Michel Aoun and the Sectarian Shadow

by Bilal El-Amine

The last round of the staggered parliamentary elections ended with a bang June 26 in the north of Lebanon. Most of the final results were predictable: the Harriri-Jumblatt alliance will control the majority in the new parliament with 72 members, the Shia Muslim bloc of Amal and Hizbullah got 35 seats, and the remaining 21 went to Michel Aoun and his allies. Ostensibly favoring a “secular” Lebanon, Aoun is a longtime opponent of the Syrian military presence in the country and many fear he is now poised to become the new political boss of the Christians–stirring recent memories of sectarian strife.

Keep in mind that these are not solid blocs and could easily come apart as they get down to work. The Harriri list, for example, includes a number of right-wing Christian parties and the supposedly anti-Syrian Aoun managed to ally himself with some of Syria’s most loyal servants like Michel Murr–who was integral to Syrian control of Lebanon as a security and defense minister and likely played a central role in suppressing the mainly “Aounist” student protests in 2000.

The big surprise came in the Mt. Lebanon round of voting the previous week as Aoun and his allies made a clean sweep of the heavily Christian Kisrwan-Jbail and Metn districts. Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement got 14 seats and tipped the scales in his allies’ favor for an additional seven. This panicked the Harriri-Jumblatt opposition who thought they were on their way to an easy majority–another Aoun upset in the north would deny them outright control of the new government. Saad Harriri reportedly rented the Quality Inn (all of it!) in the northern city of Tripoli for a week to serve as his campaign headquarters, spreading his money far and wide to assure his list a win.

In the short time between his return to Lebanon on May 7 and the staggered June elections, Aoun pulled a political somersault–with a double twist–that left many utterly puzzled as to what he was up to. In the 15 years he spent in exile, he worked tirelessly to get Syria out of Lebanon. He testified before the US Congress in support of the Syrian Accountability Act, which imposed economic sanctions, and probably had a hand in UN Resolution 1559 which finally ended the Syrian military presence in Lebanon. But even before his return to Lebanon, Aoun was butting heads with the rest of the opposition over who can take credit for expelling the Syrians and therefore deserves the bigger stake in the new government. Lebanon was apparently too small for two oppositions.

Christian Boss

Soon Aoun was striking deals with pro-Syrian politicians, even becoming the number one defender of Syria’s last loyalist in the Lebanese state, President Emile Lahoud. It would appear that such unsavory alliances would hurt Aoun’s standing, particularly among his mainly Christian base who bitterly opposed Syrian rule. But the very opposite happened and Lebanon’s Christians flocked in large numbers to vote for Aoun, making him a major player in the coming period. No one, perhaps not even Aoun, could have imagined this course of events.

You can only understand what happened after you factor in Lebanon’s sectarian politics, which, everyone agrees, animated the parliamentary elections from beginning to end. By the time the voting reached the Christian heartland of Mt. Lebanon, it appeared to voters there that a Muslim tsunami–made up of the Harriri-Jumblatt-Amal-Hizbullah quartet–was about to swallow them whole. So they turned to Aoun to save them from oblivion. Aoun has always maintained that he is a strict secularist and sought to lead a multi-religious movement. Unwittingly perhaps, he has now become Lebanon’s new Christian boss, or zaim in Arabic.

The question remains where does Aoun really stand, who are his supporters, and what do they want for Lebanon?

Many have accused the former army general of having shady Washington connections, particularly with the neo-cons and even the Israeli lobby. Others–Muslim as well as Christian–say he is the best hope for Lebanon and point to his unstinting opposition to sectarianism and corruption, the two plagues of Lebanese politics. He is probably somewhere between: closer to a Lebanese nationalist (right-leaning but with populist overtones) who nevertheless still falls within the general outlook of the Christian sectarian right.

Internally, Aoun represents a break from the failed strategy of Maronite power that crashed and burned in the civil war. His movement reflects a willingness to try another, perhaps less confrontational strategy–maybe even sharing the country with Lebanon’s Muslims on an equal footing. He advocates a “Lebanon First” type of populism that calls for reforming the Lebanese state and economy, something that appeals to a lot of Lebanese regardless of religion.

New Beginning

But regionally and internationally, Aoun bears some of the hallmarks of the Christian right by questioning the Arab identity of Lebanon–which is another way of saying that the key regional question of Palestinian is not a Lebanese concern–and preferring a Western orientation instead. That the Christian vote catapulted him into parliament may in the end force him to play the traditional role of a zaim, representing the narrow concerns of Lebanon’s Maronites–something that Aoun may not have been planning on.

Given the short lifespan of almost any political observation one makes about Lebanon, this may not continue to hold true. Aoun may very well start to be more cooperative given the balance of power in parliament, and join the new government. The real test for all the political parties will be in the coming weeks, as the government grapples with the hardest issues: a new election law, Hizbullah’s weapons, the $44 billion national debt, and replacing the president, to name just a few.

