In a couple of days, on October 31 precisely, it will be the fourth anniversary of the election of the former army chief, General Michel Aoun, as President of the Lebanese Republic. Michel Aoun became president thanks to a settlement imposed on the Lebanese by Hezbollah.
The Lebanese were given a simple choice then: accept Hezbollah’s candidate for the presidency of the republic or suffer the consequences of shutting down the parliament forever and have the presidency permanently vacant.
Four years into Michel Aoun’s presidency, all that can be said is that the Lebanese should have gone with the option of vacancy. This conclusion seems logical in light of the country’s current state of misery. With the collapse of its banking system, Lebanon’s future was scattered to the four winds. As people’s deposits were seized, Beirut is no longer trusted as the solid financial centre it used to be in the region, putting at risk most state institutions.
As if these ailments were not enough, the horrific explosion at the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, came to add to the misery of the already suffering Lebanese. The blast made numerous victims from all sects, communities, regions and social classes. The Christian neighbourhoods of Beirut in particular were the most affected,with tens of thousands of homes being damaged, and prompting another wave of immigration of Lebanon’s Christians, while the country continues to suffer from an unprecedented isolation from Arab countries, never experienced since independence in 1943.
With the arrival of Michel Aoun at Baabda Palace, a different Lebanon emerged. He became president because the Parliament was kept closed for two and a half years to prevent any other candidate from becoming the next president. That fateful presidential settlement was an unforgivable mistake, especially after it became clear that Michel Aoun’s arrival at Baabda Palace would mark the beginning of the “Hezbollah era” in Lebanon.
There is a need to simplify matters to the greatest extent in order to understand what has happened in Lebanon since the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding, called the Mar Mikhael Document, between Michel Aoun and Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah on February 6, 2006, that is, less than a year following the assassination of Rafik Hariri. The record of the events, from February 2006 to October 31, 2016, shows that Michel Aoun successfully passed all the tests that Hezbollah subjected him to.
The tests began with covering up for Hezbollah’s war of the summer of 2006, and then for its “invasion” of downtown Beirut and al-Jabal in May 2008, which was a coup attempt in every sense of the word. The effects of that “coup” are still reverberating today. It was enough reason for all political forces in the country to reject a settlement that would bring Michel Aoun to the presidency of the country. Aoun went even further in his services to Hezbollah and provided political cover for the party’s incursion into the Syrian crisis on the side of the minority Syrian regime in its war on the Syrian people since March 2011.
Yes, Hezbollah’s choice for the person to sit at the Baabda Palace was not random. It was deliberate and it was successful, albeit for the party, of course, and not for Lebanon. Hezbollah knew Michel Aoun’s biggest weakness, which was his lust after the presidency of the republic. The party also knew that its channel of communication with Aoun at the time, namely Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil, was no less ambitious and he too had his eye on the presidency. Gebran Bassil ended up becoming Michel Aoun’s only trusted person. After all, he was the person who managed to get him to Baabda Palace, no more, no less.
What is important here is that this person, Gebran Bassil, has an excellent relationship with Hezbollah, better than anyone else in Lebanon. When he was Lebanon’s minister of foreign affairs, he acted as Iran’s voice on the Council of the Arab League. It was unheard of in the history of Lebanon’s membership in the League. In all of his interventions at the League, all of the other members felt a flagrant bias towards Iran and its so-called “axis of resistance” in the region. It was clear to the members of Arab League that Lebanon has swung militarily and politically to the Iranian axis, with no hope to rescue it from that quagmire; so they abandoned it.
Lebanon is paying the price of accepting Michel Aoun as president and the Christian Lebanese are paying the price for the Aounist movement’s political cover of Hezbollah’s rogue weapons, with what that means in terms of clashing with the international financial system on the one hand and Arab isolation on the other hand. After four years of Michel Aoun’s presidency, Lebanon left the international banking system after receiving several warnings from the US administration and refusing to understand their meaning and the consequences they would entail.
Four years into the Hezbollah era, Lebanon is no longer the same. It is no longer the hospital of the region, the university of the region, nor is it the capital of art, literature, media and tourism in the region. Gone are the cafés, theatres, and cabarets where the Lebanese and Arabs can go to catch a breath of fresh air. Worse, Lebanon is no longer a place for Arab investments.
What Michel Aoun could not do in 1988, 1989 and 1990, when he became for the first time head of a temporary military government that had no other mission than securing the election of a president of the republic to succeed President Amin Gemayel, he succeeded in accomplishing in the last four years. Finally, the Lebanese Christians and Muslims who chose not to leave the country in the late 1980s are now considering emigration.
The Lebanese have not yet realized the extent of wear and tear reached by their country and the extent to which they have become poor at a time when the so-called “Shia duo” chose to provide the necessary political cover for Lebanon’s negotiations with Israel on demarcating the maritime borders, with all what it entails in terms of significance and symbols. The most significant aspect is that Hezbollah can actually do what many others in the country never dare do, and can in the end lead Lebanon wherever the party decides. More than that, it can impose what it wants on the Lebanese in the service of Iran’s expansionist project that has nothing to do with the interests of Lebanon, from near or afar. It does that at a stage when the region appears to be on the verge of major upheavals in light of Israel’s encroachment in different directions, a catastrophic drop in the oil price, and an unprecedented pandemic around the globe.
Four years into the era of Michel Aoun, or more precisely Hezbollah’s era, Lebanon is trapped more than ever in the labyrinth of the unknown.
Khairallah Khairallah is a Lebanese writer.