Chamel Roukoz and a Struggling Lebanese Government

Chamel Roukoz. the newcomer to Lebanon's crowded political arena

Chamel Roukoz, the latest newcomer to Lebanon’s already crowded political arena

This is the 14th post in a series of monthly posts covering the presidential elections. This post is about the months of August, September and October 2015.

If I haven’t written any monthly analysis post since July 2015, it’s for a reason: In the summer of 2015, Lebanese citizens decided to protest and ask for their rights. The parliament was unconstitutional, parliamentary elections had been cancelled twice, presidential elections had been postponed for lack of quorum for the past year, and the government was an epic failure. Lebanon was arguably facing one of the biggest refugees crisis since World War II, and as if the electricity and water shortages and the corruption weren’t enough, a new garbage crisis had become unbearable. And what was the cabinet fighting (and in a way, still fighting) about? If Michel Aoun’s son-in-law was going to become commander of the army or not. BECAUSE PRIORITIES. There was nothing to analyze there. September 2015 was almost the same, with the government not responding to the basic protest demands (such as an environmentally friendly trash solution) being the extra cherry on the top.

But this month was (politically speaking) awesome. Forget for a moment that there is a protest movement in Beirut today. Sit back and relax. It’s time to enjoy the complexity of Lebanon’s politics.

Ending the war for Chamel Roukoz

Perhaps the most important events these past few weeks were the ones related to Michel Aoun’s sons-in-law, Chamel Roukoz – the commander of the Lebanese Army’s special forces – and Gebran Bassil. For Roukoz, the matter might seem at first a bit complicated, but it’s actually quite simple: Aoun wanted to appoint Roukoz as commander of the army when LAF commander Kahwagi’s term was about to expire. At some point, there were rumors that Aoun would be ready to give up his presidential candidacy and discuss a consensual presidential candidate in case Roukoz would have been made as commander. The fact that Kahwagi was – and still is – the strongest consensual candidate out there (Lebanon’s last two presidents have been army commanders) only made the possibility of a deal more likely: (1) Kahwagi becomes president, (2) a vacancy happens in the army command, (3) Roukoz becomes commander of the army. Even some rival parties opposing Aoun’s FPM indirectly hinted about the possibility of a Roukoz-Kahwagi deal. Yet today, that very deal is history. At the time, the FPM felt that it had the upper hand: It could have kept blocking the presidential elections forever, and at the same time, the government wouldn’t have dared to keep Kahwagi for another year without consensus on the extension of his term, especially since Aoun had been playing the sectarian card and calling for “Christian rights” for some time now. At least that’s what the Aounists thought.

Yet motivated by an indirect green light by Berri and an absence of veto from Hezbollah (probably in order to avoid an unnecessary – especially in the current circumstances – political clash with an army command the party of God has no problem with), M14 responded to Aoun’s maneuvering by extending Kahwagi’s term. It was a clear message to Aoun that M14 weren’t going to succumb to his blackmail in the cabinet, that the FPM would only be awarded the army command in case they halt their presidential quest, and that the FPM would not see Roukoz appointed as commander without something else in exchange. M14 was trying to force the deal on Aoun: By then, the only way through for Roukoz was by vacating the army command and the fastest way to vacate the army command was by electing the commander president.

The FPM saw it as a declaration of war and escalated their discourse while calling for protests in the name of Christian rights (For the FPM, that meant electing Aoun as president and appointing his son-in-law as commander).  When it was finally clear to everyone that Berri doesn’t care about the FPM interests in the army, that Hezbollah had bigger problems than a local feud about two generals, and that Aoun had no intentions of giving up the presidency for the army command, Roukoz – who had reached the age of retirement – did not see his term as commando regiment commander extended. In the  early days of October even potential compromises on keeping the status-quo in the army were dismissed. On the 15th of October 2015, only days after an FPM rally in Baabda, and weeks after another FPM rally in which Gebran Bassil was introduced as the new FPM chief, Chamel Roukoz spoke to a group of protesters that gathered  to support him at a rally and told them that he “was promoted to the rank of Lebanese citizen“. Congratulations, Lebanese citizens: Your politics just became slightly more complicated.

Divide and conquer

Rewind four months. By June, the FPM had  managed to maximize their dominance in Lebanese politics: The Lebanese Forces gave them the Christian upper hand when Geagea signed the declaration of intent in Rabieh, and the Kataeb, who had just finished a transfer of powers, were isolated by their exclusion from the declaration of intent talks and were in no postion to compete. The FPM had only one head, its second-in-command was the no.2 in the cabinet, and it was fighting to control the army command and the presidency.