Many here are pessimistic given the sectarian nature of Lebanon’s first (theoretically) free elections. And there are legitimate fears that Lebanon is now passing into of the hands of new external powers–this time, France and the US (some add Saudi Arabia)–who will have final say in critical decisions the country takes. The daily and public appearances of the French and American ambassadors, airing their views on what most consider internal Lebanese matters, only inflames such fears.

But there is also a widespread sense that a new beginning may finally be possible, now that both the Israelis and Syrians have left. US and French meddling is certainly worrisome, but it should not be viewed as inevitable. Much will depend on how the Lebanese will respond. The cataclysmic events sparked by Rafiq Harriri’s assassination in February–the mass demonstrations, the Syrian pullout, and the parliamentary elections–have only whetted people’s appetite for change, some real change finally in Lebanon. More importantly, they learned that they also, and not only their political bosses or parties, can make it happen.

I am—like most Lebanese—both wary and hopeful.

Beirut, June 28, 2005

Bilal El-Amine is founder and former editor of Left Turn magazine, (www.leftturn.org/). He recently returned to his native Lebanon. He can be contacted at zaloom33 (at) yahoo.com


by David Bloom


HEZBOLLAH (the party of God): Founded with political and military wings in 1982 to fight the Israeli invaders, after the Shi’ites–who originally welcomed the Israelis because they were getting rid of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), then using Lebanon as a base–turned against Israel’s occupation. It is funded by Iran and close to the hardline elements of the Iranian regime. It is considered a Shi’ite fundamentalist organization. Although Israel pulled out of its occupation zone in Lebanon’s south in 2000, Hezbollah still remains armed, and fights with Israel for a strip of land called Shaba’a Farms which was Lebanese under the French Mandate (1920-41) and now considered by the UN to be Syrian territory, but controlled by Israel. Hezbollah states as a goal the liberation of Jerusalem and has been connected to Palestinian resistance activities. It is led by Shiek Hassan Nasrallah, formerly of Amal. Hezbollah is considered terroist group by the US and most western countries.

AMAL: Established in 1975 by Imam Musa as Sadr, an Iranian-born Shi’ite cleric of Lebanese ancestry who had founded the Higher Shia Islamic Council in 1969. Amal, which means hope in Arabic, is the acronym for Afwaj al Muqawamah al Lubnaniyyah (Lebanese Resistance Detachments), and was initially the name given to the military arm of the Movement of the Disinherited, created in 1974 by Sadr as a vehicle to promote the Shi’ite cause in Lebanon.

Sadr refused to engage Amal in the fighting during the 1975 Civil War. This reluctance discredited the movement in the eyes of many Shi’ites, who chose instead to support the PLO or other leftist parties. Amal was also unpopular for endorsing Syria’s intervention in 1976. Nonetheless, several factors caused the movement to undergo a dramatic resurgence in the late 1970s. First, Shi’ites became disillusioned with the PLO and its Lebanese allies. Second, the mysterious disappearance of Sadr while on a visit to Libya in 1978 rendered the missing imam a religious martyr. Third, the Iranian Revolution revived hope among Lebanese Shi’ites and instilled in them a greater communal spirit. When the growing strength of Amal appeared to threaten the position of the PLO in southern Lebanon, the PLO tried to crack down on Amal by military force. This strategy backfired and rallied even greater numbers of Shi’ites around Amal. By the early ’80s, Amal had become the largest organization in Lebanon. Led by Nabih Berri, Amal was perceived as pro-Syrian, as opposed to the Iran-oriented than Hezbollah. Amal called for national unity and did not push an Islamic state in Lebanon. Berri’s followers tend to be educated, middle class and secular; a second faction, led by Daud Daud, is of more religious and peasant orientation. In 2000, Syria decided to favor Hezbollah by giving both groups equal representation on their lists of candidates for Lebanon’s elections.

THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT: Two parties of the Christian right in Lebanon are officially banned, but still organize: the Lebanese Forces, founded in 1977 as a confederation of Christian factions by Bashir Gemayal of the Phalange (Kataeb) party; and the Guardians of the Cedars. The Guardians of the Cedars believe Lebanese are descended from the Phoenicians, and the founders of western civilization; the explicitly reject an Arab identity. Both groups openly allied with the Israeli military during its incursions in Lebanon. The Guardians of the Cedars operated death squads against Palestinians with Israeli complicity. The official slogan of the organization adopted in 1976 was “It is the duty of each Lebanese to kill one Palestinian.” The Kateab or Phalangist movement, mostly Maronite Christian, also collaborated with the Israelis. It was a Phalangist unit under the command of Elie Hobieka (now in exile) that committed the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Chatila camps in 1982 after Gemayel’s assassination. Elements of the Guardians joined the Southern Lebanon Army (SLA), a proxy force armed by and allied with Israel, many of whom are now in exile in Israel. After Gemayel’s death, the Lebanese Forces were led by Samir Geagea, currently serving a life sentence for assassinations carried out during the civil war. The Lebanese Forces were politically prominent in this year’s “Cedar Revolution” which resulted in the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.


