by Joseph Puder
Michel Aoun was elected as President of Lebanon on October 31st, 2016, ending a two-year vacancy in the presidential palace. Two years in which Lebanon did not have a constitutionally functioning government. This reporter interviewed Michel Aoun in 2003 at the Hudson Institute in Washington. On that occasion, still in exile, and living in France, Aoun railed against the Syrian army occupiers of Lebanon. General Aoun, as the commander of the Lebanese army, declared “a war of liberation” against the occupying Syrian army in March, 1989. In October, 1990, the Syrian army surrounded Aoun’s forces, killing hundreds of Lebanese soldiers and civilians. Aoun escaped to the French embassy in Beirut, and was granted asylum in France. He spent 15 years in exile, and returned to Lebanon in 2005, following the Syrian army withdrawal from Lebanon.
Can they once again become the dominant political force?
A Maronite Christian and commonly known as “the general,” Aoun formed The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) upon his return. He called for an end to sectarianism and division in Lebanon. While he was welcomed by the Sunni, Shiite, Druze and Christian factions as a possible unifier of the anti-Syrian coalition, within weeks Aoun abandoned the anti-Syrian bloc and allied his FPM with the pro-Syrian elements. He signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Hezbollah in 2006, which started a major alliance with Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, and Bashar Assad. The alliance with Hezbollah remains intact. Ironically perhaps, Aoun is considered “Iran’s man in Lebanon” and by extension “Syria’s man”.
This reporter asked Joseph Hakim, a Lebanese native, Orthodox Christian, and President of the International Christian Union (an organization that seeks to protect the diminishing number of Christians in the Middle East due to persecution by the Muslim majorities) to comment on the recent developments in Lebanon.
Joseph Puder: What impact will the election of Michel Aoun have on the Christians in Lebanon, and in terms of relations with Israel?
Joseph Hakim: First, let me describe what led to Aoun’s election. Following two years of haggling back and forth over 45+ sessions, Saad Hariri (Sunni-Muslim leader) endorsed Suleiman Frangieh of the March 8 Alliance, while at the same time abandoning another Christian candidate for the presidency, Samir Geagea. Geagea, feeling betrayed by Hariri, found common understanding with Aoun, and endorsed him for president (Lebanese constitution requires the President of the republic to be a Christian). Hezbollah, the dominant Shiite (terrorist) group for its part, wasn’t eager to see the restoration of a Christian presidency and a functioning government. Hezbollah sought changes to the constitution in which Lebanon’s parliament would be split into three constituent groups, a third Shiite, a third Sunni, and a third Christian. Hariri, fearing a change in the “Taif” Agreement that would reduce Sunni representation, was assured by Geagea that Hezbollah was not going to accept Aoun, and thus would be left in the corner. Hariri agreed, and then Druze leader Jumblatt, realizing that he could not stand alone against a Christian and Sunni majority, also fell in line for Aoun. Amal Shiite leader and speaker of the parliament Nabih Berry, tried to postpone the vote, but Aoun refused, and the result is now clear.
As a result of Aoun’s election, the divided Christian leaders have begun dialoguing with one another, healing the bloody conflict between the various Christian factions that existed since 1988. That conflict was particularly severe between Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, and Michel Aoun, commander of the Lebanese army. Insofar as relations with Israel, Aoun as president will be pushed by Geagea, Hariri and Jumblatt to move to the political center, and lean away from Iran and Syria. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Abdul Aziz called Michel Aoun and congratulated him. A gesture that signifies expectations that Lebanon would move away from Iran. Should Aoun implement the Taif agreement, and disarm all militias, especially the Palestinians, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and ISIS related Sunni groups, relations with Israel would greatly improve.
JP: How would you create the best condition for the re-emergence of the Christians in Lebanon as the dominant political force?
JH: For the first time since the 1980’s, Christian leaders have demonstrated some form of cohesion, when the top two Christian leaders in Lebanon, Geagea and Aoun have come together, and promised to work together. This sends a positive message to Christians in Lebanon, the Middle East, and the diaspora.
The removal of foreign refugees, be it Syrians or Palestinians, will definitely strengthen the Christians in Lebanon. Given the poor living conditions in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, the overcrowding per square meter, the unsanitary state of the medical facilities and water system, the poor educational infrastructure, lack of job opportunities, proper hospitalization, and lack of security in the camps, which are governed by militia mobs, it would be a charitable act to relocate the Palestinians to Libya. Libya and other oil-rich Arab states with small populations, large tracts of land, and oil resources, could use an influx of Palestinians who were once needed in the Arab Gulf states, and were kicked out when Arafat sided with Saddam Hussein following his takeover of Kuwait.
JP: Can Lebanon free itself from Hezbollah’s military and political control?
JH: If the Palestinian problem were to be settled, greater unity would emerge in Lebanon among all its confessional groups, and in the nation as a whole. That would force Hezbollah to either give up its arms and merge into the Lebanese army, or do what the Lebanese Forces did in the 1990’s, get rid of its arms.
JP: What is your assessment of the future of Middle East Christians in general and Lebanese Christians in particular?
JH: Lebanese Christians as well as other Christians living in the region, face a growing militant Islam that is intolerant of all non-Muslims. This radicalism, which has escalated in the last 50 years is expressed in Al-Qaeda, Wahhabism, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, The Islamic Republic of Iran, and now ISIS.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the “Pope” of the Greek Orthodox Church headquartered in Istanbul, Turkey pointed out in an August, 2010 interview with CBS News “60 Minutes” that he feels “crucified” by the Islamist regime of President Erdogan. It is the Islamic sharia laws in the surrounding nations that makes life for Christians miserable. In Lebanon however, things are different. And as long as Christians maintain what’s left of their power, survival is possible.
To make Lebanon great again, the western world should commit to an economically viable and politically stable Lebanon. Investing in gas and water while engaging the Lebanese diaspora to invest in their homeland is a prescription for a prosperous and peaceful Lebanon. A successful Lebanon, with a politically active and influential Christian political leadership will provide hope for other Christians in the region.
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