I’ve written an article for The National about Michel Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement. If you start reading now, you may just finish it before the election (it’s a little… long-winded). Many thanks to the one they call Jonathan Shainin, an editor’s editor if there ever was one.
Bring it Aoun
Michel Aoun’s supporters revere him as a reforming hero, the only man able to repair a nation’s woes – and he agrees. Elias Muhanna on the overlooked core of Lebanon’s opposition.
When General Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), took to the stage at a campaign rally in south Beirut two Saturdays ago, a sea of citrus-coloured flags – the orange banners of his own party alongside the yellow standards of Hizbollah – churned before him. The choice of venue was strategic and symbolic. One kilometre to the west lay Haret Hreik, the mixed Christian and Shiite neighbourhood where Aoun was born in 1935. A kilometre to the east, perched in the foothills above Beirut, sat the presidential palace, the scene of his defeat at the hands of the Syrian Army during the civil war. And lying just to the south was al Dahiya, the epicentre of Hizbollah’s military resistance, much of which was bombed to rubble by the Israeli Air Force in the summer of 2006.
The bespectacled general glared out over the lectern into the falling dusk. “Why do they reject the Third Republic?” he bellowed, referring to his rivals and invoking his party’s ambitiously- titled electoral platform. “Is the strengthening of democracy and the creation of a secular state that safeguards equal rights for all of its citizens the reason for their rejection?”
Like his electoral ally Hassan Nasrallah, Michel Aoun is a deeply polarising figure in Lebanon. A Christian general who led the Lebanese Army against various adversaries during the civil war – including the PLO, Lebanese Christian militias and the Syrian Army – he has, since 2005, locked horns repeatedly with the March 14 coalition, an alliance of several parties backed by the United States that holds a slim majority in parliament. Now Aoun – whose career in politics stretches from his days as the leader of the resistance to Syria’s occupation of Lebanon to his rapprochement with Damascus two decades later – is at the helm of an opposition campaign that vows to replace the corrupt structures of a troubled republic with a new order.
To his supporters, Aoun is a larger-than-life figure who has come to lead Lebanon’s Christians – weak and divided since the end of the civil war – back to their former prominence, and to set the country on a path to national reconciliation and economic sustainability. To his detractors, “Napolaoun” is a power-obsessed megalomaniac who will do anything – even join forces with his former arch-nemesis Syria and its Lebanese allies – in order to fight his way to the top of Lebanon’s political hierarchy.
If the opposition prevails on June 7, headlines around the world will read “HIZBOLLAH WINS” even though the Shiite party is likely to hold no more seats in parliament than the dozen or so that it occupies today. It will, in fact, be the gains of the Free Patriotic Movement – and the affiliated parties of its Change and Reform Bloc – that will push the opposition into the majority, giving Aoun and his allies control of the largest block of seats in parliament.
Analysts and commentators have produced millions of words in an attempt to understand Hizbollah and its intentions, but Aoun and his movement have been overlooked. The FPM touts its ambitious and sweeping reform agenda, but the party – which sent representatives to parliament for the first time in 2005 – has only a brief track record in government and a leader renowned for his mercurial behaviour. Predicting the country’s course after the election is impossible, but it is clear that Michel Aoun and the Free Patriotic Movement are poised to play a major role – one that will test the party’s sincerity and determination to reform what it regards as a weak and ineffectual state.