe even sharing the country with Lebanon's Muslims on an equal footing. He advocates a "Lebanon First" type of populism that calls for reforming the Lebanese state and economy, something that appeals to a lot of Lebanese irrespective of religion. New beginning But regionally and internationally, he bears some of the hallmarks of the Christian right by questioning the Arab identity of Lebanon-which is another way of saying that the key regional question of Palestinian is not our concern-and prefers a Western orientation instead. That the Christian vote catapulted him into parliament may in the end force him to play the traditional role of a zaim, representing the narrow concerns of Lebanon's Maronites-something that I don't think Aoun was planning on. Given the short lifespan of almost any political observation one makes about Lebanon, I don't know how long this will continue to hold true. Aoun may very well begin to be more cooperative given the balance of power in parliament and join the new government. The real test for all the political parties will be in the coming weeks as the government grapples with the hardest issues: a new election law, Hizbullah's weapons, the $44 billion national debt, replacing the president, to name just a few. Many here are pessimistic given the sectarian nature of Lebanon's first (theoretically) free elections. And there are legitimate fears that Lebanon is now passing into of the hands of new external powers-this time, France and the US (and some usually add Saudi Arabia)-who will have final say in critical decisions the country takes. The daily and public appearances of the French and American ambassadors, airing their views on what most consider internal Lebanese matters, only inflames such fears. But there is also a widespread sense that a new beginning may finally be possible now that both the Israelis and Syrians have left. US and French meddling is certainly worrisome, but it should not be viewed as inevitable. Much will depend on how the Lebanese will respond. The cataclysmic events sparked by Rafiq Harriri's assassination in February-the mass demonstrations, the Syrian pullout, and the parliamentary elections-have only whetted people's appetite for change, some real change finally in Lebanon. More importantly, they learned that they also, and not only their political bosses or parties, can make it happen. I am-like most Lebanese-both wary and hopeful.