Aoun presidency, another rebalancing step in region

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29 months of political deadlock in Lebanon ended in October 31, 2016, with election of Michel Aoun as president of the Middle Eastern country.

Lebanon has been suffering a major vacancy in government since Michel Suleiman, the former president, left the office in 2014 as his term ended. Since then all efforts to reach an agreement between different political factions had failed leaving the country sans president in a difficult situation amid all regional tensions.

Election of Aoun, after 45 electoral sessions in Lebanon’s Parliament, therefore, marks a turning point in political history of Lebanon indicating somehow a consensus among its different ethnic and political groups after a long period.

Yet, the situation wouldn’t be easy for the former General. Aoun has to form a cabinet and this would be very difficult in a government with such a diverse political prospect. According to the Lebanese confessional constitution, in which top government positions are reserved for certain religious communities, president is elected from Maronite Christians, speaker of the parliament has to be a Shia Muslim and the prime minister should be from Sunni Muslims.

Lebanon has two major coalition parties; The March 8 Alliance, which Aoun is now representing, is aligned with Hezbollah and backed by Iran. The rival March 14 Alliance, supported by Saudi Arabia, is represented by Saad Hariri, the former prime minister who have the most chance to ascend to the position again.

That would be no surprise to see Saad Hariri, the leader of Lebanon’s March 14 Alliance, serving as the prime minister in Aoun’s cabinet. Hariri announced his support for Michel Aoun earlier on 20 October paving the way for Aoun to fill the position. Hariri described his decision as necessary to “protect Lebanon, protect the [political] system, protect the state and protect the Lebanese people.” Hariri’s announcement was followed by an immediate visit to Beirut by Thamer al-Sabhan, the new Saudi minister for Persian Gulf affairs, for talks on the “political developments in Lebanon and the region.”

But far from all national interests, Hariri’s endorsement would also increase his chance to return to the political scenes as the premiere. The so-called Hariri-Aoun deal would help the former prime minister to revive his shrinking political reputation among Lebanese Sunnis for his long absence in tumult country. Meanwhile, Hariri’s influence in Saudi Arabia and within the royal family is believed to have dropped since the death of King Abdullah. Endorsing Aoun, Hariri would also make a distance from Saudis whose trace are evident in all major regional tensions including Syria and Yemen and who are losing their influence largely among allies as a result of their destructive policies in the region.

Aoun, on the other hand, is an ally of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. It was in February 2006 that Aoun signed an agreement with Hezbollah leader Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah in a church in Beirut. The alliance provided him great support from Lebanese Shia Muslims, the largest bloc of the country, setting the ground for his election as the president. A week before the elections, Nasrallah called upon all Lebanese political parties to join forces and put an end to presidential crisis during a meeting with Aoun.

Aoun, furthermore, has visited Syria and President Bashar Assad in 2008, signaling mending ties with Syrian government after all tensions the Damascus-Beirut relations were suffering from before. Aoun supports Syria and Assad, against whom some regional states notably Saudi Arabia and Turkey (not to mention the other Arab states within the US-led international coalition), are working hard under the pretext of fight against terrorism, seeking in fact his overthrown.

Aoun, addressing the parliament after the voting, underlined political stability as top priority of his government and said his government would deal with terrorism “preemptively and preventively” until it is uprooted. “Lebanon is still treading through a minefield, but it has been spared the fires burning across the region; It remains a priority to prevent any sparks from reaching Lebanon,” he said after presidential oath.

Aoun’s close ties with Hezbollah and Syria and his resolved tone of confronting terrorism have raised concerns in international arena. Western analysis, as expected, considers the rise of Aoun to presidency as a threat and tries to impose the idea that his term would bring about further crisis and unrest to the country. They argue that Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah means more tensions, and even war, between Lebanese and Israeli forces. War in Syria, according to these interpretations, would last longer receiving support from Lebanese president, putting the neighboring countries, including Lebanon itself, in more trouble. They also argue that Lebanon, under Aoun, would face the spillover of Syrian war as Hezbollah forces are directly engaged in the conflict.

Yet, they fail to realize the other side of the story. Aoun’s presidency is a political victory for Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Shia group, and the Resistance Front in the region including Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen and Syria. Meanwhile, losing Hariri, Cutting off Saudi Arabia would lose control over Beirut and this means more trouble for the Israeli regime along its borders with both Palestine and Lebanon. The election also indicates the decline of Saudi Arabia influence in Lebanon’s political arena and also region. Notably, Iran’s ties with Saudi Arabia was severed since January 2016 after an attack by a group of people to kingdom’s embassy in Tehran in reaction to execution of Sheikh Nimr, a religious figure, by Saudis. Consequently, Riyadh, in response to Beirut’s failure in condemning the attack, canceled a three billion dollar aid package for the Lebanese army, reportedly, and this was somehow the start of its disengagement in Lebanon. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia, stuck in wars in Yemen and Syria, is on the verge of losing the game. Yemeni and Syrian crises, thanks to resistant spirit of Yemenis and Syrians, have taken much longer that expected by invaders. The process, particularly, is frustrating Saudi Arabia politically and economically, dwindling its power and influence in the region. With regards to developments, fighting terrorism would also enter a new phase as Aoun has also announced his determination to deal with extremist groups in the region.  .

Election of Aoun, is therefore, a critical turnover rebalancing the power in the region, where the Resistance Front would have the upper hand, notably diminishing Saudis grip of power. 

Parnaz Talebi has done her MA in North American Studies in Faculty of World Studies, University of Tehran.

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