Lebanon: A Day in the Life of Michel Aoun

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Inside the FPM, the discussion switched from the clamor of arguments about coordinators one year ago into seeing how to attract voters and promoting the work of various FPM MPs and ministers. (Photo: Marwan Bu Haidar)

By: Ghassan Saoud

Published Friday, April 13, 2012

Al-Akhbar visited General Michel Aoun for a day, not to talk about contentious political issues like the squandering of public funds or even his relations with certain political parties, but to peek into his day-to-day life, the fate of his political movement, and his legacy.

Two days ago, when his cook announced that lunch would be makhlouta (a stew made of various beans and other grains), the general instructed his wife Nadia to keep a close eye on it.

“I am still a vegetarian and a ‘grainarian,’” he jokes as he recalls when a journalist interviewed his cook in the presidential palace during his stay in Baabda. She spoke about his passion for mujaddara (mashed lentils).

In the absence of political visitors, he often eats in the small kitchen at a modest table that looks nothing like what most of the political class would have in their homes.

When a one-on-one lunch with his wife is not possible, he makes sure dinner will be so. We are a tight family, he says when he could not answer a question about who is his favorite grandchild.

Aoun believes that a strong father is the one who is present in his children’s lives only when they need him.

In the dim living room sit three generals in one man: the father general, the politician general, and the military general. It is one of Aoun’s hallmarks, compared to other politicians.

On the podium and in front of cameras, it is usually the military general that fills the space, dominating the other two generals.

In meetings away from cameras, the politician general overpowers all the others. But in his living room or the small office at home, the stars align and the three generals meet.

Here, the true Aoun appears and the secret is revealed as to why a large segment of society (the Aounist current) is affected by him.

Aoun greets his guests with an outpouring of compassion and concern, building with them a personal relationship in minutes.

He examines the different political choices related to the issue at hand before he takes what seems to be the best decision based on military strategy and adamantly defends it, exactly like a soldier on the battlefield.

Every retired soldier who passes by this office will be reminded of an event that brought them together or a story that was told to him. The soldier will then feel that he has a common history with his leader. Every disgruntled Aounist who visits will leave satisfied.

Aoun knows that the three generals will make the job more difficult for his successor.

Behind the concrete blocks installed by the Rabieh municipality outside the home of the head of the Change and Reform bloc, the scenery changes. Life here is closer to that in Jezzine or remote villages in Keserwan than to Rabieh.

During his long life in the military, he was fond of taking walks “before light appears” on the battlefront. He still wakes up at 5am, shaves, and visits the back yard.

After 30 minutes, he gives the newspapers a quick diagonal read until friends and FPM officials “who can come in without appointments” start arriving at 7am.

The chain of formal meetings begins at 9am. They are arranged by his secretary Toufic Wehbe who decides on the allotted time: one hour or half an hour, according to the importance of the issue.

Contrary to what is rumored, and in spite of some politicians who act as if they will live forever, Aoun recently began saying to visiting FPM activists things like “age is in the hands of God and we have to seriously consider the FPM’s future after me.”

Here, we can speak of a party and a chief. The Aounist party was established on the basis of building a hierarchical structure. The rank and file members in the provinces elected their local and central representatives and the party leadership.

Personal, family, regional, and other differences took over from political programs in conflicts between party members. The elections were cancelled and everything stopped.

Aoun sees this as a natural outcome for any party that attempts to have a true democratic experience. He compares the failed regional experiment with organizational triumphs in various trade unions.

Such an experiment is difficult in the provinces since the only electoral experience they have is in the municipal elections that is usually overwhelmed by feuds between clans.

But it was not a zero sum result for the FPM because in the Mirna Chalouhi building in the Jdeideh, East of Beirut, there is an Aounist electoral office. It does not have extraordinary powers but it was not there two years ago.

Aoun refuses to answer questions about who he thinks can succeed him as head of the FPM, no matter how persistent the journalist. This might influence future votes and can be considered an indirect imposition of an heir.

The mechanism of electing the FPM president has been set and Aoun believes that someone will attract the voters in due course.

It should be noted that by relieving himself – to some extent – of the headache of internal organizational matters, he was able to put more effort into important issues, such as fiscal reform.

Even inside the FPM, the discussion switched from the clamor of arguments about coordinators one year ago into seeing how to attract voters and promoting the work of various FPM MPs and ministers.

Silence engulfs the room when the general is asked about whether he can trust anyone still. The consequence of his military and political wars show that he cannot.

He says the biggest traitor he knew was an officer who was later discovered to be coordinating with the Lebanese Forces security branch.

The officer leaked secrets from the army command throughout the war between the two sides. His treachery cost hundreds of lives.

He is probably most bitter about brothers in arms who had betrayed their oath and joined the militias in that period. But they were not many, not as many as the soldiers who were martyred on the other side. Aoun’s sympathies are with those who marched toward their fate, not because of a salary or a heaven, but for a better country.

That’s the secret. Aoun keeps thinking about them and is influenced by the daily delegations declaring their faith in his ability to single-handedly come up with a miracle to reform the state or lay its basic foundations.

Most people only care about his opinion regarding a particular scandal, rather than the efforts that lead to its discovery or the later accountability of those involved.

This does not mean that the people are corrupt. Some of them are serious about their desire for reform and want to punish those responsible for ruining the country.

During the civil war, most people were against the militias, but this did not prevent the armed bands from imposing their will on the country. Ultimately, the army tried to break their hold, so the militias put aside their differences and united against the state.

Today, there is a popular majority against corruption, but its benefactors have convinced the people that it is a fact of life and they should live with it. They also forget their differences and join together when someone tries to change things.

Two issues remain. Former FPM minister Charbel Nahhas – who resigned in protest earlier this year – is a friend, but the FPM is no longer working with him, although without any bad feelings. Future developments may change the FPM’s relationship to him.

As for Aoun’s ally Fayez Karam – who was convicted of collaboration with Israel – the judiciary had made up its own mind and issued its punishment. Aoun says this without any reference to the politicization of the judiciary or anything else, preferring not to elaborate on the Karam question.

In Rabieh lives a man of many generals. In the office sits a different person than the one on the podium. The man who bids you farewell at the door is someone other than the one that welcomed you.

Michel Aoun is a calm man who gets emotional about news of army friends scattered from Aqoura (in the far north) to Lebanon’s southern tip, Naqoura.

He listens attentively to a farmer speaking about this year’s peach season. He believes in the idea of a “Republic of Lebanon,” even while he is occupied with piles of papers about theft in a ministry or government entity.

He is also happy that the Vatican criticized the “repressive thinking of the United States,” 20 years after he had said it.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

Even if I brought the evidence, you would still find a way to ignore it like when the Aounist, Joseph Abou-Fadel, snickered derisively and changed the subject, when a Syrian oppositionist brandished the photo of Aoun meeting with an Israeli general during the Zionist occupation of Lebanon and yes his opponents like Khalid ad-Dahir have mentioned this.

Why doesn't the writer mention Aoun's collaboration with the the Zionists when they invaded?

You throw out such statements without having a single bit of evidence. Where is your evidence? Not even his enemies have come up with such ridiculous, childish nonsense. Typical Lebanese throwing mud in the hope it will stick.

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