Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Patrick Martin, "The rise of Lebanon's Napoleon," Globe and Mail, August 5, 2006.

BEIRUT -- Michel Aoun is a determined man.

In 1988, the then-commander of the Lebanese army tried to assume the prime ministership of the country over the objection of the national assembly. When the sitting prime minister refused to budge, General Aoun took over the presidential palace and set up a military government in largely Christian East Beirut. For two years, he ruled in parallel to the civilian government in mostly Muslim West Beirut.

When Syrian troops backed his rival, he declared war on Syria in an artillery campaign that left more than 1,000 dead.

When the country's president sent Christian militiamen to remove him from his palace, the general, a Christian himself, turned the suburbs of East Beirut into a bloody battlefield, leaving many more dead.

Syrian troops finally toppled him and the general fled to the residence of the French ambassador. Ten months later, he went into exile in France.

Many thought that was the end of the ambitious general. Not so.

For 15 years, he planned his return, and 11 days after Syria's troops withdrew from Lebanon last year Gen. Aoun was back, this time with a political platform espousing an end to the country's religious-based politics and a determination to be elected president.

His party's unexpected strength in parliamentary elections held only two weeks after he returned, coupled with an astonishing pact he entered into this spring with the powerful Shia group, Hezbollah, leaves Gen. Aoun on the verge of becoming possibly the most powerful political figure in the country -- regardless of how this war turns out.

Even his enemies, such as Salim Hoss, who was the prime minister opposed to Gen. Aoun's military government in the late 1980s, have swung to his side.

How could he rise so quickly to the top? "I think Christians see him as the strong leader they've been looking for, for 15 years," said Karim Makdisi, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut. "And his old opponents think he may be the last card to play, to avoid a sectarian conflict in this country."

Not everyone is so enthusiastic. "He sees himself as a Lebanese Charles de Gaulle," said one political analyst who did not want to be identified, "but he's more like Napoleon."

Indeed, it's hard not to think of the French emperor when meeting the diminutive former exile. The general, as he likes to be called, stands 167 centimetres tall, or about 5 foot 5. (An aide was able to provide the figure instantly, when asked.) While only a member of parliament, Gen. Aoun and his wife reside in a palatial home in the luxurious mountainside suburb of Rabieh, behind a phalanx of soldiers and security guards on a street fortified with striped concrete barriers.

Soft-spoken in three languages (Arabic, French and English), the general has a warning for those who think the Israeli invasion and bombardment of Lebanon will pit Christians and Sunni Muslims against Hezbollah and the Shia population.

"This war is bringing us closer together," he said. "We are actually living more tolerantly with each other than ever."

Gen. Aoun's "memorandum of understanding" with Hezbollah rocked the political establishment of this country. It was the first time a major Lebanese Christian leader had crossed the sectarian line.

"It's about time the Lebanese changed the way we do things," he said.

"We have to develop a culture of dialogue," he explained. "We need to dialogue with the people who are different from us, not the same as us."

But doesn't he think Hezbollah's attack on Israel has made things more difficult?

"I admit they made a mistake," he said. But "I can't blame Hezbollah. They launched a pure military action against a military patrol. We are at war with Israel," he said. "There is no treaty [between us]."

He added that "the response by Israel has been so huge that no one in Lebanon thinks Hezbollah is in the wrong."

And how does the general react to the Canadian government's support for Israel in this conflict? "It's an independent country and entitled to its position," he said. But he added that "maybe he [Prime Minister Stephen Harper] needs to receive some explanation" before speaking out.

Gen. Aoun is still among those who think Hezbollah's militia must disarm, but as part of a Lebanese process. "Our own memorandum calls for this," he said. As soon as there is an exchange of prisoners with Israel, and as soon as Lebanon recovers the Shebaa Farms (a plot of about 40 square kilometres held by Israel, and said by the United Nations to actually be part of Syria), "the weapons of Hezbollah will become useless. They will become part of the army. It's as simple as that."

Their weapons, he said, "will be for defensive purposes, not offensive."

And all the efforts being made at the UN Security Council to pass a resolution for Hezbollah's disarmament? "They are only complicating the situation," he said.

He warned that, if passed, the U.S. proposal to deploy a force to help the Lebanese army disarm Hezbollah would be "the biggest mistake you can imagine."

"We will not fight each other, just to defend Israel. When all this is over, we Lebanese have to live together."

Can the possible future president foresee being able to control the Shia group? "Hezbollah must be a part of the power in Lebanon," he replied. "Power sharing by all parties is the guarantee of any solution adopted by the community."

He insisted his accord with Hezbollah shows neither side wants a religious government. "People's relationship with God is a vertical thing," he explained, pointing skyward. "Their relations with each other are horizontal. Politics should only deal with the horizontal."

"There's no doubt the man is bucking the regional tide of sectarian division," said Mr. Makdisi. "I just hope he's sincere. With his past, you never know."
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