This is the second installment in a series. You can read Part One here if you missed it.
BEIRUT — While Hezbollah staged a mass protest and sit-in downtown Beirut with the hopes of ousting the elected anti-Syrian “March 14” government, I watched from the patio of a café across the street. Sitting at the next table were two men in orange, one with an orange hat and one with a scarf, which identified them as members of Michel Aoun’s (predominantly Christian) Free Patriotic Movement, the only non-Shia political party of any significance in Lebanon that dared form an alliance with Hezbollah.
The two Aounists smoked cigars and calmly watched the crowd. A man at the next table scowled. Everyone else ate their lunch as though nothing was happening just 30 feet away. The dread of civil war hung over Lebanon like a pall. But if these people weren’t nervous, how could I be? It’s a cliché that fear is contagious. What’s less widely understood is that calm is also contagious. Then again, we were a self-selecting lunch crowd. Thousands of Beirutis were hiding in their homes, hugging their flags, and wishing they lived in a normal country.
I asked the two Aounists if I could join them at their table, if they would be willing to explain to a primarily Western audience why they formed a political alliance with an Islamist militia.
“Of course,” they both warmly said and gestured for me to sit.
“Pull up a seat,” said the man in the hat. “Can I buy you a coffee?”
The man on the left introduced himself as Jack (yes, that’s his real Lebanese name) and said he worked as a pilot for a major airline. The other was named Antonios. He worked as a tour guide in Baalbeck.
A portrait of Michel Aoun on a street in East Beirut
“So why are you with Aoun and Hezbollah?” I said.
“Aoun is honest and correct,” Antonios said. “Hezbollah in America is seen as terrorists, I know. I understand. But they are a large party in Lebanon and we have to live here with them. So we have to convince them to come back, to put down their arms and join the rest of us. We cannot do it by fighting.”
At least they don’t want to do it by fighting today. Another Aounist I know explained their strategy to me earlier in the year: “We’ll extend our hand and ask them to join us. But we can’t wait forever. If they refuse to disarm we’ll crack the shit out of them.”
“On the other side,” Jack said, “is the Hariri family which has governed since 1990 with and without help from the Syrians. They’re only interested in keeping the Ministry of Finance so they can pay no taxes and steal from us like they do through the cell phone companies.”
Indeed, Lebanon’s cell phone companies are the corporate equivalent of rapists. It costs two dollars a minute to call the United States from Beirut, and it costs 50 cents a minute just to make a local call. This in a country where the average salary is only 800 dollars a month. A member of my hotel’s staff told me a Mexican businessman who stayed with them recently had to pay four dollars a minute to call his wife in Mexico City.
Until the Syrians were chased out by the March 14 Movement, broadband Internet access was banned in Lebanon to prevent people from making free or cheap long distance phone calls using Skype or other Internet services. The ban has since been lifted, but Lebanon’s telecommunications infrastructure is still terribly behind the rest of the world and the region.
“Hariri spent 10 million dollars in the north on his election campaign,” Jack said. “But he stole that money from the government, from us.”
“Seniora should accept this and resign,” Antonios said. “We are voting with Aoun because he is honest and not corrupt. March 14 doesn’t want a man like that in charge of finance.”
I doubt most Aounists are aware of what happened to the left in Iran after the 1979 revolution. Liberals and leftists formed an alliance with the Islamists to overthrow the corrupt and dictatorial Shah Reza Pahlevi. After the Ayatollah Khomeini took power, though, first the leftists were liquidated, and then so too were the liberals. Soon enough only the rightist religious fanatics remained.
“I understand why you don’t want a war with Hezbollah,” I said. “But why does that mean you have to form an alliance with them? Do you really believe Hassan Nasrallah is your friend?”
Several posters of Aoun are defaced, and placed among them is a portrait of the far more popular (among Christians) Bashir Gemayel, Israel’s Lebanese ally during the civil war.
“No,” Jack said. “He isn’t our friend. But if Hezbollah is truly a part of the government they will give up their arms.”
“Hezbollah no longer uses arms against Lebanese,” Antonios said.
This is almost true, but not quite. I found people in the South whom Hezbollah shot at with machine guns during the July War only a few months ago. But I hadn’t met these people yet at the time, and Jack and Antonios may have had a hard time accepting it even if I had told them about it.
“Hariri accepted Hezbollah’s arms back in 1990,” Jack said, which was of course true.
The situation was different then, though. Southern Lebanon was still under Israeli occupation. Hezbollah’s ideology and tactics may have been distasteful to most of Lebanon’s citizens, but foreign occupation was even more so. Hezbollah was given temporary support by the majority of the people of Lebanon for their struggle against the occupier.
Almost all that support evaporated after Israel withdrew from Lebanese territory. Hezbollah was supposed to disarm. Instead they kept their weapons and warped Lebanon’s delicate power-sharing arrangement — the Shia have their own army while no one else does. This is why Hezbollah is widely detested in Lebanon and why claims that Hezbollah is a popular people’s movement are flatly ridiculous. Hezbollah is a well-armed parochial sectarian movement that is deeply offensive and dangerous in a country where every group is a minority and none are allowed to bully or lord it over the others.