Now the FPM has a godfather (Aoun), a president (Bassil), two vice presidents, an isolated nephew (Alain Aoun), a son-in-law who might as well be more popular than all of the above, and currently looks like a Neapolitan mafia (the amount of sons-in-law in the party is too damn high) where no one knows who’s in charge. For the FPM, October 2015 was one of the worst months since the 2009 elections: A potential negotiation card  for the presidency was lost, the war they had started in the cabinet ended in a humiliating defeat, a key asset in a key institution (army) was lost, the FPM’s most popular / influential ally in the Bekaa – Elias Skaff –  passed away last week leaving a vacancy that other parties in Lebanon’s west could quickly fill – especially that Skaff’s sons are young, and that Skaff himself had been already outside power for too long (6 years is huge for politician who served as an MP from 1992 till 2009). Elias Skaff had distanced himself from the FPM since the 2009 elections, but then again, he was the only local ally the FPM could have reached out to in the Bekaa before the upcoming parliamentary elections. To make things worse, instead of figuring things out in the summertime internal elections, the FPM is now in a pre-chaotic state. Who gives the orders in the FPM? Aoun? Bassil? Who does the FPM answer to? Bassil? Aoun? What to do with Roukoz? Bring him in since he’s too popular? (Or keep him outside since he’s too popular?) Can the FPM nominate Roukoz instead of Aoun to the presidency? What would that make of Bassil? These are dangerous times for the FPM. They are losing to M14, losing support within M8, losing to rival Christian parties, and – most importantly – facing the biggest administrative crisis in the history of the party (and they’re in denial about it). The pro-Roukoz protests happened way too early after his retirement, and that means that the former commander of the maghaweer might be onto something which would pose a threat to Bassil’s already weak fan base. Even the rumors – saying that Roukoz might be appointed as Lebanon’s ambassador in France – hint at a potential Roukoz-Bassil political clash. And the best way for Aoun – and the FPM – to avoid that clash would be by separating both men by thousands of Kilometers until Gebran Bassil gains a bit more ground within the FPM. So to sum things up, M14 didn’t just humiliate the FPM. By refusing to keep Roukoz in the army and in the shadows of Lebanese politics, they gave the FPM the ingredients necessary to start a succession war.

Changing the discourse

Another interesting thing about the transfer of power within the FPM is the change of discourse. For years, the Aounists have talked in a secular and “anti-corruption” way. Now they no longer focus a lot on the corruption talk and instead take a more sectarian approach. Deep down, it’s a natural transition: They can’t really blame the parties in power for the corruption with the same intensity – especially since they have been in power more than any party for the past 7 years and that the new FPM president wasn’t even elected and isn’t exactly what you call a role-model for an anti-corruption discourse (M14 keep accusing him of corrupt measures during his time in government) – so they had to take the sectarian way (“Christian rights”) in order to counter the rising threats from the LF, the Kataeb and from the more popular underdogs within or even allied with the FPM. The shift, that slowly started around 2013 (remember the Orthodox gathering electoral law?) became the cornerstone of the FPM’s new political strategy. In the end, the fastest way to win the heart of your sect (and party) back is by boosting your supporters’ ego and telling them you’re here for them (and their rights). The whole “reforming the system and rooting out corruption from within” doesn’t work so much anymore, especially with the recent waves of anti-government protests.

Bring the government down (or not)

Anyway, enough of FPM politics for today. Time to focus on the recent dynamics of Lebanon’s cabinet crisis. The Lebanese cabinet is made up of most of Lebanon’s parties, and hence sums up the awkwardness of Lebanese politics:

(1) The FPM clearly isn’t planning on ending the boycott on the government that refuses to comply to their demands and that threw Roukoz outside.

(2) Marwan Hamade of the PSP and the FM’s highest ranking minister (interior, Machnouk) in the government threaten to bring the government down after criticizing and accusing M8 of obstructing the cabinet’s work.

Then, (3) Hezbollah, via Nasrallah, tells the FM that they’re too cool to care about the Mustaqbal maneuvers, and defends the premier while also sending the following message to M14: “if you want to leave, leave“(♫♫♫)

Then, (4) Jumblatt, fearing on his kingmaker role that he might lose in case the government falls (Michel Sleiman is no longer in power which – if the cabinet resigns – leaves him all by himself in the so-called “Lebanese center”) sends Abou Faour on the offensive to undermine Hamadeh’s stance.

Then, (5) THE KATAEB CRITICIZE THE PREMIER. I would like to note here that the Kataeb’s share in the cabinet is the one of the biggest (if not the biggest) share they have ever had in a government – especially for a 5 MPs party – so throwing it all on the prime minister can be compared to digging your own grave. Oh, and they also undermined the FM by hinting that Mustaqbal adopted their “M14-ish” line of thought, and not the other way around. In a parallel universe, that was the Kataeb’s way of saying to the Christian electorate that they care about their feelings too and that they – unlike Aoun – are ready to piss off the Muslim boss (in the name of “Christian rights”?). Beat that, FPM!

(Meanwhile, the Lebanese Forces have decided to leave politics and focus on drug awareness campaigns, because Lebanese Forces).

Finally, (6) the premier, who probably knows – like everyone else – that no one is ready to bring down a government in which they thrive on the status-quo, took it upon himself to end this “my dad is stronger than yours which is why I will bring the government down” discourse and indirectly told everyone that (his dad is Saeb Salim Salam which makes him stronger than everyone) if they won’t calm down and try (or at least pretend) to figure out how to solve the trash crisis, he will be the one who will bring down the government. That wasn’t the first or even second time he made such a resignation threat. Maybe third time’s the charm?

Welcome to Lebanon’s rejuvenated politics: As the FM and Hezbollah start another round of political clashes, Jumblatt and Berri are trying to keep the cabinet – under pressure from everyone in power and everyone outside power – from collapsing. On the other side of the political spectrum, in the Christian autonomous political kingdom where the sun and moon never meet, things are changing fast: The FPM is the new LF. The LF is the new Kataeb. The Kataeb are the new FPM. And most importantly, the FPM lost their war and now plan on moving on with two heads and a different discourse.

Time will tell if their strategy will work. But for now, enjoy the deadlock (and the big dumpster the world calls Lebanon).

520 days since the 25th of May. 355 days since the 5th of November.

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