JEDDAH: The political deadlock has ended in Lebanon with the election of Michel Aoun as president — but experts on the country’s politics are still deeply divided on what it means for the region. Two leading commentators, speaking to Arab News, were divided on whether the move marks a political compromise — or power grab. For Eyad Abu Shakra, the veteran Lebanese political analyst and journalist, what happened on Monday was not even an election. “These are not elections given the de facto domination of the country by one faction,” he said. “The Lebanese Parliament has been convened 45 times in the last 29 months. It never succeeded because of certain blocs which are the real de facto power on the ground and which prevented Parliament from having the quorum needed to elect a president. The country was in a political vacuum filled only by the dominance of Hezbollah which is much larger now than the Lebanese state.” He pointed out that Aoun was the official candidate of Hezbollah. “It was Hezbollah that stipulated that there would be no meeting of Parliament unless Aoun was elected president. In that sense, you cannot call these elections,” he said. However, Rami G. Khouri, senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, described the coming together of different parties as the politics of compromise. “Both Saad Hariri and Aoun realized that nothing was going to happen if they stuck to their positions,” he said. “Hariri was in greater difficulty than Aoun because Hariri basically was losing a lot of support and credibility in the country,” said Khouri. “He also had a big shock recently when the municipal elections took place and quite a few Sunnis abandoned him and his group of March 14 and voted for other people who were challenging the traditional leaders.” As part of the compromise, Khouri expects Hariri to become the prime minister. “Everybody expects Aoun to name Hariri as prime minister … that will balance the two sides to some extent and allow the political system to function more efficiently again,” he said. “We expect Hariri will now become prime minister for some years.” Yet Abu Shakra is not optimistic about Hariri’s predicted premiership. “Even if he becomes prime minister tomorrow, what would it mean? We will have a puppet president and a rubber-stamp prime minister. That is it. That will mean nothing,” he said. His pessimism stems from his belief that Aoun will never turn against Iran-backed Hezbollah. “Many optimistic people would say that now that Aoun has all the constitutional powers, he will be his own man; he will do whatever he pleases … But, you know, Hezbollah is not stupid nor is Iran (their main backers). These are people who, for the last two and a half years, insisted on having Aoun appointed as a puppet president. They know what to expect. I am sure they are prepared for any eventuality should Aoun decide to do a volte-face, change his mind, and change his alliances as he usually does,” Abu Shakra. Khouri agrees with Abu Shakra’s assessment. “No, I don’t think Aoun will go against Hezbollah,” said Khouri. “If he did, he would probably create a big crisis in the country. I am sure there was an understanding among Hezbollah, Aoun and Hariri about achieving this kind of agreement. I don’t think there is any expectation that Aoun will turn against Hezbollah. They have been allies for the last eight or 10 years and that will probably continue.” The question that everyone has in mind is how the dynamics will work given that Hariri is a declared foe of the Syrian regime — he has in the past hinted at Syria’s role in the assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri, in 2005 — and Aoun, a politician who in the past built his reputation on his stance against the Syrian presence in Lebanon, becoming a partner of Syria’s ally, Hezbollah. Khouri said one should look further than Syria. “You have to look at Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The region as a whole is quite involved in internal Lebanese affairs and has been for some time. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been very active in Lebanon.
The Saudis with Hariri and the Iranians with Hezbollah. But I think the regional powers are quite preoccupied with other things. The Saudis basically pulled out of Lebanon when they withdrew their $3 billion pledge. The Iranians are very busy in Syria,” said Khouri. He said the relationship between Aoun and Syria would take a while to become clear. “My suspicion is that Aoun will maintain cordial relations with Syria. He can’t afford to make an enemy of Syria and he hasn’t done that in recent years. He has reconciled with the Syrians. And the Syrians and the Iranians and Hezbollah make a very strong tripartite alliance and that basically is the alliance that allowed him to become president,” he said. While Aoun is popular and has a huge following among Lebanese Christians and is backed by Hezbollah, many Lebanese have long accused him of being mad with power and irrational in his behavior to the extent that he would go to any length to become president.
So is he the Donald Trump of Lebanon? “Yes,” said Abu Shakra. “Minus the charisma.” Khouri thinks otherwise. “No, I wouldn’t go that far. Yes, Aoun has a long track record of activism in Lebanon, of doing political work and he was the head of the army. He is the most powerful Christian leader. He also has many critics. He is controversial and sometimes dramatic but I wouldn’t go so far as to equate him with Trump … Trump is a much more erratic kind of person,” he said.