That, of course, is not the only reason Hezbollah frightens most Lebanese. Hezbollah is also, as everyone knows, a proxy militia for Syria and Iran. The Aounists may have legitimate grievances against the “March 14” government, but they’re paying precious little attention to the wider regional picture.
Tony Badran, a Lebanese research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, calls Michel Aoun a “useful idiot.”
“Aoun’s calculations fail to take in some dangerous regional realities. Syria is more than pleased to see Aoun attacking the anti-Syrian government. So is Iran, whose supreme guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently predicted the defeat of U.S. and allied interests in Lebanon. Wittingly or not, Aoun is serving these foreign masters for free.”
Michael Young, opinion page editor at Beirut’s Daily Star, thinks Aoun has doomed himself with his useful idiocy no matter how the crisis resolves in the end.
“The general knows he and his own are the weakest link in the campaign against Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The Aounists cannot long endure an open-ended sit-in, both because they are not earning salaries to do so and probably because the looming holiday season threatens to melt their momentum. And there is something else: Aoun realizes that as package deals are unwrapped left and right to resolve the ongoing crisis, his chances of seeing the presidency diminish. Indeed, the latest basket of ideas from Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa includes a proposal for the March 14 coalition and the opposition to consent to a compromise president. If that process goes through, Aoun will not be the chosen one… can the general then convince Hizbullah and the Syrians that he’s their man? If the Syrians are back in town by then, their preference will be for someone more controllable; and if they are not, this will mean that all sides must accept a compromise candidate. In neither case does Aoun fit the bill.”
The strangest thing about Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah, who is of course allied with Syria, is that Aoun was for years Lebanon’s most militant enemy of Syria as the prime minister and as a general in the army.
“Why is it,” I said to Jack and Antonios, “that Michel Aoun is now pro-Syrian when for years he was the staunchest anti-Syrian leader in Lebanon?”
“Aoun is not pro-Syrian,” Antonios said. “He just wants normal relations with Syria. We can’t fight Syria.”
Sure enough, Lebanon cannot fight Syria. Not militarily, at least, any more than little Kuwait could defend itself against an invasion from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Aoun, you could say, has surrendered to Syrian power, or at least acquiesced to it.
Only the West can or will at least try to keep Syria out of Lebanon.
“What do you two think of US foreign policy here?” I said.
“We love America, but have doubts,” Jack said. “They let Syria come in here in 1991 for help in Iraq.” Jack was referring to former Secretary of State James Baker, who green-lighted Syria’s invasion and overlordship in Lebanon in exchange for “help” during the first Persian Gulf War. How Hafez Assad lent any meaningful assistance in ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait has never been clear. Lebanese were sold to the Syrian wolf for a cheap price indeed, and Aoun constantly harps on this point to his followers.
“Now they put their fingers in here,” Jack continued. “They used the Syrian election law.”
The Syrians did write Lebanon’s current election law, and they did it strictly in a way that would benefit them. They gerrymandered the voting districts so that anti-Syrians were marginalized and pro-Syrians strengthened. Jack is annoyed that the US supported quick elections in post-Syrian Lebanon without first pushing for a new electoral law.
“The US will hand us over to the Syrians again for help in Iraq,” Antonios said. “That is what Washington is speaking of doing right now.”
Actually, the Iraq Study Group (headed by none other than James Baker himself) explicitly said Lebanon is off the table, that Assad cannot expect any American support for his little imperialistic adventures. But this detail has been lost in the wash, and I can hardly blame Jack and Antonios for suspecting the worst now that Baker is back.
Michel Aoun’s portrait now appears with those of his former enemies, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and North Lebanon’s token pro-Syrian Maronite Suleiman Franjieh.
This isn’t the first time Michel Aoun made a tactical alliance with people who have little or nothing in common with him politically instead of trying to forge ties with more natural allies.
Aoun became prime minister in 1988, near the end of Lebanon’s civil war. He formed an alliance with Saddam Hussein, Hafez Assad’s old Baathist rival, and openly declared war against Syria. The Aounists were the last militant anti-Syrians in the country. Nearly everyone else surrendered to Syrian domination as a way to resolve the intractable 15-year conflict. Aoun couldn’t hold the Syrians off, and he was exiled to France after his surrender.
The US used diplomatic pressure to help get him out of exile last year. But he never forgave the American government for green-lighting his defeat at the end of the war. He still harps on this point today, and so do his partisans, as though Syria would have been unable to rule Lebanon if it weren’t for James Baker — a dubious assumption at best.
Even so, the US does have the bad habit of being fickle with its friends in the Middle East. Many people in the March 14 bloc likewise are worried the US will abandon them to Hezbollah, the Iranians, and the Baath. Anti-American elements in March 14 will tell you that the reason they don’t trust America is not because they hate the US, but because Americans are unreliable allies who care only about themselves and not about Lebanon.
