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Perils of Doing a De Gaulle in Lebanon | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Lebanese President Michel Aoun sits on the presidential chair at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, on October 31, 2016. (AFP/Patrick Baz)

“Lebanon’s De Gaulle!” This was the sobriquet that Parisian political circles used for General Michel Aoun as he arrived in France as an asylum-seeker in 1991.

The sobriquet was not totally fanciful.

Like De Gaulle, Aoun was a soldier, in his case having one star more than de Gaulle in 1940. Risking his own life, Aoun had led Lebanese resistance to Syrian occupation while De Gaulle had launched the French resistance against the Nazis from a safe-haven in Carlton Terrace, London.

Also like De Gaulle, Aoun belonged to a political party and tried to stand above rival factions by emphasizing what united rather than what divided the Lebanese.

The careers of the two generals had other similarities. Nazi occupation of France ended when Allied forces, led by the U.S., smashed the Hitler war-machine, enabling General Leclerc, De Gaulle’s envoy, to march into Paris in triumph.

In the case of Lebanon, U.S. pressure on Bashar al-Assad forced the despot of Damascus to end Lebanon’s occupation.

In the post-occupation period, Aoun – like De Gaulle – enjoyed a brief period of glory before being sidelined by factions that wielded real power on the ground. Both men had to spend years in the proverbial political desert before they could don the mantle of presidency.

There, however, similarities between the two generals end.

De Gaulle was invited to assume leadership by a rare consensus among France’s political forces, from right to left, and without pressure by any foreign power. He returned as the symbol of French unity.

If anything, we now know that both the United States and Great Britain were less happy to see De Gaulle back in helm in Paris because they feared the general’s idiosyncratic attachment to “national independence.”
Aoun, however, owes his presidency to strong support from the Islamic Republic in Tehran which uses the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah as its cat’s-paw in Beirut.

De Gaulle owed nothing to any foreign power while Aoun has repeatedly acknowledged his debt of gratitude to Iran.

De Gaulle created his party after he had won power and garnered nationwide support for a new Constitution that created the Fifth Republic.

Aoun, in contrast, reached the presidency after becoming leader of a political faction which, judging by last election’s results, enjoyed the support of some 11 per cent of the Lebanese.

Those who know Aoun’s temperament, especially his extremely high opinion of himself, know that, in private at least, he resents the fact that he owes his presidency to Iran and its allies in Beirut.

It was, perhaps, that sentiment that Aoun wished to convey in a number of recent meetings with foreign visitors, including political and media figures from France.

“Aoun is a genuine Lebanese patriot,” a mutual French friend who met him recently claims. “The last thing he wants, deep down, is to be beholden to his former enemies.”

Visitors claim that Aoun told them that his “principal aim” was to “restore Lebanon to full sovereignty”. Does it mean he is trying to develop a situation in which decisions regarding Lebanon are taken in Beirut rather than in General Qassem Soleimani’s office in downtown Tehran? It was telling that Soleimani was the first senior “foreign visitor” to meet Aoun for what Tehran sources claimed was “broad coordination of strategies.”

According to the reading suggested by mutual French friends, Aoun is also less than willing to risk Lebanon’s future by letting his nation be dragged further into the Syrian quagmire in the hope of keeping Assad, head of any enemy power, in place for a bit longer.

From what we know of Aoun, and the inner workings of Lebanese politics, we find it hard to take the retired general’s profession of pure patriotism at face value. There is nothing so far to back the claim that Aoun wants to be his own master or that he wishes to foster a national strategy to keep Lebanon, a mosaic of communities, out of the war of sectarians in the Middle East.

To be fair, Aoun has not been in office long enough to make a full reading of his intentions possible. Despite his advanced age he may well be playing a long hand in contrast with the quickened tempo of Lebanese politics in recent years.

And, yet, some disturbing signs could already be detected.

President Aoun has made a number of moves clearly designed to settle personal scores with political rivals inside and outside the Lebanese Maronite community.

He has also joined the Iranian scheme aimed at promoting within various Lebanese communities a “new leadership” loyal to Tehran.

Part of Aoun’s game plan is to parody another aspect of De Gaulle’s style by proposing a referendum.

De Gaulle held his first referendum to secure national approval for a new Constitution and won because the overwhelming majority of the French saw him as the only leader capable of ending the war in Algeria and re-uniting the nation.

With an eye on securing greater, perhaps unchallenged, powers for himself, Aoun hopes to impose a presidential system through a new Constitution. But Lebanon is not France. France was rooted in centuries of classical nationhood and Colbertiste centralization. Lebanon, however, owes its existence, and its ability to weather so many storms, to a diversity that produces unity without uniformity.

De Gaulle believed that his presidential system is based on “the meeting of a man and a nation”, something that worked between 1958 and 1968 when the May “revolution” forced the general to flee to West Germany to seek protection from French army units stationed there. Once the mini-“revolution” had petered out, De Gaulle returned but, realizing that things wouldn’t continue as before, decided to hold another referendum to secure a new endorsement for his “a man-and-nation” formula. When he lost that referendum, the general, a keen student of history, knew that it was time to throw the towel in.

For his part “Lebanon’s De Gaulle” may well lose any referendum he holds. It is not at all certain that he would secure the support even of the Maronite community of which he is the current top political representative. Even if he is backed by Hezbollah he cannot be sure of mobilizing the Shi’ite community. Rather than strengthening unity, his referendum would put divisions in Lebanon in sharp relief as it is certain to be opposed by Sunni Muslim, and Druze communities as well as Shi’ites, maybe even a majority of them, who feel unhappy about Iranian domination.

Aoun’s best bet is to drop being “the next De Gaulle” that could transform him into a caricature of the original, but to wait and see how things turn out in a region currently gripped by rapid fissiparous tendencies.