Michael Young

All in the family

Michel Aoun between the presidency and the great beyond

Aoun himself has contributed to the political deadlock that has delayed the appointment of new security officials. (NOW)

Michel Aoun has threatened to leave the cabinet if the terms of Lebanon’s military and security chiefs are extended. The general is apparently angry that there is a political consensus to extend the mandates in order to maintain stability at a time when the country faces multiple challenges.


The contradictions inherent in Aoun’s position are many. For starters, Aoun himself has contributed to the political deadlock that has delayed the appointment of new security officials. By refusing to allow his bloc to attend presidential election sessions in parliament, the general has helped freeze the system, doing precisely what Hezbollah wants him to do: create the conditions to bring in a president of whom the party approves.


But there is something else taking place below the surface that tells us something about the atmosphere around Aoun. When the general indicates that he wants new military and security appointments, a major issue on his mind is who will replace Jean Qahwaji as commander of the armed forces. Aoun’s candidate is his son-in-law Chamel Roukoz, who leads the army’s commando regiment, the Maghaweer.


For a man who derided the nepotistic ways of the political leadership in Lebanon, Aoun is turning into the platonic form of nepotism. He has tirelessly promoted another son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, handing him the most lucrative ministries. One suspects there are those in the family who now want to spread the benefits more evenly. This is all the truer as Roukoz is seen as a competent officer. But there is more to it than that.


One discerns an emerging struggle over who might succeed Aoun as head of the Free Patriotic Movement. While Bassil has his allies in the movement, a number of senior Aounist figures cannot stomach him, and would have no intention of accepting his takeover of the movement. Their principal option, then, is to put their weight behind someone like Roukoz, whose position and reputation make him a natural counterweight to Bassil.


Indeed, there have been recent reports that Aounist parliamentarians known for their hostility to Bassil have traveled to Washington to push for Roukoz’s appointment.


What is Aoun’s position on all this? The general is in something of a quandary. On the one hand, he still insists on becoming president, meaning he is in no mood to prepare for his succession. On the other, the man is 80 and reportedly not in the best of health. In other words, he has to consider what happens to his political movement the day after he’s gone.


In that sense, Aoun’s promotion of Roukoz, aside perhaps from addressing a family issue, may be his way of showing that he has no preferences when it comes to his succession. Or better still, Aoun—no fool when it comes to self-interest—could be well aware of the resentment against Bassil and sees a need to provide his followers with an alternative who is more consensual.


Whatever the rationale, it appears that the issue of military and security appointments also touches on the internal dynamics of the Aounist movement, and is therefore important to Aoun. Yet his latitude in taking out his frustrations by withdrawing from the government is limited as it hits up against Hezbollah’s red lines. The party, caught in a complicated, grinding campaign in Syria, does not want to simultaneously face a domestic political crisis.


Aoun, sensing Hezbollah’s vulnerabilities, may choose to act nonetheless. But one thing is apparent: if Aoun becomes president, the likelihood that he will be able to bring Roukoz in as armed forces commander will be diminished. In other words, having granted Aoun his wish to become head of state, the political class, including Hezbollah, will forcefully resist giving him influence over the Lebanese military as well.        


This raises another interesting question. If we reverse that equation, so that Roukoz’s appointment lessens Aoun’s chances of becoming president, how serious is Aoun about his son-in-law? And if he is serious, then what does it tell us about Aoun’s frame of mind? Would he be willing to give up his presidential ambitions for something in exchange? Some Aounists are already talking about a Roukoz-for-Aoun deal.


Yet it’s difficult to imagine Aoun being so selfless. Rather, if one had to guess, Aoun is putting all his demands on the table now in the hope of not ending up empty-handed. The general has often found himself abandoned by the political wayside, with nothing, when his maneuvering promised better outcomes.


At the heart of Aoun’s considerations is the relationship with Hezbollah. The party says it backs him for the presidency, but you wonder if that is just empty talk to keep the general quiet. Aoun must sense this, hence his threat to leave the government. But Aoun also knows he has to resolve a parallel issue; namely, what happens to his movement after he’s dead.


That is what is most difficult for Aoun to accept. If he has to plan for his succession now, it doesn’t make sense for him to focus on the presidency. The latter is geared toward the future, the former toward the past. Aoun is caught in the middle—on the one side his family and legacy; on the other his selfishness.  


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling

Aoun himself has contributed to the political deadlock that has delayed the appointment of new security officials. (NOW)

For a man who derided the nepotistic ways of the political leadership in Lebanon, Aoun is turning into the platonic form of nepotism."

  • Beiruti

    There is not Free Patriotic Movement without Aoun. Let us not kid ourselves. No Christian political movement in Lebanon has survived the loss of its charismatic founder. The same will be true of the FPM. Roukos or Bassil, it doesn't matter. FPM's raisin d Eire is to serve as a vehicle for the ascent of Aoun to the Presidency. Without that, there is no reason for this "party". This article is a lot of speculation about nothing.

    April 21, 2015

  • Petrossou

    Neither Aoun, nor anybody close to him should ever be trusted at all. He has been the main reason for Lebanon's occupation for 15 years and a collaborator to the ennemis of Lebanon after deserting his position as army general in times of war. Today he came back with the same agenda and if Lebanese people entrust again some one like him or having followed his political options, it would mean the end of the country as we know it and teh begining to new wars and bad troubles.

    April 20, 2015

  • Patriot60

    Aoun is no different than each every other politician in this country. No one thinks of Lebanon. Having said that, he is clearly deranged and in need of psychiatric assistance because no sane person can associate with the Iranian Hezbollah or the Ba'ath regime in Syria, especially when he was earlier opposed to both. In that sense, Aoun is the local John Kerry, for he was against them before he was for them. Let's face it, Lebanon is condemned to linger, with no hope for any progress to transform this country into a decent place. Its best sons and daughters live, work and thrive outside its borders; the worst are left behind and that includes the clergy. Both Muslim as well as Christian. No wonder we now have Halish and Daish. Expect clashes and anticipate an eventual division of the land.

    April 18, 2015

  • يسترجي

    At least it is clear for everyone that LEBANON is nowhere on Aoun's list of priorities, which is why many Lebanese people wish that Aoun gets neither the presidency nor the army!

    April 17, 2015