| Centre Tricontinental (CETRI) |
In Lebanons legislative elections on 7 June, two members of the national unity government will be pitted against ( each other. Saad Hariri and his 14 March group face the Maronite general, Michel Aoun, who has formed ( a strong and surprising alliance with Hizbullah
On 24 August 2008, the Maronite leader, General Michel Aoun, made his first visit to south Lebanon in 33 years. As head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), he wanted to demonstrate the strength of his alliance with Hizbullah.
South Lebanon had been under Israeli occupation until May 2000, and in the war of July and August 2006 its border villages were the scene of bloody battles. Aoun met the regional Hizbullah leader Sheikh Nabil Kaouk, and Wafik Safa, one of its military leaders. He went walkabout in Bint Jbeil beneath huge portraits of Imad Mughniyeh, Hizbullahs military chief assassinated in Damascus in February 2008. He visited the Museum of the Resistance at Nabatiyeh and paid homage to the victims of the 1996 and 2006 Israeli bombings of Qanaa.
General Aouns visit had symbolic importance for both the FPM and Hizbullah. It was meant to show that the alliance between the two parties (who signed a memorandum of understanding on 6 February 2006) is popular and durable, and not merely a marriage ( of convenience.
It might seem strange that one of Lebanons Christian leaders should become the close ally of Hizbullah, an Islamist-nationalist party allied to Syria and Iran. But this bizarre reconciliation is part of the huge political reorganisation that has been taking place in Lebanon since Syria pulled out its troops in 2005. Aoun was a Lebanese army commander during the civil war, known for his fierce opposition to interference from Syria, whose forces he had fought in March 1989. He even went before the United States Senate in 2003 to argue in favour of economic sanctions against Damascus.
But now, through Hizbullah, Aouns reconciliation with Syria is sealed: in December he made a triumphant visit to Damascus and met President Bashar al-Assad several times.
When Aoun returned to Lebanon from exile in France in May 2005, he and his party refused to join the pro-western 14 March alliance, formed after the assassination of the Sunni prime minister Rafik Hariri. The anti-Syrian 14 March grouping relies on support from Sunni and Druze Muslims as well as some Christians, and is backed by France, the US and Saudi Arabia. It includes Maronite groups who are particularly hostile to Aoun: Samir Geageas Lebanese Forces (a Christian militia that Aouns forces fought against in 1989); the Phalangists of former president Amine Gemayel  ; and the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, a group of Christian intellectuals close to the Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. Relations between Aouns party and the patriarchate are strained, since the FPMs charter aims to separate politics from religion to facilitate the establishment of a secular state  a prospect the religious authorities are not too keen on.
The gulf between the FPM and the 14 March alliance is all the deeper because the two have a different analysis of the regional situation following Syrias withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005. Aoun and his supporters believe that defending national integrity no longer depends merely on opposing Syrian interference, but all foreign interference, including from the West and Saudi Arabia. Reflecting the aspirations of marginalised, middle-class Maronite Christians, the FPM opposes sectarianism and wants the country to move towards secularism, whereas it believes the 14 March alliance wants to perpetuate the traditional sectarian order.
But although Aouns supporters argue for secularism and state reform, it doesnt stop them analysing events in sectarian terms. Rima, a young FPM activist living in Ashrafiyyeh, a Christian quarter of Beirut, says: Syria and Iran are no longer the biggest threat to Lebanon. For years now the threat has come from a Sunni fundamentalism that is extremely hostile to Christians , a fundamentalist ideology funded by Saudi petrodollars. So we have to unite with the Shia but also with non-sectarian Sunni. I prefer Iran a country with intellectuals, elections and some rights to Saudi Arabia, where women arent even allowed to drive. The alliance between the FPM and Hizbullah can be seen in the context of opposing regional and denominational blocs: Iran and Syria on one side, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt on the other. Before setting off for Tehran on 13 October last year, Aoun condemned Lebanons subservience to Riyadh and the US administration. This strategic visit, at Irans invitation, was unprecedented for a Maronite political leader.
Lebanons Christian political camp has never truly been united. Admittedly, it was hostile to Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nassers pan-Arab project in the 1950s and 1960s. In July 1958, President Camille Chamoun, leader of the NLP (National Liberal Party), called on the US military to intervene in Beirut against pro-Nasser movements. And in the 1970s, the Maronite bloc showed some degree of unity in opposing pan-Arabism: there were the Maronite militias such as Etienne Sakrs Guardians of the Cedar and Georges Adwans Tanzim militia, as well as the alliance between Bashir Gemayel (commander of the armed wing of the Phalangists) and the Israeli army in 1982, against the Palestine Liberation Organisation . .
