Michel Aoun left the Baabda Presidential Palace on Sunday as he entered it six years ago: at war with the rest of the world and with the certainty of being, yet again, a kind of “chosen one.” Not a word of regret, not a hint of mea culpa for the woes that beset Lebanon during his term in office, not an ounce of reconsideration in his speech.
Still president until the end of Monday, Aoun gave the impression Sunday that he bears no responsibility for the disastrous results of his own mandate.
Of course, the military general is obviously not the cause of all today’s ills in Lebanon. He is right to denounce, yesterday as today, the way in which the various political leaders have carved up the state for their own benefit and that of their clientele.
Aoun is also right to point the finger at those leaders’ avoidance of reform and their endemic corruption. He is right to hold the governor of the central bank, Riad Salameh, accountable for the monetary policy he has pursued for three decades and for the decisions he has taken — each time with the support of a large part of the political class — since the collapse of the Lebanese lira in 2019.
But contrary to what he says, it is not his supposed desire to change the “system” that makes Michel Aoun one of the most reviled figures in the Republic today. It is instead the huge gap between what he is and what he claims to be.
In many respects, the founder of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) has done worse than what he accuses his opponents of having done while continuing to pass himself off as a saint-like figure. He has behaved like all the other zaims — the only difference being that he has never agreed to share power with them.
Indeed, if Michel Aoun wants to change the “system,” it is not to reform it but to be its king. This is why he is, fundamentally and more than all the others, a sham. The general’s modus operandi has not changed from 1989 to today. Blackmail remains his favorite weapon to achieve his ends. It will be “me or no one,” he made it clear in 1989 when he refused to acknowledge the newly elected presidents. “Me or no one,” he repeated between 2014 and 2016, paralyzing state institutions for two and a half years to return to Baabda. The terms of the equation have now changed a little, though the general can no longer claim supreme office for himself. So this time it will be his son-in-law, the leader of the FPM: “Bassil or no one.”
In an interview with Reuters two days before the end of his mandate, Michel Aoun raised the specter of “constitutional chaos,” warning of a presidential vacancy and government still operating in a caretaker capacity.
Above all, Aoun uttered one little phrase about his son-in-law Gebran Bassil that was anything but harmless: “Once he’s elected [president], the sanctions will go away.”
Two worrying observations can be drawn from this statement. The first, and this was already known, is that Michel Aoun and Gebran Bassil figure the diplomatic game works the same way as Lebanese politics and that everything can be bargained for. By their logic, the US Department of the Treasury should lift its current sanctions against Bassil to thank him for his involvement in finalizing last week’s maritime border agreement with Israel.
“We are not that cheap,” US Ambassador Dorothy Shea has already stated on the prospect of lifting the sanctions on Bassil. If states are above all pragmatic creatures that adapt according to their interests, such a reversal would be most surprising, as it would contribute to discrediting the Treasury and the Biden administration’s policy in Lebanon.
The second, and more worrisome, observation is that the most tightly-knit political duo in Lebanon has not given up on the idea that the presidential election remains a family affair.
Contested within his own party, isolated on the local political scene and sanctioned by the world’s leading power, Gebran Bassil still appears to believe in his chances of becoming president soon.
Whether Bassil is right or not is almost secondary. If Aoun thinks that his son-in-law has the slightest possibility of reaching supreme office, the duo will do absolutely everything in its power — including blackmailing its only ally, Hezbollah — to achieve it. Even if it means that no one else will be able to sit in the presidential seat for months, or even years. Michel Aoun’s megalomaniac obsession has already cost Lebanon dearly. But now Lebanon has to pay the price for Bassil’s obsession, too.
This op-ed was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour.