Elections, Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanon, March 14

Calling all FPMers

Can someone explain Michel Aoun to me? No need for responses from the M14ers who read this blog: I know what you think of him. I’d like to hear from the FPMers.

aouncartoonHow to explain Aoun’s latest behavior, from turning down Hariri’s lunch invitation, to insisting on Gebran Bassil’s re-appointment as Telecommunications Minister (when he had once denounced the practice of allowing unsuccessful candidates for parliament to become ministers), to suddenly announcing that he wants the Interior Ministry (a post set aside for one of the President’s ministers, probably the highly popular Ziad Baroud), to refusing to refer to Hariri as PM-designate…

I’ll venture an explanation myself. Aoun can get away with these tactics because there is no clear-cut set of protocols according to which the cabinet formation must take place. It’s a free-for-all. Anybody is fully justified in making whatever demands they feel like, and there is no universally-accepted standard by which to measure the merit of those demands. (By the way, I am formally submitting my demand for the Ministry of Social Affairs. I feel I’m entitled to it, and I dare you to prove me wrong. Go on, try it.)

Consensual democracy in Lebanon is like trying to herd a bunch of teenagers with ADHD into a little rowboat and persuading them all to put their oars away so that the river’s natural current will coax them gently down the stream. All it takes is a single one of those kids to dip his oar into the water, and the rowboat veers towards the rocks.

None of this is surprising; we’ve seen this kerfuffle loom time and again. But what never ceases to amaze me is how people continue to take these leaders seriously. I’m not being cynical here; I really would like an FPMer to come forward and explain it to me.

Take this clip as an example. Here’s a rough transcript:

“Let’s now turn to a matter that has become, in my opinion, a personal one. And it was intended to be personal, for them to say to the people: “It’s because of the General’s son-in-law that the government hasn’t been formed yet.” Well, may the government not be formed just because of the General’s son-in-law, then, if that’s how they want it!”

Does anyone really buy this stuff? It’s like saying: “How dare you accuse me of peeing in your pool! Just for that, I’m going to pee in your pool!” How amazingly lame. And yet, despite its lameness, people believe him!

I can’t help but feel sometimes that if Saad Hariri had 10% of the rhetorical abilities of Nasrallah or Ghazi al-Aridi, he would have put an end to these shenanigans a month ago. Instead, all he can seem to manage are these tepid can’t-we-all-just-get-along press conferences, which hardly inspire confidence in the future. The Big Queso of Qoreitem needs to poop or get off the pot already.

Here’s al-Aridi explaining what we all know, namely that you can’t make the rules up as you go along.

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25 thoughts on “Calling all FPMers

  1. I am not a FPM supporter, but I’d say that this is not only an example of what consensual politics is all about – but what multi party parliamentary politics is all about.

    My guess would be FPM will be the Opposition – and will increasingly staunch in its advocacy of “Maronite” position opposed to a government that the FPM will try to portray as having Maronite members from LF, Kataeb but who really are just weaklings that do the bidding for the “foreigners” (i.e. Saudi Arabia, Mubarak etc).

    It makes perfect sense. Aoun knowns he will never be President. For the long-term interests of the FPM, better to be free of government, be “matryed” (yet again) and then go and try to sweep the Maronite and other Christian vote properly in four years’ time.

    If Lebanon had a proportional representation system it would be not that different, in my view.

    Posted by Sofia | August 20, 2009, 3:02 am
  2. The most worrying aspect of this whole thing is Aoun’s insistence on his son-in-law. For a party that has consistently claimed to be different to the rest of the patriarchal parties, this is an all-time low. The FPM is now the same as all political parties in Lebanon and cannot claim to be any different: no internal democracy, a patriarchal hierarchy, and no clear political program or direction other than preserving the privileges of Maronites.

    Posted by Doreen | August 20, 2009, 4:28 am
  3. I am not for nepotism in politics at all for one (Nor am I a staunch FPM supporter)…Its whats sustaining the tribal sectarian system in place and well entrenched after all..
    But why judge the ever lasting crusading-general-on-boot-camp when “The Big Queso”(and others) is also appointing and annointing his own as well? Since he’s too young (still) to have an all grown up son-in-law, nephew or niece who could “ad-minister(?)” as well?
    Dont we know these negotiations about cabinet portfolios are being discussed & distributed behind closed doors after all?
    Maybe what el general just needs is a good press secretary-PR consultant who would just censure his overuse of an untied tongue & teach him some poker face stategies…

    Posted by theolivetrees | August 20, 2009, 8:28 am
  4. Sofia

    I hear what you’re saying, but don’t you think that there are protocols that multi-party parliamentary systems can adopt to make the process of forming a cabinet more straightforward?

