(November 2, 2016 / JNS) The Lebanese parliament elected Michael Aoun as its president Oct. 31, ending a two-and-half-year vacuum that threatened to destabilize the highly sectarian country.
Aoun, 81, a retired general from the Lebanese Civil War, is a polarizing figure whose Christian political party, the Free Patriotic Movement, is an ally of the terror group and political party Hezbollah.
After taking the oath, Aoun said in a speech he will prioritize political stability for the country.
“I came at a hard time, and there is a lot of hope that I will overcome difficulties. … The Lebanese need their state to protect their rights and obligations and for there to be a president who guarantees safety,” he said.
Aoun also promised to “release what is left of our lands from the Israeli occupation” referring to contested areas along the Lebanese-Israeli border, particularly the Shebaa Farms region.
Aoun’s election was essentially “icing on the cake” of Hezbollah’s “consolidation of the preexisting control and power in Lebanon,” said Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Hezbollah has already been dominating Lebanon for much of the past decade,” Badran told JNS.org. “It controls the state’s security and administrative structures, and controls the ports of entry. It has dictated the country’s foreign policy, and even the Lebanese Armed Forces and security services have cooperated with Hezbollah and protected its flank while fighting in Syria.”
Aoun has long coveted the presidency, which is reserved only for Christians under the Lebanese constitution. After being driven from power and forced into exile in 1990, Aoun reemerged in 2005, following the assassination of former Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which was blamed on the Syrian government and Hezbollah.
However, Aoun surprised many in Lebanon by allying his Free Patriotic Movement with Hezbollah in 2006. Together with Hezbollah and the Shi’a Muslim Amal party, these parties form the March 8 Alliance, which is seen as the main rival to the largely Sunni Muslim March 14 Alliance headed by Saad Hariri, the son of Rafiq Hariri.
According to Badran, Hezbollah set a new and unprecedented standard with Aoun, as he is the first president they had the opportunity to directly appoint.
“Previous presidents were someone they had to approve of, but it at least had the façade of compromise,” he said. “In this case, you had a deliberate paralyzing of Lebanon’s institutions, including shutting down parliament, until the election of their candidate.”
In many respects, Badran added, the Lebanese system is now parallel to Iran’s.
In Iran, “you have the façade of a political system that functions ‘independently’ but none of which really matters because the final arbitrator is [Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Khamenei. The fact that they are cloning the Iranian system is not an accident,” Badran said.
The Middle East Cold War
At the same time, the election of Aoun also represents a defeat by Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Muslim allies within Lebanon at the hands of Iran and Hezbollah.
For the last several years, Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states had provided support for Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim alliance led by Saad Hariri.
Hariri, who also served as prime minister from 2009-2011, was a vocal critic of Hezbollah. However, after returning from exile earlier this year, Hariri had struck a more conciliatory tone with Hezbollah and eventually endorsed Aoun for president last week to the dismay of some within his party.
In return for his support, Hariri was named the new prime minister of Lebanon on Nov. 3.
“We, the government, will get to work to resolve the economic, environmental, security and political issues the Lebanese face,” Hariri said in an address from the presidential palace.
“Hariri’s decision — which was not backed by Saudi Arabia nor does it reflect a Saudi position — to concede to Hezbollah’s preference is a symptom of the pro-Iranian policy that the Obama White House has pursued in the region for the past several years,” Badran said.
Complicating matters further is that the Lebanese military is the world’s fifth largest recipient of U.S. military aid. The U.S. has traditionally been supportive of the Lebanese government and the Sunni controlled March 14 alliance. However, in light of the Iranian nuclear deal and the ongoing civil war in Syria, both Iran and Hezbollah have been using this opportunity to increasingly consolidate power in Lebanon.
According to Badran, the Syrian civil war provided an opening for Obama to break up Iran’s network in the Levant, which would deal Hezbollah a severe blow in Lebanon.
“Instead, Obama announced that any solution must protect Iran’s ‘equities.’ He pursued a policy of supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces as they cooperated with Hezbollah as the latter pursued its war in Syria,” Badran said.
What does this mean for Israel?
During the 2006 Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah, Israel had blamed the Lebanese government for Hezbollah’s actions. However, with Hezbollah increasing its political control over Lebanon, including in its military and security services, the line between Hezbollah and the government is further blurred.
“The Israeli position is further vindicated,” Badran said. “Now because every corner of the official state of Lebanon is openly aligned with Hezbollah.”
If a third Lebanon war erupts between Israel and Hezbollah, Israel may not only attack Hezbollah’s assets, but also that of the Lebanese government and military.
“In the case of a war, clearly the position that Israel had already staked out – treating Lebanon as a hostile enemy state – is going to be further vindicated,” he said.