BEIRUT - Lebanon's formerly anti-Syrian General Michel Aoun is on the verge
of outmaneuvering the country's main anti-Syrian opposition alliance. All eyes
are now on the last round of Lebanon's four-stage parliamentary elections, next
Sunday in the north.
A spokesman for Aoun conceded that the "general," as his followers
still call him, now has a "very good chance" to hold the balance of
power in parliament between the anti-Syrian movement and pro-Syrian groupings.
This follows Aoun's stunning upset last Sunday in the Christian heartland of
Mt. Lebanon, where he made large gains at the expense of the opposition.
For next Sunday's round in the north, Aoun has once again allied himself with
some of the country's most prominent pro-Syrian politicians. This has drawn
accusations from opposition leaders that he is playing into Syria's hands by
Aoun's spokesman Toni Nasrallah all but confirmed that weakening the opposition
is part of the general's game plan. The prospect of a huge opposition victory,
as predicted at the outset of the long election cycle, would have marginalized
The opposition leaders played a large role in the mass street protests that
followed the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February this year.
These protests, along with international pressure, led to the withdrawal of
Syrian troops from the country after a presence of 29 years.
Aoun returned from exile last month after a 14-year Syrian-imposed exile in
France. He had led the army in an anti-Syrian uprising in 1989-1990.
Toni Nasrallah dismissed opposition claims that the general had now turned
pro-Syrian by allying himself with certain politicians. He said that many in
the opposition movement of Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri, and the Druze
leader Walid Jumblatt had themselves been pro-Syrian in the past.
The rhetoric in the now hotly contested elections has gone up a few notches
since the first two rounds that led to predictable victories in Beirut by the
anti-Syrian Hariri movement and in the south by the pro-Syrian Shi'ite Hezbollah
and Amal movements.
The opposition had assumed that it was heading for certain victory in the center
and east of the country, but that scenario was scuttled by Aoun and his Free
Patriotic Movement and his unexpected alliances with pro-Syrian candidates.
The result has been a much weakened opposition movement that after three rounds
holds 46 seats. Amal and Hezbollah control 33, and Aoun unexpectedly has 21.
In the north, 28 seats are at stake. Mahmoud Haddad, an analyst in the northern
port town Tripoli, believes Aoun may pick up as much as 50 percent of the vote.
The electorate has been polarized by Aoun's huge Christian win in the Mt. Lebanon
region, said Haddad. He thinks many Christians will now vote for him, while
many Sunnis will rally behind their leader Saad Hariri.
The Christians may be worried by reports on Hariri's own Future TV station
that he had approached the fundamentalist Sunn Jamaa Islamiya for support. The
Islamists, who are boycotting the elections, turned down the request.
The increased competitiveness has led to mutual recriminations between Aoun
and the opposition. While Saad Hariri has congratulated Aoun and said he hoped
to work with him in the future, his movement has accused the general's allies
in the north of communicating with Syrian intelligence agents.
Future TV said that the two leading pro-Syrian politicians, Sulayman Franjieh
and former prime minister Omar Karame, had met Syrian agents in the north.
There is much talk in the opposition of continued Syrian interference in the
country, particularly in the elections in the north. The continued activity
of Syrian agents or their proxies flared up at the beginning of this month after
prominent anti-Syrian journalist Samir Kassir was killed by a bomb in the center
Walid Jumblatt accused the Syrians of maintaining a "hit list" of
opposition members. The accusation was picked up by the Bush administration,
but Syria strenuously denies it.
Opposition MP Mosbah Ahdab, sitting in his modest apartment in his Tripoli
constituency, said he had recently started worrying about his personal security.
"I never did, but after what happened to Kassir, it is only natural to
wonder what they may do."
He said he had received reports that the Syrians were exerting huge pressure
on their former collaborators in the north to boost the chances of pro-Syrian
"They are talking to their people here, who used to work for them and
they say that they shouldn't think that just because they are gone they cannot
get to them," said Ahdab. He said that Aoun's alliances and Syria's pressure
made the outcome in the north uncertain.
Even if Aoun does not succeed in blocking the opposition from getting a majority
in the next parliament, he would wield huge power. The opposition has said it
would seek to remove pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud.
The president, elected by Parliament, wields huge power over the army and the
security services, and the opposition considers his removal necessary to end
Syrian influence over Lebanon.
The presidential crisis in Lebanon started last year when Damascus forced the
Lebanese parliament to amend the constitution to allow Lahoud to stay in power
for another three years beyond the end of his term.
The UN Security Council adopted resolution 1559 in response, demanding an end
to outside interference in the country. Then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri resigned
several months later in protest at the Syrian dictate. He was assassinated Feb.
14 this year.
The opposition needs a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament to remove Lahoud.
Aoun has hinted that he would allow the president to serve out his term.
But the general this week said that he may seek the presidency himself. Under
Lebanon's sectarian-based constitution, the president is always a Christian.