    I would much rather have governments fall every two years as they do in (ahem) some other countries, than to endure this kind of thing.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 20, 2009, 9:17 am
  5. theolivetrees,

    “But why judge the ever lasting crusading-general-on-boot-camp when “The Big Queso”(and others) is also appointing and annointing his own as well?”

    This is why I’m not all that bothered about Aoun’s relatives serving in government or taking an active role in the FPM. Everybody does it, especially in a country like Lebanon where people tend to keep things all in the family.

    What I’m against is the inconsistencies in the rhetoric: flip flopping on the issue of whether to nominate ministers who were unsuccessful in getting elected to parliament.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 20, 2009, 9:23 am
  6. Well, I didn’t quite understand it like you did QN. The analogy of peeing in a pool should be more like this, “If they say that the problem is that I’m peeing in their pool, then fine, that is the problem” i.e. he does not see it as the problem but some people just seem to want to define the problem as Aoun’s peeing in the pool.

    And on insisting on the Interior Ministry, Aoun is negotiating shrewdly. By raising the stakes, he might just pull of keeping his son-in-law as a minister, but for the price of forsaking the Interior Ministry, a precious gem in the eyes of M14. That’s negotiating. If you’re about to lose a pending discussion, raise the stakes and claim more, and by forsaking the “more”, you might just keep what you where about to lose.

    Posted by Doc | August 20, 2009, 9:26 am
  7. It seems to me that this is a very clever game being played by the Opposition – and by the FPM in particular. Remember the election posters – the FPM’s ones were always the most clever.

    Anyway, here’s how I read it. The FPM and Amal are the Opposition’s attack dogs. FPM in Parliament, and Amal on the streets. Hizbollah has no interest in parliamentary catfights, nor tussles on the streets with other armed gangs. It wants to stay clean.

    But the Opposition smells Hariri’s genuine fear. Hariri has lost Jumblatt, isn’t eloquent enough to know how to respond (as you mentioned) and looks like a scared child. The Opposition want to rattle him a bit more – so send in the Opposition’s Parliamentary armour – General Michel Aoun.

    Posted by Sasa | August 20, 2009, 9:32 am
  8. Doc

    How about this: “If they say that the problem is that I’m peeing in their pool, then fine, I’m going to make that the problem.” Does that work? 🙂

    Michael Young has a good op-ed in today’s Daily Star that touches on similar themes. I think that he underestimates the solidity of Aoun’s position right now, but his recommendation that Hariri quit making an issue over Bassil and see about trying to court the FPM into presenting a unified stance against Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs is a good one.

    Here’s the op-ed:

    Is Michel Aoun a Problem or a Solution?

    There was snickering and indignation on Monday, after Michel Aoun held a press conference to defend his son-in-law Gebran Bassil. Aoun’s vulgarity on the occasion notwithstanding, his nepotistic tendencies aside, it would be a mistake to blame him alone for the blockage in the government’s formation. The essence of the problem lies elsewhere.

    The fuss being made over Bassil’s appointment is silly. Bassil is a notably unremarkable figure, despite his father-in-law’s extravagant commendations. However, nothing in Lebanon’s Constitution or political practice justifies the decision to deny him a ministerial post. Ministers are not parliamentarians and shouldn’t be obliged to meet the same criteria. To win a seat in Parliament, a candidate must usually ride the coattails of a powerful political leader. This means that governments filled with election winners also tend to be governments filled with yes-men. Is that a model we should be promoting, under the guise of enhancing legitimacy?

    It would have been wiser from the start to give Aoun what he wanted, a portfolio for Bassil, and leave the Aounist movement, which had been divided over his appointment, to thrash out the consequences. Why did Saad Hariri allow himself to be trapped by what should have been a relatively minor political obstacle? Instead, the Aounists are now united behind Bassil, even those among them who dislike him, while the real reason for the delay in the Cabinet’s formation remains hidden.

