Is Michel Aoun Switching Sides?

Hariri-Aoun Meeting in 2009 (AFP)

Hariri-Aoun Meeting in 2009 (AFP)

At first sight, Lebanon seems politically normal. No parliamentary sessions, no functioning government, a bad economy, ambassadors visiting politicians, and like always, no solution to the deadlock. However, in the last few days, three consecutive incidents in the March 8 camp almost went unnoticed.

Drawing The Red Lines

The Tomahawk effect that kept all the politicians silent for two weeks is obviously fading away. And while everyone was focused on Berri’s initiative to solve the crisis, another interesting development was marginalized. Michel Aoun, who made sure in the past 3 months to keep his criticism against Hezbollah centered on the party’s political stances, indirectly attacked Hezbollah’s military activity in a statement accusing M14 of initially providing cover for Hezbollah’s telecom network. And that statement wasn’t the only one. A meeting between the FPM leader and the U.S. ambassador Hale ended in a Aounist approval of the Baabda declaration that was recently questioned by Hezbollah.

If It Ain’t Broke Don’t Fix It

Hezbollah clearly understood that something was going wrong. Or why else would a delegation of the party go visit Aoun, only to make sure that the ties between the two allies were still the same? If the ties were still the same, why bother fixing them?

The Wind Of Change

For Aoun to question his 7 year-alliance with Hezbollah at a moment’s notice would be an act of political insanity. Switching sides implies that the second side is indeed willing to accept you as a member. And that is probably what Aoun is trying to do with his small yet remarkably strong statements. You might view that describing the new stances by strong is an exaggeration but one must not forget that the FPM is Hezbollah’s main national ally and by far his strongest political ally, meaning that any criticism, no matter how small it is, is in fact more harmful than the strongest M14 – or even Amal – political stance against Hezbollah. Aoun is checking out if any of the M14 leaders will understand his small hints and welcome his statements. Stronger statements at a faster rate – without an M14 welcoming attitude – might throw Aoun all by himself on the outside, which is not a good thing for a Lebanese politician.

Yet Another Political Maneuver

The issue is far more complicated than the FPM pissing off Hezbollah in a Christian area for popular gain (By rejecting the telecom network in Lebanon’s biggest Christian city). Another Hezbollah Christian ally, Sleiman Frangieh, is preparing himself for presidential elections.  Frangieh is younger than Aoun but is also (arguably) the biggest pro-Syrian among Hezbollah’s allies, making him a perfect candidate for the Hezbollah-led alliance in case the war in Syria reaches a certain level of hostilities. Hezbollah might embrace the Frangieh candidacy, and that can justify the FPM’s decaying relation with the party.  Aoun wants to make sure that it will be him – or one of his Maronite protégés – who will be the official M8 candidate for the May elections, and his new stances can be seen as a small political maneuver (or even blackmail).

The Lessons Of  1988 And 2008

When the Americans were trying to push for their own candidate in the 1988 presidential elections, Aoun – who wanted the presidency for himself –  criticized the U.S. motives and announced that  Lebanon is not an American protectorate. What happened next – you guessed it – is that Aoun was eventually removed from power because he went against the regional tide.  In 2008, when Aoun failed again to notice that the regional context implied that a centrist president should take power, General Suleiman was elected president. This time though, Aoun seems to have understood the rules of the game. By being slightly more moderate in the wake of the American-Russian agreement on Syria (and even ironically agreeing with the American Ambassador this time), and by trying to settle his issues with most of the Lebanese parties, Michel Aoun is discretely trying to go with the flow and adapt to the circumstances of the next presidential elections.