GEN. MICHEL AOUN: Born in 1935 in Beirut. Lebanon’s former prime minister, acting president, and armed forces chief. Aoun, coming from a lower-middle class Maronite background, considers himself more of a Lebanese patriot than a sectarian partisan. Although he is now said to be close to US neo-cons, according to Sandra Mackay, author of Lebanon: Death of a Nation (Doubleday, 1991), Washington and Aoun have not always seen eye-to-eye. In the summer of 1989, during the Aoun-led revolt against the Syrian occupation, the general–then serving as prime minister–appealed to the West to “Save the Christians”; Aoun was “stunned,” Mackay wrote, when George Bush senior ignored the plea. “Picking up the sword of intimidation, Aoun wielded an ugly anti-American propaganda campaign. At the same time, his gunners harassed US helicopters flying in supplies to the American mission in Beirut. And on two occasions, Aoun’s supporters created a human blockade around the American ambassador’s residence while chanting that nothing would go in or out until Aoun’s demands for greater American involvement in solving Lebanon’s crisis were met. On Sept. 2, Aoun, caught up in his own propaganda, told the French newspaper Figaro that perhaps he should settle Lebanon’s problems through ‘Christian terrorism’ by taking ‘twenty American hostages.’ It was the final straw. On Sept. 5, three United States Military helicopters landed at the American compound in the hills overlooking East Beirut and plucked Ambassador John McCarthy and the thirty other staff members from the embassy. There was a chilling paradox in the event. After pro-Iranian Muslims bent on forcing the United States out of Lebanese territory had twice bombed the American embassy, killed 241 Marines, and held American citizens hostage for years, it was the pro-Western Christians who finally drove Uncle Sam out of Lebanon.” Aoun spent years in exile after losing to the Syrians. He remained a force in Lebanon during his period of exile through the United Free Lebanon Movement, which opposed the Syrian occupation. He returned in 2005 and stunned the Lebanese political scene by allying himself with pro-Syrian Lebanese political forces, reasoning that since Syria had pulled out of the country there was no longer a need for enmity. The move has left him the major Christian power broker in Lebanon.

RAFIK HARRIRI: Former Lebanese prime minister, assassinated on Feb.. 14, 2005. Born to a Sunni family of modest means in Sidon in 1944, Harriri became a self-made billionaire through work in Saudi Arabia. He returned to Lebanon in 1992 and became prime mister, a role reserved for Sunnis under the previous year’s peace accords. He earned plaudits for Lebanon’s post-war reconstruction, though he was criticized for ignoring the poor. He resigned in protest of the extension of President Emile Lahoud’s term under Syrian pressure in 2004. His assassination sparked the political upheaval in Lebanon that led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces. His son Saad Harriri leads the anti-Syria coalition that just won a majority in last month’s historic parliamentary elections.

A report on Beirut Indymedia claims that the Harriri family reconstruction company, Soldiere, ran roughshod over homeowners whose houses it wanted to destroy to make way for its plan to reconstruct Beirut. According to the report, Solidere used a number of illegal tactics to force owners who refused the company’s offer of compensation out of their homes and offices, including cutting off their water and electricity; suspending trash service; and overtly threatening their safety.

GEN. EMILE LAHOUD: Born in 1936, the current pro-Syrian president of Lebanon. His father, Gen. Jamil Lahoud, was a leader of the Lebanese independence movement. Lahoud, a Maronite Christian, served under Gen. Michel Aoun. After the war ended in 1990, Lahoud made political ties with the Syrians, who promoted his career. He ran for the presidency and won in 1998, limited to one six-year term. In 2004 his term was extended by parliament under Syrian pressure for three years, after which Hariri resigned in protest.

WALID JUMBLATT: Born in 1949, the most prominent leader of Lebanon’s Druze community. His father, Kamal Jumblatt, founded the Progressive Socialist Party of Lebanon. Allied with Syrian forces, Jumblatt’s militia in 1982-3 rampaged through 60 Maronite villages, killing thousands, in retaliation for earlier Maronite hostilities. Known for his shifting alliances, Jumblatt campaigned for an end to the Syrian occupation after the death of longtime Syrian strongman Hazef el-Assad in 2000.

MICHEL MURR: Greek Orthodox Christian construction magnate who supported the Phalangist forces in the civil war, but was expelled from the Phalangist successor organization, the Lebanese Forces, when he threw his support behind the Syrian intervention. In 1994, he became head of the Interior Ministry, which he ran as a fiefdom with his son Elias (the security chief and President Lahoud’s son-in-law). Currently deputy speaker of parliament

See also:

“Hizbollah and the Beirut Poll” by Bilal El-Amine

WW4 REPORT’s last weblog post on Lebanon

For more on Gen. Aoun, see WW4 REPORT #79


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, July 10, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution