Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Aoun a man to watch

Aoun - A man to watch

FORMER army chief Michel Aoun, 63, a staunch anti-Syrian, is back home in Lebanon nurturing presidential ambitions after 15 years of exile in France and is reputedly the preferred American-French candidate for the job.

How far the US and France would push their influence in Lebanese affairs to have Aoun succeed Emile Lahoud in this month's elections remains to be seen. But the country's majority Shiites, represented by pro-Syrian Hizbollah, would put up a bitter fight to foil the American-French plan. And so would others who see Aoun's calls for changes in the Lebanese political system as a clear threat to their traditional power bases in the country that have been kept intact since the collapse of the Ottoman empire.

Then, Aoun would have to grapple with challenges to the post from his fellow Christian leaders, and the backing of the Maronite Christian patriarch would be decisive.

If Aoun assumes Lebanese presidency, then it would signal a complete revamping of Beirut-Damascus relations. It could very well turn out to be the final chapter of the changes that swept Lebanon in the wake of the Feb.14 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Al Hariri.

Aoun seems to represent one of the rare convergences of US and French interests in the Middle East.

Washington and Paris led international pressure against Syria to end its nearly 30-year old domination of Lebanon following the Hariri assassination and now they are determined not to allow the pro-Syrian camp to assume power in the country.

But Syria, which has withdrawn its military and intelligence agents from Lebanon, has not written off Lebanon. Damascus will continue to play an influential, albeit behind-the-scene, role in Lebanese politics through its allies, who include the powerful Hizbollah as well as the Amal movement led by Nabih Berri, a segment of the Sunni community and a few Christian leaders.

(Indeed, the Syrians have many other options to make things tough for the Lebanese but that is a different story altogether).

The May 29 elections will show how far Syria has managed to retain its influence in Lebanon, but it is irrefutable that Lebanese politics have undergone irreversible changes after Hariri's assassination.

Otherwise, Aoun would not have returned to Lebanon as a long-lost hero. Had he landed prior to Hariri's death, then he would have faced charges of treason for having spoken up against the Syrian domination of his country.

Aoun staged a revolt against Syria before being ousted and exiled to France in 1990. Since then, he waged a bitter anti-Syrian campaign.

On Wednesday, a Lebanese court dropped several outstanding charges against him, lifting the last hurdle to his return. The charges included that of treason, for having accused Syria of being behind the murder of two Lebanese ex-presidents and of "occupying Lebanon." He was instrumental in getting the US Congress pass the Syria Accountability Act and the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for Syria's departure from Lebanon.

US-French interest

Even before Hariri's remains were buried, Washington and Paris reached agreement that Aoun should replace the Syrian-backed Lahoud as Lebanon's president as part of their effort to reshape the Syrian-Lebanese political landscape.

French President Jacques Chirac, who was a close friend of Hariri, insisted that Aoun be backed as the next president of Lebanon and the American administration endorsed Chirac's proposal, according to reports.

Washington and Paris sent special envoys to Beirut and secured the support of the main political leaders in Lebanon -- Druze leader Walid Junblatt and the Maronite Christian patriarch, Archbishop Nasrallah Sfeir -- for Aoun's return home but not necessarily for his quest to occupy the Babda presidential palace.

Aoun, who leads the Free Patriotic Movement of Lebanon, is a Christian and therefore qualifies to be president.

Aoun is broadly popular among Lebanon's large Christian minority, and many among them hope he would be their president. Indeed, many Lebanese Christians who had fled the country or migrated during the civil war were present in Beirut on Saturday to welcome back Aoun and voice support for him.

The young generation favours his call for a secular Lebanon -- meaning doing away with the present system which makes it mandatory that the president is a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and parliament speaker a Shiite. But, the old guards of Lebanon, whether from the pro- or anti-Syrian camp, might not look at his posture so kindly.

For them, his rhetoric -- "minds must be changed and we must get rid of the political feudalism and religious system that dates back to the 19th century" -- means nothing but sharp axes at the roots of their wealth and influence.

Aoun thrust home the point when he declared: "We no longer want old feudal models, religious sectarianism that kills... we want also to fight political money that has corrupted the republic and taken Lebanon to the verge of bankruptcy."

What real chances does Aoun stand in his quest for presidency?

Until the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, he fit the bill for many Lebanese Christians who saw him as the "conscience" of the country. Now that the Syrians have departed, the perceptions are changing.

Aoun could not claim credit for forcing the Syrian departure. That goes to the people of Lebanon and political leaders who consistently roused the crowds into staging massive anti-Syrian demonstrations.

There are many who now see Aoun as divisive rather than a unifying factor, given his pitched calls for fundamental political changes. Many would also be closely looking at how Hizbollah responds to his expected candidacy. At this point in time, Aoun is calling for dialogue leading to Hizbollah being disarmed, but the powerful Shiite group would respond violently to any effort to strip its of its status and strength as an armed movement.

One thing is certain: The US and France will unleash everything they have in order to see Aoun elected as president, for he is key to their plans for a new Lebanon that suits their interests.