    The fact is that the delay is due to tensions in the relationship between Syria and Saudi Arabia, in the shadow of their uneasy reconciliation. The Syrians seek to hammer home their indispensability to any inter-Lebanese reconciliation, and they apparently still want Saad Hariri to visit Damascus before the government is finalized. The American veto of such a visit, but also Hariri’s reluctance to go along with a whitewash of his father’s assassins, evidently contributed to the cancellation of a meeting in Damascus several weeks ago between King Abdullah and Bashar Assad. Since then progress on the government has been slow, and was further hindered by Walid Jumblatt’s speech earlier this month.

    In this context, the Gebran Bassil saga is a footnote, one being exploited by Aoun to raise the ante on Hariri, That is why it would have been far better for the prime minister-elect to neutralize this particular headache preemptively, by accepting Bassil and therefore perhaps avoiding the current row over handing the Aounists a sovereign ministry, which Aoun is using as leverage to shoehorn his son-in-law into the Cabinet.

    It’s easy to underestimate Aoun. Rare are the major battles he has undertaken that he has won. He failed to liberate Lebanon from Syria when he headed a military government between 1988 and 1990, and he failed to defeat the Lebanese Forces afterward. Upon returning home in 2005 he scored a major victory, but then did nothing with it when he failed to become president – though he would have been uncircumventable had he remained neutral in the March 8-March 14 rivalry. And finally, he failed to win a majority in the elections last June, instead becoming a lighting rod for the growing number of Christians voting against him.

    That Aoun should now be fighting so hard over Bassil is a revealing sign of how far he’s dropped. Having lost almost everywhere else, he at least wants to win the struggle over his succession. This creates an opening that Hariri and March 14 should profit from, in light of the aggressive Syrian endeavor to reimpose some sort of hegemony over Lebanon.

    March 14 needs more imagination in dealing with Aoun. In the end his excessive demands are part of a bargaining ploy. Hariri has to advance gingerly when it comes to the general: he doesn’t want to alienate President Michel Sleiman or his own allies Samir Geagea and Amin Gemayel. That’s understandable, but as prime minister he will have to widen his horizons beyond March 14, while also preserving his Christian partnerships. One of the main aims of the Syrians is to break Hariri and the Sunnis off from the anti-Syrian Maronites. That is why they have threatened Gemayel, making him more responsive to engagement from Damascus; and it is why Syria’s local peons are now preparing to isolate Geagea, otherwise a much tougher nut to crack.

    This situation makes it more desirable for Hariri to help facilitate inter-Christian reconciliation, which would bolster his own authority and his community’s defiance in the face of Syrian efforts to contain the Sunnis and undermine their ability to remain the backbone of opposition to some form of Syrian restoration. Such a plan is by no means easy. Since when have Sunni leaders dared play Christian politics? And with the Christians so divided, Hariri is more likely to fail than to succeed.

    However, it’s equally true that Aoun is most dangerous when he feels forsaken. That’s why it’s worth determining what it is he really wants, and conceding what can be conceded in exchange for greater support from Aoun against Syrian moves weakening Lebanese sovereignty. Aoun has tried to use the Syrians to his advantage, but ultimately he has gotten very little out of them. Even his trip to Syria last year did not generate any particular warmth or long-term cooperation. Aoun may be more receptive to Hariri on the Syrian front than the general’s detractors imagine, even as his close ties with Hizbullah and Iran will doubtless limit his maneuverability.

    The balance of power has shifted in Lebanon since Jumblatt’s turnaround. The Druze leader will be very careful not to alienate the Saudis, but that doesn’t mean Saad Hariri should stand pat. Political alignments are changing and it might be time to seriously investigate whether Michel Aoun would not himself welcome an opportunity to revise a political strategy that has ultimately left him empty-handed.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 20, 2009, 9:34 am
  9. Sasa,

    Good reading. Woof woof!

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 20, 2009, 9:36 am
  10. I can’t be objective on this matter, coz I dont like Aoun.

    But I agree with you about how Lebanese keep taking our politicians seriously.

    And a final wish, maybe one day a minister will be picked based on his qualifications corresponding to the ministry he/she is being considered for.

    Posted by Liliane | August 20, 2009, 9:59 am
  11. ok! aoun is a badtrip experience when inhaling acid pills: after the ephoria comes the nightmare…
    but hariri is the Hash kind of man: living in a vague kind of status – can’t-we-all-just-get-along – with memory voids.
    he’s not a prime minister yet and he already looks like karamanlis PM of the last 6 years of Greek ill-governance…

    “But what never ceases to amaze me is how people continue to take these leaders seriously. I’m not being cynical here”, you said.
    Suddenly I realized that the same cynicism I’m experiencing when working for the sicilian institutions or government mixed with what I call the “logic of favours”, appears to me as a “déjà vu”. I’m not an intellectual to analyse with more accurency this awckard feeling: this bitter flavour of cynicism is something I recall from the same people that take seriously any lebaneese leader in the country I was born in and lived until the age of 16, especially when reffering at that time to Civil War!
    Isn’t Civil War when you start mixing cynicism with passion, another virtue of the mediterranean people…

    palermo 41°C august 2009

    Posted by georges salameh | August 20, 2009, 10:50 am
  12. For the umpteenth time let me say that it ain’t the politicians fault that the Lebanese public seems to be enthralled by political feudalism. The public gets what it deserves. When the public is sufficiently dissatisfied with the childish behaviour of its politicians then it will vote them out of office and will stop acting as sheeple. Until that happens ; and it won’t anytime soon, then we can look for more of the same from both sides. I am not sure that either Saniora or Sa’ad Hariri is more of a statesman than Aoun. None seems to have the courage to stand up for the simple idea that a sovereign state must act as one who values independence and self determination.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | August 20, 2009, 11:16 am
  13. What really fascinates me about all of this, is that we are falling, yet again, into the trap set by the politicians and that is to keep the Lebanese distracted while the true problems are pushed aside.

    For example, a major strategy of the March 14 during the pre-election period was to focus on the Opposition’s relations with Syria and Iran in order to hide its record on domestic issues such as corruption, debt, etc. Now, again we are distracted with the issue of Aoun’s son in law and the discussions about the cabinet, budget, espionage, etc are put on the back burner.

    Posted by Faten | August 20, 2009, 11:23 am
  14. Elias you asked FPMers to explain Aoun’s behaviour, which I must say I don’t find strange at all, especially in Lebanon. To reiterate your point: Harriri Jr, Gemeyal Jr., Murr Jr, etc.; the list is endless.

    Week after week self-styled Middle East commentators such as you, Tony Badran, Michael Young and his colleagues use the internet and newspapers to dissect Aoun with such contempt that it borders on OCD. All Lebanese politicians flip flop yet Aoun is always the pinayata. For example, in Tuesday’s edition of Lebanon wannabe broadsheet the Daily Star an article appeared where in one breath the writer makes the point that Hariri doesn’t want to appoint candidates who lost the election, but in the next paragraph he writes that if Aoun is given a sovereign ministry then there won’t be one for Nassib Lahoud, who pulled out of the election altogether.

    As you raised the issue of Aoun (again! Yawn) I would like you to explain this unhealthy obsession with him. You write, “What I’m against is the inconsistencies in the rhetoric: flip flopping on the issue of whether to nominate ministers who were unsuccessful in getting elected to parliament” Why aren’t you against this when it’s done by Jumblatt, Harriri and co. What is it about Aoun that tickles your morals and makes you want to bang your fists on the table in frustration, but the other hypocrites that make up Lebanon’s political circus can’t seem to make you raise an eyebrow.

    No other Lebanese politician is treated in the same way. This is what I’m against!

    Posted by GG | August 20, 2009, 7:22 pm
  15. Hi GG

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t know if you are new to the blog, but if so I encourage you to search through the archives to read plenty of criticism of March 14 politicians. There seems to be so much, in fact, that other readers feel confident in their assessments that I’m a raging Orange-head, go figure.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 20, 2009, 7:40 pm
  16. To GG:
    Your bossman’s arrogance is annoying. His Holier-than-Thou attitude is breath taking. Hypocrisy runs amok in this banana republic and Aoun’s Orange shit stinks as much as the Yellow, Blue, Green, and all the colors of effin rainbow coalition.

    Posted by SL | August 20, 2009, 8:31 pm
  17. Folks, let’s keep the discussion civil, shall we?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 20, 2009, 8:44 pm
  18. if you mix all them colours up you get brown poo colour! i think you’re on to something SL.

    GG, Jumbo never had integrity but – some would claim – GMA did. i think that’s why the harsher treatment. This episode is also reflective of what the Lebanese system does to you. to work in it you become embroiled in its filth, and to agitate from outside, you get no where.

    Posted by the Sydneysider | August 20, 2009, 8:45 pm
  19. But QN, we like scatology!

