Hanin Ghaddar

Michel Aoun’s presidential branding

Why Aoun will never be a consensus president

Michel Aoun makes the "V" sign at the Baabda presidential palace in December 1989. (AFP photo)

Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun has never stopped dreaming about the presidency since he got a taste of the Baabda Palace back in 1991. The momentum behind most of his political maneuvers and compromises has had one objective ever since: the road to Baabda.


Today, Aoun seems to be playing the game with different tools. He is not promoting himself as the “General” who will shape up the country with an iron fist. He is instead presenting himself as the “consensus” candidate who would eschew confrontation. He is now warming up to Saudi Arabia and Future Movement leader, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, after eight years of accusing them of “terrorism” and corruption.


His favorite son-in-law, Minister Gebran Bassil, met a few times with the Saudi ambassador in Lebanon, and then Aoun visited Hariri in Paris. An “openness” narrative preceded and followed all these meetings.


Things have changed, and the General knows that only a consensus president could win. The question is: will Aoun get the necessary support? This will require serious steps by Aoun to prove that his ties with Hezbollah have declined and that he is a moderate candidate. But it’s close to impossible.


Aoun’s new branding is not grounded on genuine political conversion. It is based more on information and reports coming from Washington confirming that although the US will not veto or officially support anyone, Obama’s administration prefers a consensus candidate to maintain stability in Lebanon. In light of US efforts to negotiate with Iran and compromise between Iranian and Saudi priorities, and because of his alliance with Hezbollah, Aoun is presenting himself as the man for the job.


Aoun reasons that he’s the only man who could open channels in Lebanon between March 14 – mainly made up of Hariri’s Future Movement parliamentary bloc – and Hezbollah. Aoun also says that he could create the balance between Sunni and Shiite influences in the government. Wouldn’t the US love to have this person? Theoretically, yes. But Aoun’s history raises serious concerns about his ability to deliver in this regard.


Knowing this, there has been a huge effort to polish Aoun’s image on the political, diplomatic, and media levels. Pro-Hezbollah media is presenting Aoun as the “consensus” candidate who will save Lebanon, create stability, and work to create a potential regional agreement in Lebanon. 


Last week, Al-Akhbar’s Ghassan Saoud wrote: “Aoun is not the only one counting on an Iranian-Saudi rapprochement that would allow him to win the presidency. Both General Jean Kahwaji, commander of the armed forces, and MP Jean Obeid are also counting on an Iranian-Saudi understanding…If Iran and Saudi Arabia reach an agreement that is comprehensive and their goal is restoring balance to the Lebanese government based on a new version of the no winners and no losers formula, and allowing for a state of stability that would allow the Lebanese to begin extracting their oil, then Aoun would be the primary candidate.”


Another Al-Akhbar article quoted an FPM MP saying that Aoun’s party “decided to distance itself from vertical alignments and therefore end its estrangement from all domestic and foreign forces.” It continued, “[We also] seek to put an end to any hostility we might have with certain political forces… we decided to readjust our relationships, especially with Saudi Arabia.”


According to this new branding campaign, promoted by party faithful media, Aoun will be the consensus president who will bring harmony to Lebanon and oversee the country’s oil and gas extraction in a stable environment. Quite an extraordinary transformation…


There are many impediments. In Aoun’s case, there is a difference between presenting yourself as a consensus candidate and actually being one:


1. So far, Aoun has not, and probably never will, give any guarantees that he will actually act as a consensus president, or that he will distance himself and his party from Hezbollah and Iran. A shameless apologist for Hezbollah – from its triggering of the war with Israel in 2006, through its violent takeover of Beirut’s western half in 2008, to its current military involvement in Syria – Aoun is in too deep. His history of favoring family members in party politics coupled with his extreme political maneuvers raise serious concerns about Aoun’s credibility or the trustworthiness of his candidacy.


2. Giving Aoun the presidency will never “peel” him away from Hezbollah. This is wishful thinking, and it resembles previous regional and international efforts to engage the Assad regime in Syria in order to “peel” it away from Iran. But it didn’t work then and it won’t work now. Iran will never accept an ally to turn against it.


3. A formula promoted by March 8 media outlets has suggested that Hariri will come back as prime minister if Aoun becomes president. But it won’t work. Unlike Lebanon’s president and speaker of parliament, the prime minister’s reign can be ended by a simple vote of confidence and withdrawal of more than one-third of the ministers. Not too long ago, Hariri himself was toppled as prime minister by Hezbollah and allies, including Aoun. There is no guarantee that Aoun won’t do it again.


4. Aoun has been extremely ambiguous about his ongoing coordination with Hezbollah. If Aoun is promoting stability and fighting “terrorism” in tandem with the US, then it should be clear that he alone cannot do that. He will need Hezbollah and its influence inside security institutions. This requires major compromises with the Party of God, bigger and more significant ones than he’s already made since his return to Lebanon in 2005. As president, Aoun will become another Emile Lahoud, but with a louder voice.


The General has a long road to the Baabda Palace. He needs to convince the Christians in Lebanon, all of them, that he is worthy of the presidency. He needs to convince the Sunnis, not just Hariri, that he will not fight them. Last but not least, he will have to make us all forget his many shortcomings and erratic behavior. The Lebanese do have a short memory when it comes to politics, but Aoun is a very difficult man to forget, or forgive.


Hanin Ghaddar is managing editor of NOW. She tweets @haningdr 

He's long vied for a home at the Baabda presidential palace. (AFP photo)

"The General has a long road to the Baabda Palace."

  • حفيدُ الغساسنة

    “To be persuasive [one] must be believable; to be believable [one] must be credible; to be credible [one] must be truthful.” To people with stable minds, Aoun cannot possibly be persuasive; he’s neither believable nor credible nor truthful. His leadership style of ‘my way or the highway’ does not play well, since ‘real leaders’ take the blame and give the credit, not the other way around – obviously, leaders who manipulate with their egos and consistently fail are not leaders. Bottom line: Aoun is a blinded leader of the blind, and Christ says: “if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall in the ditch.”

    April 27, 2014

  • lolitajr.2012

    Same is when writing politics.. To be convincing you should really be not accusing and you should not infer hints in your speech.. Ur article is nice but from first para I could tell the closing line

    April 26, 2014

  • Patriot60

    Another reason could be: after you put lipstick on a pig, does it transform itself into a non-pig or, more likely, does it still remain the ugly pig it is? Just wondering. Aoun is a Lebanese ...

    April 25, 2014