Rallying Around the Renegade
Back in the fall of 2006, student elections at the American University of Beirut produced an unexpected aesthetic: female campaigners for the predominantly Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of the ex-general Michel Aoun sporting button-sized portraits of bearded Hizballah leader Hasan Nasrallah on their stylish attire. “Hizballah stands for the unity and independence of Lebanon, just as we do,” went the party line, as reiterated by Laure, an activist business student clad in the movement’s trademark orange. “And imagine, the Shi‘a and us,” she mused, off-script and with a glance at her co-campaigners, covered head to toe in the black gowns of the staunchly Islamist party, but spiced up with bright orange ribbons for the occasion. “How many we will be.”
Just how many became clear soon enough, when Aoun joined Hizballah’s attempt to bring down the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora through public pressure later that year. While actual numbers are notoriously hard to come by,the two main rallies held on December 1 and 10 clearly rivaled the demonstration that brought about the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon 18 months before. Followers of Aoun, who stand out in their blazing orange gear, accounted for an apparent third of the masses. Once again, predictions that Aoun’s alliance with the “Party of God” would dispel his support in the Christian community were proven wrong.
Throughout his political career, Michel Aoun’s bold maneuvering, boisterous, often ranting discourse and utter disregard for the complex rules and false niceties of the Lebanese political scene have made him one of the most divisive figures therein. To his admirers, he is the strong leader who can rise above the fray of perennial internecine conflict, clear out a divided and despised political class bent on the pursuit of factional and personal interest, and achieve longed-for, but ever elusive national unity. Likewise, Aoun has earned himself the intense loathing (even by Lebanese standards) of the members of exactly this political class (and their followers). Rather than a champion of secularist nationalism, they consider Aoun to be an irresponsible rabble rouser who threatens to upset the delicate balance of sectarian power sharing, and his calls for reform and a shakeup of public institutions to be thinly veiled Bonapartism.
Often dismissed as sheer populism, the FPM’s call for imposing transparency and stamping out corruption and clientelism -- however realistic an objective it may or may not be -- thus threatens to disrupt the very system on which the power structure is built. With trademark exaggeration, Michel Aoun vowed to “confront political feudalism” upon his return from France in May 2005. While clearly a swipe at the likes of Walid Jumblatt (who happens to be the heir of a “real” feudal line), Saad al-Hariri and Amin Gemayel, such pronouncements cannot have been pleasing to any of the politicians who prefer the rules of the games as they are. As Gambill puts it: “FPM control of a major ministry is a red line for the [March 14] coalition mainly because Aoun would have absolutely nothing to lose by acting on his pledges to clean up government, even if his motives are completely self-serving.”While potentially endangering vested interests, a program emphasizing transparency and meritocracy is likely to appeal to the educated middle classes forming the backbone of the FPM, whose life chances are hampered by systemic clientelism and sectarian red tape that often extends into the private sector. Barred from many attractive jobs for lack of connections, unable to initiate meaningful economic activity of their own for lack of capital and, again, lack of opportunities in an environment where many market segments are controlled by fat cats who easily squeeze out new competitors, they stand to gain from any change. Accordingly, the economic outlook of the FPM shows conservative or even neo-liberal leanings, with a high premium on encouraging free competition, world market integration and downsizing a state bureaucracy bloated by clientelism.
Still, and despite the secularist rhetoric wielded by Aoun and his lieutenants, one of the most important cards for the FPM among its predominantly Christian following appears to be the sense of being once again excluded in the post-civil war political order -- only this time, and worse, not by the Syrians, who were, after all, outsiders and occupiers. This time the Aounists feel marginalized by other Lebanese and, still worse, by nobody less than their age-old nemesis, the Sunnis, manifest in the overbearing presence of the Hariri family and its political machinery, the Future Movement. Secularism as professed by the Aounists thus shows a tendency to turn into a sectarian discourse directed mainly against a perceived Sunni takeover of state institutions, and prone to resurrect the eternal Christian fear of being “drowned” in a sea of more than 250 million Muslim Arabs surrounding Lebanon, the only country in the region to guarantee them full legal equality.
From the perspective of Christians close to Aoun, however, talking to the Americans was pointless, for the Sunni ascendancy was seen as not at all accidental, but rather part of a strategic realignment that puts Sunni Arab regimes, and in particular Saudi Arabia, at the center of a pro-US alliance against purported radicals. “In the fall of 2005, Washington was facing a stark choice of what to support in Lebanon,” wrote Jean Aziz, who has since become the director of Orange TV. “It could choose either a pluralist, consensual system that may have set an example for the dialogue rather than the clash of civilizations, or a Sunni Muslim system with American leanings and pliant to American interests, a model for American presence in the region.”
But then why turn to Hizballah, another party with a clearly Muslim character, and with a political agenda liable to embroil Lebanon deeper and further in regional struggles, something Lebanese Christians have always been loath to do? For Aoun’s detractors, the answer is simple and straightforward: Both Shi‘a and Christians are tiny minorities in a region dominated by Sunnis. In a system where sectarian considerations trump everything else, their alliance against a powerful Sunni-dominated regime now backed by Lebanon’s Sunni neighbors appears almost natural. With only 30-40 percent of the population, and with non-Arab Iran as its main sponsor, Lebanon’s Shi‘a have no hope of ever dominating the system, unlike the Sunnis, who draw economic and demographic strength from neighboring countries such as Egypt, Syria, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, all liable to be controlled by Islamists in the not too distant future. Additionally, Hizballah, with its disciplined fighting units, appears less scary in comparison to Sunni extremists such as Fatah al-Islam, who have been battling the Lebanese army for three months in the refugee camp of Nahr al-Barid, after allegedly being under the protection of the Hariri family -- developments dwelt upon by media sympathetic to the FPM.
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