Keeping Joseph Aoun: Opposition tries to foil ‘coup d'état’

Keeping Joseph Aoun: Opposition tries to foil ‘coup d'état’

Joseph Aoun received a delegation of opposition deputies in Yarzeh, Monday August 21. (Credit: Lebanese Army website)

The opposition is not giving up. At a press conference on Wednesday, Lebanese Forces (LF) leader Samir Geagea said the party is committed to ensuring the term of Army Chief Joseph Aoun, which is due to end on Jan. 10, is extended.

Geagea’s statement came as caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri seem to prefer that Aoun’s extension — demanded by the international community, the Maronite Church, and several political parties, out of fear of a vacuum at the army’s command, especially amidst the war — takes place through the cabinet, instead.

Taking it to the cabinet could, however, undermine the process. The opposition is preparing and trying to stand together.

Bkirki has made it clear that it will not stand idly by as other parties try to circumvent its will. Against this backdrop, Saudi ambassador Waleed Bukhari paid a symbolic visit to Maronite patriarch Bechara al-Rai.

‘Disaster for the Republic’

Parliament is due to convene on Thursday, to vote amongst other things, on the extension of Gen. Aoun’s term of office. At least, this was what unfolding events earlier this week indicated.

That was before Mikati called for a cabinet meeting on Friday, presumably to discuss the Aoun issue, despite having refused to do so for months.

“Aren’t we entitled to ask why Mr. Mikati suddenly decided to convene a cabinet meeting to discuss this issue, particularly since Parliament will be meeting in plenary session [Thursday]?” asked Geagea at his press conference.

Geagea added that the cabinet, “controlled by the moumanaa [Hezbollah]” is trying to grip the Aoun issue for two reasons. First, to delay the Army Chief’s retirement by just a few weeks, rather than for a year, as provided for in the draft law submitted by the LF. Second, to allow Gebran Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) — which Geagea described as a “disaster for the Republic” — to file a challenge with the State Shura Council for the invalidation of Gen. Aoun’s extended term.

According to the LF, the Hezbollah-led camp hopes to control the Lebanese Army and turn it into “a secret and repressive police force,” as it had been when it was under Syrian tutelage, under Emile Lahoud.

“If the cabinet adopts such a draft in the absence of the defense minister [the FPM ministers will certainly boycott the meeting], there will be a major legal flaw that will allow the State Shura Council to send Gen. Aoun home,” said Geagea.

Hence, the LF wants the matter to be settled in Parliament, despite their initial refusal to participate in legislative sessions, since amid the presidential vacuum, parliament’s sole function should be to elect a President.

“There is an exception to everything,” said Geagea, denouncing the fact that Berri had buried the issue of army command in dozens of other draft laws to be debated.

“The opposition components are studying the possibility of calling a strike to pressure the MPs to keep Joseph Aoun at the head of the military institution,” said LF Spokesman Charles Jabbour.

In contrast, Sami Gemayel’s Kataeb Party prefers that the Mikati cabinet keep Gen. Aoun in office. “First of all, parliament is not supposed to enact laws until a president has been elected,” said a Kataeb official.

“Secondly, if the Parliament is to extend Joseph Aoun’s term of office, the Constitutional Council, which supports Gebran Bassil, could be referred to more easily than the State Shura Council,” the official added.

“This would be a catastrophe that Lebanon cannot tolerate. (...) And those who are pushing for this are plotting a coup d’état,” Gemayel said at a press conference.

“This matter is [the responsibility] of the cabinet, upon the proposal of the defense minister. And if the latter fails to assume his duties in this respect, the cabinet can take a decision instead,” added Gemayel, indicating his desire to give the cabinet meeting scheduled for Friday a chance.

“Therefore, we will not be taking part in Thursday’s meeting, which is expected to last several days,” said Patrick Richa, the Kataeb party’s spokesman. “However, if the cabinet does not take the right decision at its next meeting, we may reconsider our position,” Richa added.

‘The most comprehensive formula’

Change MP and former president of the Beirut Bar Association, Melhem Kalaf also opposes this scenario. “The right constitutional position is not to take part in a legislative session before the election of a president,” he said in a press conference.

Kalaf believes the draft law that the LF submitted is unconstitutional because it would be a “specifically tailored provision.”

On Tuesday, Bassil stated he is ready to resort to the appropriate court if Gen. Aoun is kept in his post by either Parliament or the cabinet.

Faced with this risk, an opposition MP told L’Orient-Le Jour that efforts are being made behind the scenes with two objectives in mind: first, to prevent Berri from sending the various draft laws on the subject back to the parliamentary committees, so a single version is maintained.

Second, to prevent Bassil from referring the matter to the Constitutional Council on the pretext that the passed law is tailored to the needs of a single person, which is Gen. Aoun in this case.

“Everyone agrees on the need to extend the army chief’s term of office,” the opposition MP said. “We are trying to unify the various versions of the draft laws to extend Joseph Aoun’s term of office,” he added.

The agenda for the next parliamentary session includes several drafts along these lines: the LF draft law is designed to raise the retirement age for all commanders-in-chief of the army, while the draft law presented by the National Moderation bloc also involves other high-level security officials, including the head of the Internal Security Forces, Imad Osman.

Geagea displayed an openness to this option at his press conference, twice praising the work of Gen. Osman at the head of his institution.

“We will move towards the most comprehensive formula,” said the above-mentioned opposition MP.

But while the opposition is working to thwart Bassil’s plans, others are already thinking of plan B.

This is the case of Druze leader and former head of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) Walid Jumblatt.

Jumblatt previously opposed that the army chief of staff — a position reserved for the Druze community, and which is currently vacant — act as a replacement for the army chief. He favored the appointment of a chief of staff in parallel with an extension of Joseph Aoun’s term of office. Now however, he seems open to the possibility of an army chief of staff filling in the vacancy.

“If it is impossible to extend Gen. Aoun’s term of office, we will seek to appoint the officer I myself recommended based on seniority, namely Gen. Hassan Awdi, to the post of chief of staff. He will then be able to take over in case of the army commander’s absence or retirement,” he told Annahar daily on Wednesday.

Does Joumblatt, who is known for his political flair, sense the wind changing?

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.

The opposition is not giving up. At a press conference on Wednesday, Lebanese Forces (LF) leader Samir Geagea said the party is committed to ensuring the term of Army Chief Joseph Aoun, which is due to end on Jan. 10, is extended.Geagea’s statement came as caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri seem to prefer that Aoun’s extension — demanded by the...