Is a Joseph Aoun presidency becoming more complicated?
While it may be too early to announce the end of the army chief’s candidacy, recent indications suggest the man who was once seen as the most serious presidential contender now faces numerous obstacles on his path to Baabda.
However, the current state of affairs is marked by a dizzying deterioration of the socio-economic situation, which is presaging social explosion and turmoil in the streets, as well as an increase in security risks.
In this context, Aoun could once again be thrust into the limelight as the only candidate capable of leading the way.
In terms of security, Aoun faces multiple challenges.
The first is in South Lebanon, where the army works alongside the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to ensure stability on the border with Israel. The objective is to prevent any violations or attempted crossings of the Blue Line, especially given the recent escalation of military activity in the area.
The second challenge is the ongoing fight against drug trafficking and smugglers.
A third challenge arose recently when the army chief prevented an explosion in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Helweh. Army intelligence successfully arrested the alleged murderer of a Fatah member, thereby maintaining stability and restoring calm in the area.
However, the most crucial challenge for Aoun is yet to come.
The current social and economic deterioration could lead to popular mobilizations, as witnessed Monday in downtown Beirut where army veterans expressed their anger on the streets.
Such incidents could occur throughout the country, and the army chief may find himself in a situation similar to that of October 2019.
At that time, he had to accommodate demonstrators who received support from the army while also enforcing the law and reopening roads, as requested by political parties.
‘Nobody wants another Michel Aoun’
In the realm of politics, calculations are entirely different.
Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) leader Walid Joumblatt was the first to propose Joseph Aoun as a third option between opposition candidate Michel Moawad and Sleiman Frangieh, who is endorsed by both Amal and Hezbollah.
Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces (LF) expressed its willingness to support Aoun’s candidacy, provided there is national agreement around the army chief.
On the other side of the spectrum, Joseph Aoun’s opponents are not subtle.
Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) leader Gebran Bassil is engaged in an open showdown with the army chief. The same goes for Frangieh.
Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri justifies his refusal to support Aoun’s candidacy by explaining that a constitutional amendment would be necessary, which he believes is too challenging at the moment.
Berri rejects any comparison to the scenario of Michel Sleiman, the former head of the army who was elected president in 2008 without any amendment to the constitution.
According to a source close to Berri who spoke to L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity, “The context was different. Lebanon was emerging from a quasi-civil war.” Sleiman was elected following the May 7, 2008, clashes, when armed elements of Hezbollah took over Beirut and the Chouf area.
“Michel Sleiman was elected with 86 votes, the number required to amend the constitution. This is not the case now,” the source added.
Some observers perceive Berri’s position as an unspoken veto of Joseph Aoun’s candidacy.
Joseph Aoun is criticized for positioning himself above the political class, which he continues to criticize, despite being reliant on this same class for his election.
“Nobody wants another Michel Aoun,” said Berri’s close associate.
Nor another ‘Michel Sleiman’
Hezbollah, which holds significant influence in the matter, continues to support Frangieh’s candidacy.
However, beyond its commitment to the Zgharta strongman, Hassan Nasrallah’s party is wary of a repeat of 2008. While Michel Sleiman was elected with Hezbollah’s support, he ultimately turned against the party.
According to a Hezbollah executive, the relationship between the party and Joseph Aoun at the institutional level is currently good, despite a few instances of tension— particularly during the October 17 uprising.
“On security issues, the two sides continue to cooperate and engage in dialogue,” the Hezbollah executive said on condition of anonymity.
Following Nasrallah’s announced endorsement of Frangieh, close associates of General Joseph Aoun met with Hezbollah executives in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
According to sources present at the meeting, the purpose of the visit was to determine the extent of Hezbollah’s commitment to its candidate and to explore the possibility of pursuing an alternative route.
The results of the meeting were not encouraging. Hezbollah indicated that it was not looking for another candidate at this stage, leaving Frangieh as its preferred choice.
Nor another ‘General Aoun’
FPM leader Bassil accuses Joseph Aoun of having led a coup against his father-in-law Michel Aoun’s mandate during the popular protests of Oct.17, 2019.
Since then, Bassil has launched a fierce media campaign against Joseph Aoun, accusing him of corruption.
It is impossible to imagine Bassil supporting Joseph Aoun’s candidacy for several reasons, revealed a former FPM member.
“Firstly, there are conflicts between them. Secondly, the army chief is not only from the Aoun family but also an officer in an institution that the FPM’s public identifies with historically,” the former FPM member told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity.
“The election of Joseph Aoun would pose a serious threat to the FPM,” the source added.
In this context, Hezbollah may be even more reluctant to support the army chief’s candidacy, in an attempt to avoid dealing a final blow to its alliance with the FPM.
During a recent interview with the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar, PSP leader Walid Joumblatt made a revealing statement: “The army chief’s name has been put on the table by the Saudis, the Qataris and the French, but I don’t know if there is anything new after the recent developments.”
Joumblatt’s comment reflects his lack of enthusiasm toward Aoun, which might be partly due to his desire not to confront Berri on this subject.
One thing is certain— at the Feb. 6 meeting in Paris between representatives of France, the United States, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, Joseph Aoun’s name was strongly considered. The five countries were not opposed to it, and some were even openly in favor of this option, such as Doha and Cairo.
During the Paris meeting, participants called for the election of a president with a profile similar to that of Joseph Aoun.
Saudi ambassador Walid Boukhari’s visit to Joseph Aoun a few days earlier was also seen as a positive sign in this direction.
However, according to sources close to the meeting’s participants, Joseph Aoun was recently subjected to a “secret” test by Arab parties, notably Saudi Arabia.
Reportedly, in response to a question about his vision for the next stage and how to overcome the political impasse, the army chief emphasized the importance of restoring the president’s prerogatives so that he could govern and implement a rescue plan.
This stance was perceived by some as conflicting with the Taif Agreement and likely to disappoint Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia.
[The deal that ended the 1975-90 civil war was sponsored by Riyadh and granted Sunnis some of the preeminent prerogatives and powers formerly held by Christians, i.e. the president.]
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.