    Posted by the Sydneysider | August 20, 2009, 8:46 pm
  20. I’m with CG on this one.
    I mean Aoun is crazy, no doubt about that:-)

    But I really don’t understand the concern “why did Aoun change his mind on the ‘tawzir el rasibeen’ issue ? ”
    Isn’t it obvious ? It is the same reason M14 changed their mind on the same issue.
    When it was about one of theirs (Nassib Lahoud), it was OK with M14 but not OK with MA, when it is about Bassil, it becomes OK with MA but they have a problem with it.

    Both side switch positions on the same issue yet we only wonder why one of the sides did it.

    “Because it suits his interests better” isn’t that always the answer?

    Posted by FordPrefect | August 21, 2009, 4:05 am
  21. Qifa Nabki: “Don’t you think that there are protocols that multi-party parliamentary systems can adopt to make the process of forming a cabinet more straightforward?”

    Yes I agree it would be more ideal to have something like in Switzerland – there all three communities, well 4 really, have their own independence over much of their own communal affairs, their own separate languages and cultures, large amount of autonomy, and then there is the weak Federal Government – and it works largely behind the scenes in terms of cabinet power sharing between the factions – it is so seamless many Swiss would be hard-pressed to name the national Prime Minister or many of the national ministers..

    But the difference is that Switzerland has consensus about the relative strength and positions of the different parts of the mosiac whereas Lebanon is not yet settled.

    The FPM is like any other Lebanese party – it seems to have a reasonably good view for the long-term and I would imagine that the assumption (that it works under is) that it is on track to being the undisputed Christian representative in a decade’s time – and that – to be blunt – Lebanon will be politically dominated by a Christian-Shiia framework i.e. a relative decline in the powers of the Executive Premiership since the early 1990s.

    Posted by Sofia | August 21, 2009, 4:14 am
  22. You know what. It really irritates me when people refer to Lebanon as the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’. Or Beirut as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’. Not only does it show geographic illiteracy (surely they mean the Berne of the Middle East??) but the comparison just doesn’t work.

    Lebanon would struggle to work as a Swiss-style federal state. Its communities are mixed, and not geographically identified. Even in the most obvious example of the ‘Shia South’, there is the case of Tyre, and the many Christian villages.

    Switzerland would only come to the Middle East if there was some massive ethnic cleansing. And that would rather defeat the purpose wouldn’t it.

    Posted by Sasa | August 21, 2009, 5:30 am
  23. Sasa: I think you are on to a very good point here.

    We have to ask ourselves how is it that by 1900, 99 per cent of Nordics were Lutheran? How is it that England could make it illegal to be Jewish for 300 years and that it has an official religion and the Monarch is head of the Official State Religion and where Roman Catholics were for three centuries first burnt at the stake, then later on driven out of serious public life? How is that by 1900, Italy was 95 per cent Roman Catholic?

    Portugal, Roman Catholic. Spain, Roman Catholic. What happened to the Protestants of France? The Catholics of Iceland.

    In fact, where are the pre-Christian communities of Europe any way?

    Centuries of pogroms, culminating in a holocaust.

    The Middle East has a different history.

    In 2003, there were a million Christians in Iraq, belonging to churches with a theology long ago deemed heredic and destroyed in the west of Lebanon.

    Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Palestine, Egypt – there are Christian communities in each of them, all of them representing the a dominant religion before Islam’s arrival.

    Up until about 1950, the Middle East could also boast a far superior record to almost every single Christian European state in terms of the position of Jews, the conflict over Palestine rudely interupting that, but hopefully the future will be better.

    No, Lebanon cannot be ‘ideal’ in 2009 like Switzerland is – precisely because Lebanon is in the Middle East which doesn’t have the far more brutal ethnic cleaning/religious cleansing history of Europe.

    I wouldn’t want you to think my comment seriously meant that I thought that Lebanon could, by some law change, become more like the Swiss ‘ideal’. I didn’t mean that!

    Posted by Sofia | August 21, 2009, 7:57 am
  24. There’s a hilarious recent must read commentary on the “issue” in el Akhbar summarized by the following:
    “Ahoubbou Ashiratakom fil beyt w atroukou al siyassa li…ahliha!” ;)))


    Posted by theolivetrees | August 21, 2009, 8:59 am
  25. Indeed… Khaled Saghiyeh has got a rapier wit

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 21, 2009, 9:53 am

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