Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Aoun rumors costing Future support on ground

[Originally posted at NOW]

Speculation that the Future Movement might back Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun for president is angering supporters across Lebanon.

TARIQ AL-JADIDEH, Lebanon – On the restless streets of this crowded south Beirut neighborhood, where posters of former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri vie with Sunni Islamist graffiti for dominance on the walls, the most common reaction NOW got from residents Tuesday to the rumors of Hariri’s possible support for arch-rival Michel Aoun’s presidential candidacy was one of simple disbelief.

“It just can’t happen,” said an incredulous shop-owner. “For ten years, their policies have been opposed, how can they support each other now?”

Others went further, clearly angered by the idea. “[Hariri] will be a traitor if he does it,” said a woman pedestrian in a colorful hijab. Asked which candidate she would rather see the Future Movement leader support, her young friend instantly replied, “[Lebanese Forces head Samir] Geagea.”

Geagea is still Future’s official nominee, as the bloc reiterated in a statement Tuesday. But speculation remains that Hariri might make a surprise switch to backing the Hezbollah-allied Aoun, whose son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, lunched with Hariri in Paris Tuesday in a meeting he described as “positive.” One report Wednesday claimed Hariri had in fact already accepted Aoun’s candidacy, on the condition that the Free Patriotic Movement leader agreed to align himself politically with his current foes in the March 14 coalition.

Even a concession on that historic scale, however, would be unlikely to appease most Tariq al-Jadideh residents, many of whom recall the war days when they were on the receiving end of Aoun’s – and Geagea’s – military attacks.

“Neither Geagea nor Aoun [for president],” was a response NOW heard several times. “It has to be someone independent, with no blood on his hands,” said an elderly man sitting outside a sandwich shop. Asked who might meet those criteria, he thought for some time before offering Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh.

Others said they simply didn’t care who became president. “We’re not going to benefit from any of them,” said a telephone accessories shop owner. Despite his apparent apathy, however, he was convinced of one thing: “No one here will accept Hariri backing Aoun.”

Such hostility to the idea is even sharper in pro-Future areas that have felt a more direct impact from the neighboring Syrian war, in which Aoun’s ally Hezbollah is a key participant. In the view of Ahmad Fleeti, deputy mayor of the border town of Arsal, Hariri would be “covering up [for] Hezbollah” if he backed the FPM leader.

“If Hariri supported Aoun, he would be giving away [March 14’s] principles, especially [that of defending Lebanon’s] sovereignty,” Fleeti told NOW. “Whenever one of March 14’s members gives away its principles, they will not get the support of their followers.”

Like the woman in Tariq al-Jadideh, Fleeti said “the only” acceptable candidate was Geagea, on account of his refusal to join the current cabinet due to Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria.

Indeed, Geagea also received endorsement from another perhaps unlikely source in the southern city of Sidon. A sympathizer of the fugitive Islamist cleric and militant Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who declined to give his name, told NOW by telephone that the LF leader was the only “non-hypocrite” among all Lebanese politicians. Hariri, by contrast, would be “betraying the Cedar Revolution and the blood of the martyrs” by backing Aoun’s candidacy.

Similarly, in Tripoli, where another Aoun ally – the Syrian regime – has been implicated in the bombing of mosques, many also staunchly oppose any Hariri-Aoun reconciliation. Sheikh Bilal Baroudi, an imam who narrowly escaped death when his Al-Salam mosque was car-bombed in August 2013, told NOW, “We would consider that Hariri gave away all his previous [stances] and principles, and ours as well,” if he backed Aoun.

“Future is losing a lot of supporters because of [the Aoun rumors],” said Tripoli-based civil society activist Shadi Nashabi. At the same time, Nashabi told NOW, the presidential question ranks relatively low on many residents’ list of priorities, given the more immediate concerns of ongoing armed violence and instability in the northern city.

In the face of such widespread objections, Hariri would clearly find it tough to sell Aoun’s candidacy to his supporters, and vice versa, according to Hussam Itani, an analyst at the al-Hayat newspaper.

“It is not only a problem for Hariri’s supporters, but also for Aoun’s, especially after all the campaigns he led against the Future Movement and Hariri,” Itani told NOW.

Nonetheless, Itani believes that if the decision were made, both groups of partisans would ultimately have little choice but to fall in line.

“In Lebanon, politicians take decisions regardless of the opinions of their supporters, [and those] supporters end up accepting the decisions,” he told NOW.

Indeed, as an elderly woman in Tariq al-Jadideh told NOW with an amused grin: “We Lebanese are always ready for surprises.”

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

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