Monday, January 01, 2007

Michael Totten on Lebanon's Michel 'Aoun

Michel Aoun at a meeting with Condoleeza Rice
in July 2005 (Source: Dept. of State)

Michael Totten recently published an excellent piece examining the tactical alliance between Michel 'Aoun and Hizbullah in Lebanon. It is definitely worth reading to understand some of the socio-economic frustrations that account for the attraction felt by a segment of the Lebanese Maronite Christian population - and other Lebanese - to this populist leader.

Totten's piece reminds us not to fall into the trap of reducing Lebanese politics to a conflict between Iranian and Syrian-backed Hizbullah, on one side, and the western-leaning Seniora government on the other. There are other elements in the opposition that do not share most or any of Hizbullah's values, especially not the foreign policy of the movement.

In his
latest post, Totten reconstructs a meeting with two 'Aoun supporters at a coffee house, which reveals that his supporters are not simply blindly following a charismatic leader. Totten's Christian informants in fact identify corruption and monopolistic tendencies in Lebanon - which they associate with the Hariri family - as being at the root of their support of 'Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement (al-Tayyār al-Watani al-Hurr).

Throughout the conversation with his Lebanese interlocutors, Jack and Antonios, Totten confronts them with his critical views of 'Aouns political manoeuvres and challenges them to explain an alliance that seems destined to fail to the detriment of the former Maronite militia leader. Notwithstanding their tendency to think in more conspiratorial terms (something that is understandable in Lebanon, as Totten explains), the pair reveal themselves to be quite level-headed. Their only flaw - and it is a big one - seems to be that they have wholeheartedly accepted the notion that the alliance with Nasrallah can be treated as a means to an end: to secure enough votes from Lebanese Shi'a to allow 'Aoun to become elected as Lebanese president and to give the Free Patriotic Movement a greater voice in the Lebanese cabinet. In other words, they think that Hizbullah can be restrained once it is given even more power in cabinet and parliament.

A screenshot from the website of the Lebanese "Free Patriotic Movement"

I have no idea how many non-Shi'i Lebanese back the Free Patriotic Movement at this stage. The FPM's website has a detailed break-down of a poll it conducted recently and claims that 66.2% of poll respondents (of all confessions) said they would back an FPM candidate for the Presidential Office reserved to Maronites according to the Lebanese constitution. The website also asserts that 69.7% of those polled said they would back the FPM "and its allies" (i.e. Hizbullah). I might take a closer look at the poll in a future post.


Saul Cohen said...

Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Interesting piece from Totten;
I love it when Middle Eastern, in particular hypocritical Lebanese, speaks politics while smoking hobble bubble (in this case a modern version, cigars).
Foreign journalists and analysts try to squeeze some secrets and strategies out of indigenous mundane chit chat. This Levantine hobby is called it in Arabic Akel Hawa (eating air).
Sure Hariri was a thug, as most Lebanese leaders are. But it is a joke to believe that a guy like Aoun will fight corruption. Sure he must be frustrated that he did not have a chance to steal as much as the others yet. He and his Shiite colleagues, including Nabil Berry are now getting millions in cash from the Iran/Syria axis. This is an ex-friend of Sadam and the enemy of the Syrian that almost exterminated him and his followers after the first Iraq war. He now takes their side against his own brothers? Who has any doubt that he is not another Lebanese spineless prostitute? With such a title he is actually suited to become the next president/puppet in this joke of French made Cancan country.
If Aoun’s dream, of becoming the next Lebanese president, is accomplished, he will fill his pockets with more Iranian (and other) money, try to survive in power for 5 years or so and then, like his predecessors, return to France to enjoy his spoils on the Cotes d’Azure. He may also distribute some Cuban cigars to his non corrupt followers.
It is very simple.
Saul Cohen

John said...

Hi Saul,
Thanks for the comments. I don't think Totten's intent was to squeeze any secrets out of his "Levantine" interlocutors - although your comment about foreign journalists doing has me smiling. It's certainly true that some westerners are beguiled and unjustifiably impressed by Middle Easterners smoking water pipes and looking "wise". Anyway, Totten's piece tried to give an insight into the mood of certain Lebanese and the grievances and perceptions that motivate their support for 'Aoun, who is by all accounts a rather thuggish and treacherous politician (which is obviously not saying much given the context in which he arose). I share your view that 'Aoun will definitely not be the guy to rescue Lebanon. Nevertheless, the grievances aired by these people about the malfunctioning of the state, its bureaucracy and the monopolies and oligarchies in Lebanon all have to be taken into account. These are factors that undermine faith in the state of Lebanon and will continue to do so.