But the political unity at the beginning of the 1980s was achieved through the barrel of a gun and masked deep divisions within the Christian community. After the killing of the (Christian) family of Tony Frangieh , leader of the Marada Brigade, at Ehden in northern Lebanon in June 1978 by Phalangist militias, and the elimination of dozens of NLP activists in January 1980, Bashir Gemayel asserted that for the first time in 14 centuries, Lebanese Christians are united militarily. But they had paid a high price and the bitterness remains.
Unity among ordinary Christians themselves is even more tenuous on account of the differing denominations. For instance, the Maronites have shown a certain ideological consistency but other Christians, notably the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics, have filled the ranks of secular (non-denominational) parties such as the Communists and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). The current division between the Aounists on the one hand, and the Phalangists and Lebanese Forces on the other, is not a historic aberration: it confirms the rivalry and the ongoing political and denominational struggle within the Christian camp .
What is new is the ideological shift at the heart of the Maronite Christian camp created by the alliance between Aoun and Hizbullah. For the first time, a mass Maronite movement has allied itself politically and strategically with an organisation that is Islamist, nationalist, anti-American, anti-Israeli and inside the Arab and Islamic sphere of influence.
This represents a minor revolution among the Maronite public. For the Aounists have altered Lebanons political and sectarian landscape. They have created a situation where a national Maronite movement can explicitly support Hizbullahs right to keep its weapons, in the context of the Lebanese-Israeli conflict: Bearing arms is not an end in itself, but a noble and sacred means that is exercised by any group whose land is occupied, on the grounds of political resistance .
The alliance has also brought communities together. In July and August 2006, during the Israeli war on Hizbullah, many Shia took refuge in the mountains of Christian areas, at the behest of the FPM. This popular dynamic grew with the opposition demonstrations and sit-ins in Beirut, led by Hizbullah and the FPM in December 2006 against the government of Fouad Siniora.
What the Aounists are calling for is a strong, secular, regulatory state and a new relationship  between Christians and Muslims within a nationalist context. But this position has already thrown up contradictions. In July 2008, an inter-Christian meeting at Dbayeh (near Beirut) brought together more than 200 Christian opposition leaders to discuss a summary of Christian principles unveiled by Aoun in December 2007. Aoun is now presenting himself as a leader of the Christian community, capable of leading the Maronites in spite of the inherent contradiction with the secular, non-sectarian policies professed by his party.
Whats more, Aoun sees himself as the defender of eastern Christians, a position he reinforced with his visits to Iran and Syria in 2008. The FPMs acceptance of the new electoral law creating small constituencies does give Christians better representation in parliament , but it also endorses the sectarian argument. Only the Lebanese Communist Party, the SSNP and small leftwing or Nasserist movements voiced their opposition to the new electoral law which is just as sectarian as the last by staging demonstrations in front of parliament last August.
Aouns supporters may have taken part in demonstrations to defend public services in May 2006, alongside Hizbullah and the Lebanese Communist Party, but three years later, the new Aounist telecommunications minister, Gibran Bassil (Aouns son-in-law), has completely accepted privatisation of the telecoms industry.
The June elections will be decisive for General Aoun. If the FPM simply maintains its seats (currently 19 out of 128), its alliance with Hizbullah will have been justified. But it will provoke a leadership crisis among the Christians. However, if the FPM and Hizbullah win the elections, Michel Aoun will face a different challenge: that of reconciling his new status as leader of Lebanons Christians with his reformist, secular policies.
 The son of Pierre Gemayel, founder of the Phalangists in the 1930s. He became president in 1982 after the assassination of his brother Bashir.
 The Charter of the Free Patriotic Movement Party, September 2005.
 Fidaa Itani, Al-Qaida roots itself in Lebanon, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, February 2008.
 The Phalangists started out as a branch of the Lebanese Forces but became autonomous under Bashir Gemayel. They played a major role in the massacres at the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila in September 1982
 The Frangieh clan in based in the Zghorta region of northern Lebanon. Although Maronite, it is linked historically to Syria. Suleiman Frangieh was president of Lebanon between 1970 and 1976.
 Read the International Crisis Group report, The New Lebanese Equation: The Christians Central Role, Middle East Report No 78, Beirut/Brussels, July 2008.
 Memorandum of understanding between Hizbullah and FLM, Beirut, 6 February 2006, available in French here.
 In 1943 a verbal agreement was reached between the Maronites and the Sunni dividing up the states key functions: the presidency of the republic went to the Maronites, presidency of the council of ministers to the Sunni, presidency of parliament to the Shia, and vice-presidency of parliament to the Greek Orthodox.
 Lebanons electoral system is complex: parliaments 128 seats are divided up according to religious denomination: half to Christians (34 Maronites, 14 Greek Orthodox, 8 Greek Catholics etc), half to Muslims (27 Sunni, 27 Shia, 8 Druze etc). Before the reform, most Christian parliamentarians were elected in large constituencies, which included a large number of Muslim voters, a factor that affected the vote.
Country(ies) & Area(s): Lebanon