Toxic Aoun era merely a symptom of Lebanon’s terminal disease
Michel Aoun this week left Lebanon’s presidential palace a day before his six-year term was due to end, but not before detonating a mine that will further suck the troubled country into a constitutional black hole. He signed a decree accepting the resignation of the government and demanded Najib Mikati be removed as prime minister-designate, thus deepening the legal vacuum the country finds itself in. By doing so, he has left Lebanon without a president and without a functioning government — at least in the eyes of his supporters.
Caretaker premier Mikati has been trying to form a government for the last six months without success. Likewise, parliament has been trying to elect a new president for more than a month, also without success. Mikati has rejected Aoun’s last decree, saying that the outgoing president had no authority to sack him. Aoun’s years in office have not been the most auspicious, to say the least. He leaves behind a fractured, bankrupt and deeply divided country that now finds itself entangled in a web of unclear and inconclusive legal wrangles.
Much can be said about Aoun, 89, the former general who switched allegiances during the civil war and spent years in exile. His political ambition to be president took a convoluted course that finally ended with him forming an unholy bond with an unexpected ally: Hezbollah. As head of the Christian-dominated Free Patriotic Movement, Aoun was able to stall the election of a president for two years, between 2014 and 2016. He finally got his way in 2016 and, for his apologists, his term was an unlucky one, marred by a financial meltdown that they blame on endemic mismanagement and corruption, public protests in 2019 that triggered a series of government collapses, the COVID-19 pandemic and a horrific explosion at Beirut port in 2020 that caused the deaths of more than 200 people and injured 7,000, in addition to billions of dollars of damage.
Critics say his reign has been a hellish one of his own making. Aoun and Hezbollah deliberately foiled the formation of a number of governments, the holding of elections and now the naming of a president in a bid to serve each others’ interests. Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, wants to enjoy a veto power in any government while Aoun wants to secure his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, as next in line for the presidency. Opponents, both Sunnis and Christians, reject that.
Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah has led to Lebanon’s regional and international isolation. The country has found itself embroiled in a proxy war involving Iran, Syria, the US and Israel. Long-time supporters of Lebanon, such as Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries, in addition to France, could do little to distance it from the regional power struggle.
Aoun may have left the presidential palace, but not before deepening his country’s constitutional crisis and the political vacuum it now finds itself in. His last decree will divide the bankrupt country even further. Under the constitution, in the case of a presidential vacuum, the president’s authorities revert automatically to the government. But Aoun sacked the government, which was not within his powers, and as a result cast a dark shadow over what happens next.
One of the problems with Lebanon, and there are many, is that almost all other political players in the sectarian-dominated political scene carry as much blame as Aoun and his allies for the way things have turned out. Lebanon’s descent into the abyss took decades to happen. The former warlords of the civil war became the ruling elite and, in a bid to maintain the sectarian structure of the state, they took part in the systemic plundering of the country’s resources. At the end of the day, all ordinary Lebanese, regardless of sect, ended up losing out.
Lebanon is a failed country, but more importantly it is also an occupied country that is the victim of a regional power struggle. This has been its sad reality since before the civil war of the 1970s.
Lebanon is a failed country, but more importantly it is also an occupied country that is the victim of a regional power struggle.
Electing a president and forming a government will not end Lebanon’s ordeal — although it does not seem that either will happen anytime soon. The future of Lebanon is but a minor issue in the larger, multifaceted US-Iran-Israel struggle that extends all the way to Iraq and Yemen.
Aoun’s ignominious time in power is but a symptom of the terminal disease that has been eating at the heart of Lebanon’s institutions for many years. A major part of the disease is Hezbollah’s hegemony and, by extension, that of Iran, but that is not all. The sectarian power-sharing formula is no longer viable and the country needs a new social contract that secures its territorial integrity and sovereignty while replacing sub-identities — what the Lebanese-born French thinker Amin Maalouf called “deadly identities” — with a unified national one.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010