Toxic Aoun era is but a symptom of Lebanon’s terminal disease

Michel Aoun
Michel Aoun President of Lebanon. (Photo: Facebook)
Michel Aoun

Osama Al Sharif

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun has left the presidential palace a day before his six-year term was to end, but not before detonating a mine that will further suck the troubled country into a constitutional black hole. اضافة اعلان

He signed a decree accepting the resignation of the government, thus deepening the legal vacuum the country finds itself in. By doing so, he left Lebanon without a president, and without a functioning government — at least in the eyes of his supporters.

The caretaker premier and designate prime minister, Najib Mikati, has been trying to form a government for the last six months without success. And the parliament has been trying to elect a new president for more than a month, also without success. Mikati rejected Aoun’s last decree, saying that the outgoing president has no authority to sack him.

Aoun’s years in office have not been the most auspicious, to say the least. He leaves behind a fractured, bankrupt and deeply divided country that now finds itself entangled in a web of unclear and inconclusive legal wrangles.

Much can be said about Aoun, 89, the former general, who had switched alliances during the civil war and spent years in exile. His political ambition to be elected president took a convoluted course that finally ended with him forming an unholy bond with an unexpected ally: Hezbollah.

As head of the Christian dominated Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), Aoun was able to stall the election of a president for two years, between 2014 and 2016. He finally got his way, and for his apologists, his term was an unlucky one: marred by a financial meltdown that they blame on endemic mismanagement and corruption, public protests in 2019 that triggered a series of government collapses, the pandemic, and a horrific explosion at Beirut port in 2020, which caused the death of more than 200 people and injured 7,000, and billions of dollars in damages.

Critics, however, say that his reign has been “hellish”, and of his own making.

Aoun and Hezbollah deliberately foiled the formation of a number of governments, the holding of elections and now the naming of a president, in a bid to serve each other’s interests. Hezbollah, an Iran proxy, wants to enjoy veto power in any government, while Aoun wants to secure his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, as next in line for the presidency. Opponents, both Sunni and Christian, reject that.
The sectarian power-sharing formula is no longer viable and the country needs a new social contract that secures its territorial integrity and sovereignty…
Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah has led to the regional and international isolation of Lebanon. The country found itself embroiled in a proxy war involving Iran, Syria, the US and Israel. Long-time supporters of Lebanon, such as Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries, in addition to France, could do little to distance Lebanon from the regional power struggle.

Aoun left the presidential palace, but not before deepening his country’s constitutional crisis and the political vacuum it now finds itself in. His last decree will divide the bankrupt country even further. Under the constitution, in case of a presidential vacuum, the president’s authorities revert automatically to the government. Aoun has sacked the government, which is not within his powers, and as a result cast a dark shadow over what happens next.

One problem with Lebanon, where there are many, is that almost all other political players on the sectarian stage carry as much blame as Aoun and his allies for the way things have turned out.

Lebanon’s descent into the abyss took decades to happen. The former war lords of the civil war had become the ruling elite, and in a bid to maintain the sectarian structure of the state, they took part in the systemic plundering of the country’s resources. At the end of the day, all ordinary Lebanese, regardless of sect, ended up losing.

Lebanon is a failed country, but more importantly, it is also an occupied country that is victim of a regional power struggle. This has been its sad reality since before the civil war of the 1970s.

Electing a president and forming a government, which is not likely to happen anytime soon, will not end Lebanon’s ordeal. The future of Lebanon is but a minor issue in the larger US-Iran-Israel multifaceted struggle that extends all the way to Iraq and Yemen.

Aoun’s ignominious time in power is but a symptom of a terminal disease that had been eating at the heart of the state’s institutions for many years. A major part of the disease is Hezbollah’s hegemony and by extension that of Iran, but that is not all. The sectarian power-sharing formula is no longer viable and the country needs a new social contract that secures its territorial integrity and sovereignty while replacing sub identities, what the Lebanese-born French thinker Amin Maalouf called deadly identities, with a unified national one.      

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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