In any case, Aoun’s alliance or détente with Syria, like his alliance with Hezbollah, is mostly just tactical. He wants to be president more than anything else. He’ll do whatever he thinks he must in order to get it, and probably figures that once he’s in office he can do whatever he wants. Unlike the current Assad-appointed Syrian stooge of a president Emile Lahoud, Aoun would be beholden to no one. The man is a loose cannon and always has been.
Foreign policy, though, is not what most motivated Jack and Antonios. They kept steering the conversation back to corruption.
“According to the people ruling Lebanon,” Jack said, “money is the only thing that matters.”
“Nasrallah is honest,” Antonios said. “He takes care of his people. Sure he gets money from Iran, but everyone gets money from outside.”
This is most likely true. Say what you will about Hezbollah, they aren’t known for financial corruption. (UPDATE: Tony Badran deftly dissents in the comments.)
“Does Mr. Bush pay taxes?” Jack asked me.
“Of course,” I said.
“Hariri doesn’t,” he said. “This is justice?”
“No,” I said. “Of course it isn’t justice.”
“Seniora has been in government for 15 years,” Antonios said. “We have no medical scheme, no national education, 55 billion dollars in debt, and no retirement system. Why? 200 dollars a month is the minimum wage. We try to increase it, but they say they have no money. Then they spend 800 million dollars on a new company. This is why we are with Aoun. Our government is not a government. It is like we are ruled by a private corporation for the benefit of the boss.”
I liked these guys, and I sympathized with their positions and complaints. They aren’t terrorists or fascists or anything like it. They’re liberals, basically, although most of the “March 14” bloc parties are relatively liberal in a Middle East way as well. If the Aounists had more decent and respectable allies in their opposition to the government their rallies wouldn’t be considered a “crisis” by anyone in the international community.
A large orange flag from Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement flies over downtown
“Foreigners should stop sending money to Lebanon,” Jack said. “The government will just steal it. They should send someone like you here to watch exactly what happens to that money.”
“Thanks, guys,” I said and laughed. “But accounting isn’t really my specialty.”
The waiter came by the table.
“Do you want another coffee?” Antonios said.
“Get another coffee!” Jack said.
“I’ll have another coffee,” I said to the waiter.
Jack puffed on his cigar.
The opposition isn’t demanding absolute power in Lebanon. They’ll go home if the government gives Hezbollah, Amal, and the Free Patriotic Movement enough slots in the cabinet that as a bloc they’ll have veto power over government decisions. They want blocking minority status, which just goes to show you how much support in Lebanon Hezbollah actually has. Just giving them one part of a minority faction will sate them for now. If they really were a mass popular movement they would demand a lot more than that.
One reason they want veto power is so they can block the UN tribunal that will indict and punish the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Everyone knows the Syrians did it, and Hezbollah can’t have their patron in Damascus made into a formal pariah by the United Nations.
Why on earth, though, would the Aounists want to block that? The Aounists were a part of the “March 14” movement that ousted the Syrian occupiers from Lebanon after Hariri was killed.
“So, what about the tribunal?” I said to Jack and Antonios. “Do you really want to block the investigation?”
“We are worried,” Antonios said, “that [Saad] Hariri wants to use the tribunal to go after people whose faces in Lebanon he doesn’t like.”
I think I must have audibly sighed when I heard that. But these guys live in a part of the world where politics has always been a ruthless and murderous business. Political enemies really do disappear into dungeons. Voicing the “wrong” opinion in a newspaper column can get you car-bombed on the way to work in the morning. Foreign powers really do manipulate local governments for their own craven gain. Paranoia naturally thrives in environments like Lebanon’s, and I’m honestly surprised it isn’t an even bigger problem than it already is.
“We are not against anybody,” Antonios earnestly said. “We just support our country. We are normal people and we work every day.”
“Do you think there will be more war in Lebanon?” I said.
“No!” Jack said. “Not with ourselves, and not with Israel. I think there is a deal under the table between the Israelis and Hezbollah. Both sides lost and don’t want to do it again. The situation in the South is finished. If it happens again, Nasrallah will lose his case.”
I hope Jack is right, but I fear he is not. Hezbollah has restocked its arsenal. Hezbollah has made no formal announcement that its war with Israelis is finished. If Hezbollah wants peace or at least an armistice, they are keeping their intentions very much to themselves.
If Hezbollah increases its share of government power, more war with Israel is only that much more likely. And the more official state power that Hezbollah is able to garner, the more incentive the Israelis will have to attack all of Lebanon next time there’s war.
Jack and Antonios are in a terrible spot. At some point Hezbollah needs to be mainstreamed. But if they’re mainstreamed prematurely, Lebanon as a whole will be moved into Israel’s kill zone.
The alternative, though, is also quite grim.
“If Israel can’t deal with Hezbollah, how can Seniora and Jumblatt?” Antonios said. “We have to negotiate with them. If we don’t then we will divide on sectarian lines and we will no longer have a country. Look at that mosque next to the church.”
“We need this,” he said. “Christians need Muslims. And Muslims need Christians. That is what Lebanon is.”
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All photos copyright Michael J. Totten