Joseph Aoun’s extension: Behind the scenes of an extraordinary deal

Political and diplomatic negotiations of unprecedented intensity took place to keep the Army Chief in office.

Joseph Aoun’s extension: Behind the scenes of an extraordinary deal

Scene from a protest held by retired Lebanese soldiers in front of the Grand Serail. Beirut, Dec. 25, 2023. (Credit: Annahar)

Joseph Aoun won the battle. On Friday, Parliament extended his term of office at the head of the military for another year, despite attempts to end his political career with his retirement — initially scheduled for Jan. 10.

This matter was preceded by active political and diplomatic negotiations. Thus, despite Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil’s thirst for revenge on Gen. Aoun, the latter has imposed himself, in the eyes of the international community but also part of the local political spectrum, as a linchpin to preserving Lebanon’s stability and the military’s unity.

The need for this stability is poignant, especially with Hezbollah keeping a support front for war-ravaged Gaza in southern Lebanon. The extension of Gen. Aoun’s term of office will also have repercussions on the political scene, particularly in the presidential elections, considering that he is perceived as a serious candidate.

According to some, Aoun’s extension is tantamount to keeping him in the presidential race for another year, pending a political settlement of the postwar situation in Gaza. All the more so since the alignment of the stars at the domestic and international level, which opened the Parliament’s doors to amend the National Defense law, could one day be reproduced to get Gen. Aoun to the presidential palace, which would be very unfortunate for Bassil.

Mikati yields to pressure

It took weeks of contact between the political class and the international chancelleries for this soap opera to come to an end. During this period, the Lebanese received conflicting messages about the international position. Some believed that what mattered most to the Americans was to avoid a vacuum at the head of the Army after Jan. 10.

According to these people, Washington’s motivation was to avoid this scenario, whether by Keeping Gen. Aoun in office or by agreeing on the appointment of an army chief of staff (a position reserved for Druze), who would serve as a caretaker army chief in the event of a vacancy at the Army’s top position (which is reserved for Maronites).

Some political players in Lebanon have based their position on this detail. “During the meeting between the Deputy Parliament Speaker Elias Bou Saab, and Biden’s energy security advisor Amos Hochstein in Dubai two weeks ago, there was no clear and decisive indication that Washington was calling for Joseph Aoun to remain in office,” said a source familiar with the situation.

This is why, during his talks with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Bou Saab insisted on his position of refusing that Gen. Aoun remain in office.

On the other hand, the rest of the quintet (the French, the Saudis, the Qataris and the Egyptians) were more direct in stressing the need to extend the Army Chief’s term of office and to convey the message to the Lebanese players through several channels.

It was in this framework that Saudi Ambassador Waleed Bukhari visited Bkirki two days before the parliamentary session. Bukhari also made contact with several political parties and sent several messages to Berri.

Hence, to the international community, keeping Gen. Aoun in office, despite the traps and vindictive behavior of some, most notably the FPM, is a victory.

Ever since Aoun’s extention was seriously raised, this political camp, which includes caretaker Defense Minister Maurice Slim, has been fiercely opposed it.

Meanwhile, the other players passed the quid from the caretaker cabinet, led by Najib Mikati, to the parliament. Although in the end, it was the parliament that had to make the decision, Berri continued to reiterate, including on Friday in the middle of the session, that he would have preferred the cabinet to “assume its responsibilities.”

Initially, the Berri-Mikati duo had agreed on the approach to be taken: a decree delaying Gen. Aoun’s retirement, appointing a chief of staff and filling the vacant posts on the Military Council.

But Mikati ultimately capitulated in the face of numerous calls, both local and international, to extend the Army Chief’s term of office through a law in Parliament. A cabinet decree would have been easily invalidated through a challenge with the State Shura Council, especially if the decision was taken in the absence of the main minister concerned, namely the defense minister.

This approach was dreaded above all by the Maronite Church, which feared seeing the Army command entrusted to a Druze chief of staff.

Aoun-Frangieh dinner

While these negotiations were underway, Mikati caused a dispute with Slim by sending him a missive pointing to the need to put forward the extension of the Army Chief’s term of office at the cabinet meeting. The defense minister rejected it.

