This Monday, the Lebanese parliament formally appointed former general and civil war-era warlord Michel Aoun president of Lebanon. His appointment ended a stalemate between Lebanon’s major parties and politicians that had kept the post vacant for two and a half years. While it has mostly been presented in western media as the triumph of the Hezbollah and Iran backed Aoun over the Saudi backed Hariri, the election of Aoun says more about the heart of the Lebanese political system than it does about regional power struggles. Lebanon was founded in 1943 based on agreements between political and social elites hoping to protect their networks of power and privilege within their own communities. These agreements still define the logic of Lebanese politics today. The path of Michel Aoun, a man who bears significant personal responsibility for the death of hundreds, to the presidency highlights just how well this system still protects the interests of political elites and how poorly it works for the people of Lebanon.
There is a mistaken belief that people in the Middle East have always identified themselves by sect, causing centuries of sectarian conflict. This view of sects as natural and eternal obscures the fact that sects, like any other identity, are socially constructed. Lebanon is no exception. Prior to the 19th century, Lebanese society was organized according to class rather than sect, divided between common people and landed elites. However, a number of factors, most notably the interplay between the elite class and European powers along religious lines, resulted in communities defined by religious identity and featuring strict hierarchies. The elites of these communities benefited from this sectarian arrangement to a point but were fearful that true mass participation would challenge their systems of power and privilege. A foundational deal was therefore struck between these elites whereby the government of Lebanon would be organized according to religious identity in order to maintain their control over their respective religious communities.
Right to Left: Riad Bey as-Solh, First Prime Minister of Lebanon, Sheikh Bechara El Khoury, First President of Lebanon, General Georges Catroux, French High Commissioner to the Levant in 1943 after French recognition of Lebanese independence
The 1943 deal, known as the National Pact, ensured that the president of the republic would always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament a Shia Muslim. Furthermore, proportional representation in parliament meant that for every six Christian MPs, there would be five Muslims. The census upon which this representation was based was taken in 1932. Despite a slight change in 1990 to equality in Christian-Muslim representation, this same eighty-year-old census remains the basis for these political calculations. This agreement, according to Usama Makdisi, “paralyzed the government and reinforced the system of patronage. Corruption served as the effective social security system of the Lebanese. Benefits could not be obtained simply on the basis of citizenship rights because jobs, housing, telephones and education were guaranteed not by the state but through appeals to deputies and ministers and presidents who were themselves appointed or elected according to sectarian laws.”
Such a codification of political rights along religious identity inevitably led to conflict. Two civil wars followed, one in 1958 and a second that began in 1975 and lasted a decade and a half. It is at the tail end of this second Lebanese civil war that General Michel Aoun would assert himself amongst the sectarian elite of the country in a spectacularly bloody fashion. In 1988, General Aoun was asked by outgoing president Amin Gemayel to form a caretaker government until new elections could be held. General Aoun, who commanded the loyalty of a large section of the Lebanese army and nearly all its armor and artillery, set up a military cabinet while, at the same time, a rival civilian caretaker government was formed. Angered at the Syria presence in Lebanon that favored the rival government, Aoun, with the backing of Saddam Hussein, declared a “war of liberation” against the occupying Syrians and rival Christian militias. Hundreds of civilians and soldiers were killed.
Aoun would later acquiesce to a cease-fire after his liberation war failed but he boycotted the subsequent peace talks that would eventually end the civil war. Instead, he issued a decree dissolving the Lebanese parliament, refused to follow its decisions and formed the trappings of a military dictatorship in his East Beirut enclave. Robert Fisk writes that Aoun shut down newspapers and banned journalists who disagreed with him and “remained silent when the homes of Lebanese MPs who opposed him were blown up with explosives.” He would later turn on his Christian militia allies, led by Samir Geagea, “in a war even more savage than the he one had fought against the Syrians in 1989… well over a thousand people died in Beirut, most of them civilians and almost all of them Christians.”
A Syrian military assault on Aoun’s enclave would later force him to flee to France, but not before a vicious battle between his loyalists and Syrian troops left hundreds more dead. He remained in France until the end of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon in 2005. After his return, he restarted his decades-long quest for the presidency by forming a new party and an alliance with Hezbollah. He would later even make nice with the Syrian regime and visit Bashar Al-Assad, the son of the Syrian president who he declared he would rather die than surrender to. At 81 years old and after decades of bloody struggle, Michel Aoun has achieved his ambitions. But it has been largely at the expense of the people he aims to lead.
While the ending of the power vacuum has been welcomed in Lebanon, the election of a dictatorial warlord is hardly a recipe for a change to a system designed to remain politically deadlocked. In his inaugural speech, Aoun promised “fair representation” in the parliament, implying adjustments to the calculations still largely based on a census taken in 1932. However, blaming the lack of accurate census data obscures the fact that the sectarian system is profoundly flawed rather than simply in need of adjustment. The two and a half year power vacuum could have been a wake-up call to overhaul the entire political system that had created decades of strife often spilling out into open conflict. The yearlong trash crisis in the capital also exposed how poorly suited the sectarian political system is for solving pressing problems. But instead of change, Aoun’s election represents more of the same.
Signs in piles of uncollected garbage in Beirut depicting the cabinet over the caption “Lebanon’s Trash”
It would be inaccurate, however, to look at the election of Michel Aoun and conclude that the sectarian political system is broken. Rather, Aoun’s election proves that now, as much as when it was established in 1943, the system functions exactly as it was designed: to preserve elite power and privilege. Aoun, and his fellow warlords turned politicians Nabih Berri, Walid Jumblatt and Samir Geagea, are merely the modern iteration of the sectarian elite whose collusion established the system seventy years earlier. That the sons of prominent families from the civil war era like Samy Gemayel and Suleiman Frangieh Jr. are also MPs demonstrates the continued resiliency of this system of elite privilege over the interests of the people.
A pushback against this system is occurring, however. In reaction to the presidential stalemate and the trash crisis, a civil society initiative called Beirut Madiniti was founded to challenge the old political alliances. The group set a list of candidates to contest municipal elections which are not officially subject to sectarian calculations. And while the national sectarian blocs still won in the end, such developments are promising. With continued effort, it is possible to foresee a Lebanon not dominated by warlords and sectarian elites but governed in the best interests of its people.