The beginning of the end of the most dangerous agreement Lebanon has ever seen

The beginning of the end of the most dangerous agreement Lebanon has ever seen

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May God be kind to Abu Nuwas, who wrote the following verse in one of his most renowned poems: “You are astonished by my illness? … It is my health that should astonish you!”

It came to my mind as it became clear to me that the Mar Mikhael Agreement, which was signed in Mar Mikhael Church in the southern suburbs of Beirut, was coming to an end.

On that day, the Free Patriotic Movement (the Aounists), the most fanatical of the Maronite Christian forces, and Hezbollah, Khomeinist Iran’s political and strategic proxy in Lebanon, announced that they had signed what was, by any logical standard, a perplexing memorandum of understanding.

This understanding was reached by the FPM — whose leader Gen. Michel Aoun had gone further in his refusal to compromise Christian political representation than even the Maronite patriarch and the Christian fighters during the Lebanese war and rejected the Taif Agreement — and a Shiite armed group that prides itself on its allegiance to Velayat-e-Faqih and striving to incorporate Lebanon into Iran’s Islamic state.

Observers of Lebanese politics understood that the moment this understanding or “alliance of opposites” emerged, it could never amount to anything more than a fleeting pact of convenience. They knew that it would become redundant as soon as both parties had achieved enough of what they had hoped to get out of it.

Indeed, it was no secret, neither to them nor to keen foreign observers, that the understanding these polar opposite forces had come to was grounded in particular circumstances.

There is a growing impression that leading Western powers are amenable to a deal with Tehran

Eyad Abu Shakra

Firstly, Aoun and Hezbollah were both grappling with what they considered a “Sunni moment,” after the Sunni Muslims had achieved a decent degree of political influence domestically and in the Arab world thanks to the prominent political and economic role played by the country’s late former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Secondly, Aoun, who had always aspired to monopolize Christian representation, was keen on breaking the Taif Agreement. It had dwarfed the Maronite Christians’ share of political power, he argued, by stripping the presidency of its near-absolute powers, including its control of the executive authority, which the Taif Agreement had transferred to the Council of Ministers, in which Christians and Muslims were to be equally represented.

Thirdly, Aoun, who had once been the commander of Lebanon’s army, was aware that for demographic, political, military, and economic reasons, Christians could no longer reverse the realities created by the Taif Agreement on their own. Thus, they needed to align with a significant domestic force that also had an interest in ending the “Sunni moment.” Naturally, given the demographic realities of Lebanon, drawing on the strength of the Shiite bloc and leveraging its strength was inevitable.

Fourthly, if Aoun and his FPM were obsessed with reclaiming past privileges, Hezbollah was beginning to pursue its plan for future domestic hegemony, which paralleled Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony, a key milestone of which was seizing control of Iraq in 2003. Indeed, in the spring of 2006, the party made its move, provoking a war with Israel that destroyed much of Lebanon’s infrastructure and ended with a ceasefire that left Hezbollah’s arsenal pointing north, at the Lebanese interior. That is precisely what we saw affirmed two years later with the domestic conflict of 2008.

The 2008 war (locally referred to as the “events of May 7”) saw the invasion of the capital Beirut by the Hezbollah militia, which also tried to occupy the southern segment of Mount Lebanon. The party’s dominance over the country began with this war, which allowed it to shape Lebanon’s politics, security, and economic fortunes, especially through its “parallel army” and “parallel economy.”

Later, in 2008, Gen. Michel Suleiman was consensually elected as president in the Qatari capital, Doha, in order to end the occupation of Beirut. But after his term ended in 2014, Hezbollah made sure to paralyze Lebanon for a whole two and a half years in a bid to impose its own ally Aoun as president — which is exactly what happened.

The two parties to the Mar Mikhael Agreement continued to serve one another’s interests.

Hezbollah granted Aoun enough electoral support to allow him to form the largest Christian bloc in parliament and make the lion’s share of Christian appointments in the government and the public sector, while Aoun has unequivocally backed Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria since 2011, reinforcing the so-called “alliance of minorities.”

However, recent changes in local and regional circumstances have shifted both parties’ priorities. The Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon, which was exacerbated by Hezbollah’s role in Syria, gave rise to resentment, particularly among Lebanese Christians.

Moreover, the tacit approval that the US and Israel have granted to the Damascus regime to remain in power has revitalized the regime’s hopes of reviving its influence and reinstating its cronies in Lebanon. Given that the Damascus regime has a reliable Lebanese ally in former minister Suleiman Frangieh, who is also closely allied to Hezbollah, Gebran Bassil, the head of the FPM and Aoun’s son-in-law, who seeks to succeed him as president, became aware that his odds of becoming president were seriously waning.

Then came the Christians’ apprehensions regarding Hezbollah’s entanglement in Iran’s “united battlefield,” following the war in Gaza, which could have grave repercussions on Lebanon — including its Christian regions.

In addition to all of this, there is a growing impression that leading Western powers are amenable to a deal with Tehran.

Faced with all of these changes, both parties to the agreement no longer feel the need to appease a tactical ally with whom they share neither trust nor strategic interests.

The Aounists have become convinced that the disadvantages of their agreement now outweigh the benefits, while the party, in my opinion, always knew that each side would eventually go its own way.

Thus came the psychological split, then the interest-based separation, ending one of the most dangerous and malicious deals in Lebanese political history.

  • Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. X: @eyad1949
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