Aoun’s Jockeying

Michel Aoun

Free Patriotic Movement protests are just the latest of Michel Aoun’s tactics to secure the presidency and empower his party.

The following analysis was first published in Sada on July 28, 2015.

Following a political feud in the cabinet regarding the nomination of the next Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) commander, Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader Michel Aoun called for protests, and party supporters rallied in Beirut on July 9. The presidency, the most important Maronite-allocated post in Lebanese politics, has been vacant since May 2014, and the term of the LAF commander—another important Maronite post—expires in September. Although Aoun has framed the deadlock over both appointments as an assault on Christian rights, his call for protests is really a key gambit in his quest to empower the FPM and his allies within the party.

When the FPM and Lebanese Forces party signed their “declaration of intent” in June to elect a strong president, this gave Aoun the upper hand over other Christian parties. Because Chairman of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea visited Aoun in Rabieh to sign the declaration, he was branded the junior partner. The declaration—basically an agreement to agree on an agreement between the two parties—also preemptively ended any rising threat that any Kataeb party or Hezbollah–Future Movement (FM) presidential deal would exclude the FPM.

The Kataeb, distracted and vulnerable during the current transfer of power from party leader Amine Gemayel to his son Sami, is not in a position to threaten the FPM’s supremacy among the Christian electorate, which has become increasingly friendly to other members of the March 8 alliance as Hezbollah’s reputation as protector against the Islamic State grows. With two traditionally Maronite posts up for contention and three Christian parties in disarray (the FPM and the Kataeb are focused on internal organization, and the Lebanese Forces is weakened amid revelations that Geagea asked for Saudi financial support), Aoun’s call for protests and public mobilization seemed like a wise political gamble.

Had the FPM conceded the presidency in 2014 when the office had just been vacated, they would likely have only received an electoral law friendlier to the March 8 alliance and perhaps a better share in the next cabinet—and so had little reason to do so. But since May 2015, when the post of LAF commander came onto the negotiating table, the FPM has had the opportunity to win the best political deal on the two posts. Its position is strong enough that it could concede the presidency to March 14, if it so chose, in return for claiming the LAF command, the lesser of the two posts. They can alternately use their “blocking third” parliament veto powers on the presidential elections to gain concessions on a continued push for LAF command appointment. The March 8 alliance could also abandon their presidential ambitions in exchange for all three demands: a modified electoral law, the blocking third in the cabinet, and the army command. For the FPM, that also means the opportunity to empower Aoun’s popular potential successor, his son-in-law and current commander of the LAF Special Forces Chamel Roukoz, by making him commander of the army.

Most importantly, a tradeoff deal between the presidency and the army command post could make the FPM the strongest Christian player in politics, because the Future Movement would be conceding to the FPM as opposed to one of its own March 14 Christian allies like the Lebanese Forces or Kataeb party. Aoun and his supporters could use this political win to boost his standing before internal FPM elections in September. The two primary candidates seem to be Baabda MP Alain Aoun, Michel Aoun’s nephew, and Gebran Bassil, another son-in-law of Aoun’s and current minister of foreign affairs. There were rumors that Aoun might push for a consensus deal within the FPM by making one of the candidates president and the other vice president, but that remains to be seen.

If both candidates lock horns it might cause a major rift within the FPM, especially as the two are high-ranking politicians influential among the party’s electorate. Should Aoun fail to appoint Chamel Roukoz as commander of the army, it could create an atmosphere of failure ahead of the internal elections, possibly weaken Aoun and his favored candidates, and disrupt the transfer of power in the FPM. Hence, Aoun sought to use the July 9 demonstrations to pressure the cabinet into appointing Roukoz as soon as possible. The closer Aoun is to September, the more likely he will accept a presidential–army command power-sharing deal with March 14, in order to avoid any distractions ahead of the FPM elections. And this is likely why the FM is blocking any discussion about the army commander post until August.

According to the March 14 logic, if Aoun refuses to concede the presidency in exchange for the LAF command, the cabinet could proceed to appoint another LAF commander and deny Aoun the chance of appointing Roukoz for another few years. This would weaken Aoun before the internal elections and deprive him of the army command, while at the same time allowing March 14 to depict him as the man responsible for blocking the election of a president. For them, Aoun has to compromise or he’ll lose both posts.

By Aoun’s thinking, if he pressures the cabinet to appoint his son-in-law as commander of the army now, he won’t have to give up his presidential ambitions later, as a compromise deal over the presidency and LAF command post will no longer be on the table. The March 14 alliance would no longer be able to deny the FPM the LAF command, leaving the FPM little to lose if they keep pushing for the presidency. It would also weaken Aoun’s main rival for the presidency, Jean Kahwaji, whose presence in the army command remains his largest asset.

As such, Aoun is using every tactic to pressure the cabinet. He argued that Prime Minister Tammam Salam was abusing his powers when he refused to put the appointment of a new commander of the army on the cabinet’s agenda. Constitutionally speaking, the Sunni PM sets the agenda in the cabinet meetings (article 64), although the Maronite president is allowed to “present any urgent matter to the council of Ministers from outside the agenda” (article 53). In the absence of a president, Aoun took it upon himself to protect the Christian interests by proclaiming that the FPM—as the largest Christian party represented in the cabinet—is allowed to assume the president’s authority during the cabinet session. March 14 has responded by pointing out that Aoun is ultimately to blame because he is blocking the election of any non-Aoun president.

Aoun’s demonstrations also had a low turnout, and a confrontation between the FPM supporters and the army near the Grand Serail didn’t help. The next day, Aoun verbally attacked the army command over the incident, and while army commander Jean Kahwaji did not respond directly, an indirect response came from his son Joe on Twitter, pointing out the FPM’s double standards in praising General Roukoz when the FPM and the army are on the same page and criticizing Kahwaji when they aren’t.

So although the protests might appear as a wise political maneuver, they are a defeat for Aoun in the streets, the cabinet, and the institution over which he wants greater influence. Aoun is even losing ground within his bloc. One of his closest allies, Marada Movement leader Sleiman Frangieh, criticized Aoun’s political moves in the days following the protests, saying that he supported Aoun’s quest but disapproved of the means (the demonstrations). And although Hezbollah publicly stated that they stood with their March 8 Christian allies, the fact that they did not take part in the protests is telling. By refusing to make a popular move against the current commander of the army, they perhaps sought to save face with Kahwaji, who is also the strongest consensus presidential candidate. One thing is for sure: the FPM is heading into a turbulent period in the next few weeks, and as a main party of the March 8 alliance and the Lebanese fabric, they are dragging both their coalition and the country with it.

Ramez Dagher is a Lebanese political blogger at Moulahazat.