Berri then sought to mediate between the two men, hosting Slim at Ain al-Tineh. During their meeting, Slim explained his point of view, stating that he could not tolerate an encroachment on his powers and an extension of the Army Chief without his signature. Berri expressed his understanding and asked the minister, “So what do you propose?”

The latter suggested that the cabinet appoint a chief of staff and members of the Military Council despite the absence of a President of the Republic. In response to Berri’s question, he undertook to facilitate this measure even if his party, the FPM, opposed it.

Mikati, however, rejected this solution, having promised Bkirki to keep Gen. Aoun in office.

Negotiations then continued with a view to finding a way out of the stalemate. Berri and Hezbollah understood that extending the Army Chief’s term of office was an unavoidable international requirement.

However, Berri wanted to take advantage of the situation. First, he saw it as an opportunity to bring the various political parties — especially the Lebanese Forces (LF) and the Christian opposition — to Parliament for a legislative (rather than electoral) session, for the first time since the presidential vacancy began. He then sought to sell this concession to the quintet members.

The same goes for Sleiman Frangieh, Amal and Hezbollah’s preferred presidential candidate. Frangieh initially opposed the idea of keeping in office a man who “does not communicate with us, does not recognize us and continues to attack us,” in reference to Gen. Aoun’s attitude towards the entire political class.

L’Orient-Le Jour learned that at that time, efforts were made by local and international players, including Bkirki via Archbishop Samir Mazloum, to facilitate contact between the two men. As a result of these successful contacts, Frangieh and Gen. Aoun met for dinner on Thursday evening, at the invitation of the Army Chief.

“Joseph Aoun also sent representatives to Paris to discuss the matter. The French said that the extension will certainly take place.”

Joumblatt joins the fray

Bassil did not feel defeated, however. He threatened to resort to the State Shura Council if the cabinet approves of the extension, or to the Constitutional Council if it was voted for in parliament.

Since then, efforts had been made to reach a joint approach by the cabinet and parliament. At the same time, contacts intensified between Hezbollah and Bassil, the latter considering that a green light from Hezbollah would be tantamount to “a stab in the back.” Hassan Nasrallah’s party then sent out the message that its ministers would not take part in a cabinet meeting devoted to the matter.

Nevertheless, when Mikati called the ministers for a cabinet meeting on Friday, in parallel with the Parliamentary session, which Berri convened, Hezbollah knew that the quorum would not be met in the Grand Serail.

The big day arrived: retired soldiers held a protest in the vicinity of the Grand Serail. “This cannot be dissociated from the pressure in Lebanon and abroad to prevent the cabinet from extending [the army chief’s term of office],” said a well-informed political source.

By Thursday evening, the political forces were aware that the cabinet meeting would not take place. It was then that Druze leader Walid Joumblatt joined the fray, unhappy to see the promise of appointing a chief of staff unfulfilled.

The former head of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) considered that what was happening was a manipulation of the country’s and military establishment’s destiny, and he made this known to Wafic Safa, head of Hezbollah’s coordination committee. The latter replied that Hezbollah did not want to clash with Bassil, but was not opposed to the principle of maintaining the Army Chief in office.

At that point, Joumblatt said that Hezbollah “had exhausted itself and the country to satisfy Gebran Bassil,” and told Safa that he was going to contact the FPM leader. The conversation between the two men was tense, according to a source close to Joumblatt.

The Druze leader felt that it was unacceptable to expose such a sensitive issue to the twists and turns of party politics and personal considerations. He also contacted Berri and Mikati to tell them that the caretaker Education Minister Abbas Halabi, who is close to the PSP, would not be attending the cabinet meeting.

As a result, a solution was found: Gen. Aoun’s term of office was extended during a legislative session which the Hezbollah MPs did not sabotage, despite not attending.

In parallel, the cabinet will have to work on appointing a chief of staff and Military Council members at a meeting that will be held next Tuesday in the Grand Serail.

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

Joseph Aoun won the battle. On Friday, Parliament extended his term of office at the head of the military for another year, despite attempts to end his political career with his retirement — initially scheduled for Jan. 10. This matter was preceded by active political and diplomatic negotiations. Thus, despite Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil’s thirst for revenge on Gen. Aoun, the...