In quest to form Lebanon cabinet, Aoun racks up enemies

Under international pressure, Hezbollah using Aoun as a cover to appoint their proxies

Mandatory Credit: Photo by RAWAN/REX/Shutterstock (7423378a)Lebanese President Michel Aoun gestures to his supporters during an event celebrating his presidency, at the presidential palace in BaabdaLebanon Presidential Elections – 06 Nov 2016

Beirut: As President Michel Aoun tries to put together a cabinet following Lebanon’s May parliamentary elections, he is making a lot of enemies on the way.

Most recently Aoun’s supporters have been quarelling with Druze leader Walid Junblatt who is head of the Progressive Socialist Party.

It all started last weekend when Junblatt tweeted: “Our misfortune is in a tenure that has failed since its first moment.”

The veiled criticism intended towards Aoun made headlines across Lebanon, with the president’s supporters demanding a swift apology for the “insult”.

“The verbal escalation between Junblatt and Aoun supporters has to do with the current efforts to cobble together a cabinet,” Hilal Khashan, prominent political science professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB) tells Gulf News.

“It is essentially driven by Aoun’s desire to allocate one out of three Druze cabinet seats to Talal Arslan,” he said.

Arslan, a ranking Druze notable, is an ally of the powerful Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, Junblatt’s son Taymour, who was recently elected to parliament, is leading a campaign questioning the legality of a naturalisation decree signed by the president, giving Lebanese nationality to hundreds of Syrian figures, some notably close to the Syrian regime.

The relationship between Aoun and Junblatt was always stiffly cordial, but never warm.

During the last stage of the Lebanese civil war back in 1989, they fought each other in the hills of Souk Al Ghareb, a town in Mount Lebanon. Aoun emerged a staunch opponent of the Syrian military presence in Lebanon, describing it as an occupation.

He fought a “war of liberation” against Syrian troops, who eventually overran him at Baabda Palace, after which he was sent into exile in France.

Aoun has long held a grudge against Junblatt, for supporting his exile.

When he returned to Lebanon in 2005 just after the assassination of ex-premier Rafik Hariri, Aoun did an about-face, emerging as an ally of the Syrian government.

He teamed up with Hezbollah and worked to discredit the anti-Syrian March 14 movement, which Junblatt was a part of along with Hariri’s son Sa’ad.

Aoun was duly rewarded for his shift in allegiance and received the backing of Hezbollah to achieve his lifelong dream of becoming president in 2016.

The Lebanese president is already on thin ice with his former allies in the Christian Marada Movement led by Sulaiman Franjieh, who feels he was abandoned both by Hezbollah and the Syrians, in favour of Aoun, for the presidency.

He is also on shaky terms with Nabih Berri, the leader of the Shiite party Amal and the Parliament Speaker, for signing a decree last year promoting officers in rank, and increasing their pay, without consulting with the Minister of Finance, or seeking his approval.

Observers believe these fall-outs will result in a delay in cabinet formation.

“Since coming to power Aoun has hardened his positions,” says Fadi Akoum, a Lebanese political commentator.

He says Aoun sees little reason to grant concessions to anybody anymore, having firmly secured the presidency, which has been his lifetime dream.

Although Aoun had previously positioned himself as a patriot representing all Lebanese, it has become increasingly evident that Iran, which backed him for the presidency, is coming to collect on their investment.

“Iran played a major role in bringing him to power and is clearly trying to control his decisions,” he adds.

“Of course with Hezbollah being boycotted internationally and under increasing sanctions by Washington, the ideal cover up for them is to appoint their proxies into the cabinet through Aoun’s FPM movement”.

Others believe that Aoun is not actually the one calling the shots but rather his son-in-law, Jibran Bassil.

Bassil, who currently serves as Lebanon’s foreign minister, could be posturing for a future presidential role.

“Bassil’s combative positions are being done under the pretext of ‘defending Christian presence in Lebanon’”, prominent political analyst Ghassan Habbal told Gulf News.

Aside from making political enemies, Aoun’s administration is under fire for campaigning for the forced repatriation of Syrian refugees.

Lebanese politicians critical of the Syrian regime have voiced opposition to forced returns of Syrians on political and humanitarian grounds.

They argue that most of these refugees are wanted by Syrian security services or will be forced to enlist in the army.

They believe that Aoun and his Iran-backed Hezbollah allies want them out because the majority are Sunnis, could tip the sectarian balance in the country out of their favour.

-With inputs from Layelle Saad GCC/Middle East Editor

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