Nur al-Cubicle

A blog on the current crises in the Middle East and news accounts unpublished by the US press. Daily timeline of events in Iraq as collected from stories and dispatches in the French and Italian media: Le Monde (Paris), Il Corriere della Sera (Milan), La Repubblica (Rome), L'Orient-Le Jour (Beirut) and occasionally from El Mundo (Madrid).

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Profile of Michel Aoun

Former Lebanese Army Commander-in-Chief Michel Aoun's surprizing win of 21 seats in last Sunday's elections in northeast Lebanon in a faustian alliance with pro-Syrians is causing consternation in Lebanon. Riding his name and fame among Maronite voters, Aoun's slate, comprised mostly of military officers, routed Hariri's Party of the Future and Jumblatt's Socialists.

Aoun, a favorite of Washington, is already charging the ranks of the pan-Lebanese Hariri alliance in an attempt to discredit the movement formed following the massive demonstrations in the aftermath of the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Aoun claims in unapolgetic, vitriolic language they are corrupted by "Wahhabi petrodollars". Aoun's overtly anti-Saudi and anti-Hezbollah message implies a restive and uncertain future for the country.

Le Monde's reporter Cécile Hennion gives us a portrait of Michel Aoun.

Michel Aoun had predicted that the 12 June vote in Lebanon would be the Mother of all Battles. In effect, this is what happened in the third and penultimate round of the Lebanese legislative elections. His determination to challenge the multi-party opposition as a lone crusader will allow him to gauge exactly how he ranks among the electorate. In other words, if he is capable of garnering enough votes to proclaim himself the principal Christian leader of the new Lebanese era, without the presence of Syria.

Where does the support for Michel Aoun, a 70 year-old retired general born into a modest Maronite family in Beirut’s Haret Hreik quarter and whose credibility rests on the image of his former combat role, come from? Aoun received several thousand dollars in financial support from wealthy Lebanese businessmen as well as donations from his supporters, who are very energized for this vote.

Although the exact number of his militant supporters is unknown, they are certainly active and visible. Since the start of the election campaign, youthful supporters sporting orange T-shirts (Orange is the color of his political party, Courant patriotique libre or CPL [The Free Patriotic Movement] were seen on every street corner, telling voters to boycott the first and second rounds but urging a massive turnout at the polls for last Sunday’s third.

Among Aoun’s supporters are middle managers, youth disappointed by the Lebanese ruling class and many people unhappy with the current economic crisis—anyone wishing settle accounts with the war profiteers and post-war opportunists: les corrompus. Most are Christian with a few Muslims among them. There are also long-time Aounistes, retired military men or former civilian volunteers who joined with Aoun in his 1989 War of Liberation, led and lost a year later against the Syrian Army.

Nicole was one of his volunteers. She was 18 when she became a medic. We were university students without a university. Our generation, traumatized by the war, were generally receptive to talk of a strong, unified and secular Lebanon. Aoun’s authority reassured us. He represented law and order amid the chaos. His former collaborators describe Aoun as a leader who commanded respect while being close to his men.

Naji Hayyek, who ended the War of Liberation as a Special Forces officer, agrees. He was quick to anger and got carried away with the smallest victory, but he was always close to his men, including young recruits. During the war he visited the front and maintained a human face among his men while preserving respect his rank. This made him very popular. He was and remains the symbol of honor of the Lebanese Army. When we served under him, we felt that we were defending our country and its government.

The Aoun slate includes former military men once under his command who have since risen through the ranks. There is General Maalouf, his former right-hand man in 1988 when Aoun was head of the interim government; General Salim Kallas, retired Commander of the 8th Brigade; Colonel Karam, retired Commander of the Special Forces, General Mozaya, former Commander of the 5th Brigade, and Abu Farha, former Air Force Marshal. The profusion of military candidates worries the opposition. This is a way of rewarding his comrades-in-arms. For his security detail, Aoun, claiming that he has received death threats from the Syrians and the Lebanese Mafia, enjoys a nine-man escort detailed to him by the Lebanese Army.

Veterans of the War of Liberation, the Aounistes believe that they are the impetus behind the anti-Syrian struggle and therefore can claim more legitimacy than Walid Jumblatt or the Hariri clan, who only recently turned their back on Damascus. The General, who stands behind his supporters, has never called a halt to the struggle during his 14 years in exile in Paris, far from Lebanon. Lebanese lobbying of US Congress and the General’s speech before the legislative body are behind the Syrian Accountability Act, which denounced the occupation of Lebanon by Syria and which was signed into law by George Bush on December 12, 2003.

US pressure led to UN Security Council Resolution 1559, demanding the pullout of Syrian troops from Lebanon. According to General Aoun, the assassination of Rafik Hariri on 14 February was only an “accelerator”. These words, spoken by Aoun upon his return to Lebanon, sparked indignation among the opposition, especially the Hariri family. The General often speaks out without first reflecting, said Saad Hariri. He misspoke. But if he really meant it, than there is a serious problem between us.

Since then, the General hasn’t diluted his rhetoric, even after having accepted the support of pro-Syrian notables including former Interior Minister, Michael Murr. Jumblatt did worse by allying with Hezbollah, said Michel Aoun to Le Monde. Murr supports a program of reforms and that’s what counts. We shouldn’t been seen as opponents and loyalists, but as reformers and conservatives. Meanwhile accusations hurled at the Hariri camp mount: They took over Parliament by handing out stacks of Saudi and Wahhabi petrodollars.

Denounced by his adversaries, the unnatural alliance taints his image as a man of integrity among his supporters. I don’t know why he did that, sighs former Aoun volunteer Nicole. I’m disappointed. I’m going to vote for him but with the feeling that I’m choosing not the best candidate but the lesser evil. We are familiar with all the other candidates, we know what they’ve done, what they’re worth and how corrupted they are. Despite everything, I’m still hoping for change. After waiting for fourteen years, I can’t let him down.


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