Hussam Itani

Can The Christians Rule Lebanon After Aoun?

The presidential term of Michel Aoun, his party the Free Patriotic Movement, and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil is over. Characterizations of the past six years in which he ruled can be divided into two main categories: depreciation and demonization. Claims that he and his entourage are responsible for the unprecedented crisis in Lebanon are met with excuses and attempts to deflect responsibility for his failures, which are pinned on the “ruling clique” of corrupt politicians- everyone involved in running the country except for the ministers, deputies, and representatives of the Free Patriotic Movement.

Since his term began in 2016 and up until his pitiful speech on the thirtieth of October, Michel Aoun has not behaved like a president to all of Lebanon. His previous disappointments and expulsion from Baabda Palace in 1990 at the hands of the Syrian regime- enemies of the past who would go on to become allies- left deep psychological wounds.

The general has plenty of trouble regulating his emotions and an abundance of psychological issues, which are evident in his speeches and rash and sharp reactions to all journalistic questions. A shaky character became president at a shaky time thanks to a deal between sides looking to make quick, immediate gains. Those who concluded the deal to bring Aoun to Baabda did so after having reached the conviction that it had no chance of challenging the status quo that emerged from the victory of Iran and its ally, Hezbollah, in the Syrian war. Michel Aoun was the suitable figure around for the haughty victor and the opportunistic vanquished without a project or vision.

It seems that these developments, despite their magnitude and gravity, do not answer the big questions around his presidency. These questions remain unanswered as the former president moves to his new home, from which he has pledged to continue his “struggle.” What does Aoun represent to Lebanon’s Christians, most of whom continue to support him despite the destruction he has left behind?

One answer is that Aoun, with all his contradictions and shortcomings, as well as all the disasters he contributed to creating alongside the other Lebanese politicians, embodies the Christian response to what is seen as an attempt supported by several powers (Arabs, Muslims, Americans, and others) to seize not only the Maronite community’s hold on the most powerful position in the state and its political power in the country but also the historical narrative that affords the Christian community a privileged role in establishing Lebanon as a political entity, which should thus remain a refuge to them. It is possible, against this background, to understand the extreme hostility to the Taif Agreement, which ended the civil war but is seen as having stipulated a Muslim (Sunni) seizure of power, which is only legitimate if it is with the Christians.

This characterization begs another, more pressing question about the current state of affairs: can the Christians maintain their hold on power without Muslim support similar to that which Rafik Hariri had given to Elias Hrawi or that Hezbollah had given to Michel Aoun?

What we have seen over the past six years tells us that the next president can only be elected if he is approved, if not supported, by Hezbollah. Indeed, the two-and-a-half years Hezbollah spent disrupting the election of a president to impose its candidate, Aoun- after which its opponents succumbed- are still fresh in the memory.

Hezbollah’s control will only consolidate further, becoming, unless a radical change is seen, a kind of law accepted by those actually who elect the president.

In any case, the Christian political elites have gone frail, and the community now represents less than a third of Lebanon’s residents. The West has broken with the Christians, and they have broken with it, and those who represent them today seem like caricatures of their previous leaders. After their historical narrative turned into a joke, those who represent the Christians today know very well that “retrieving their rights-” i.e., turning back the clock to before the conclusion of the Taif Agreement- is not possible without an ally as powerful as Hezbollah.

On the other hand, any Christian candidate who objects to the armed party’s control of the country needs support from the Arab world and international community equivalent to provided by Hezbollah. This is not on the cards, as Lebanon has lost its regional and international functions and has become an afterthought.

And so, we can expect Lebanon to decay further. Its society and what remains of its state institutions will disintegrate further as the suffering of its people parallels that of others around the world that do not stir the conscience of a world brimming with catastrophes and apathy.