Israeli Onslaught May Spark Aounist Resurgence

Even as the war in southern Lebanon heats up and a cease-fire looks increasingly distant, thoughts turn to what will happen in the aftermath. Since the 1960s, Lebanon’s many religious groups have had strained relations, but a unified Lebanon could be one of the few positive results of the current violence.

For most of the 20th century, Israel and Lebanese Christians considered each other allies, but with Christians finding themselves under Israeli air attacks, those days could be over.

Lebanon’s internal politics are not easy to follow; complicated political and religious alliances have existed for decades. In 1943, when their neighbors were gearing for war, Lebanese Christians and Muslims agreed to share political power and lived in mostly peaceful balance. Unfortunately, the violence that arose next door would eventually bleed through the border, mostly in the form of refugees.

Sectarian strife grew during the ’60s and led directly to the Lebanese civil war in 1975. Adding to the problem, the Palestinian Liberation Organization had moved into southern Lebanon after being expelled from Jordan. Eventually the Syrians and the Israelis interjected themselves into the conflict as well. (And by driving out the PLO in 1982, the Israelis also unwittingly became a midwife to Hezbollah.) The war itself ended in 1990, but the Israelis didn’t leave until 2000 and the Syrians only last year.

Alleged Syrian complicity in the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri led to last year’s Cedar Revolution and the expulsion of Syrian troops; however, Syria allegedly continues to exert influence through the Shi’ite Hezbollah and President Émile Lahoud, who interestingly enough is a Maronite Christian. After Syria’s official departure, Lebanon seemed to be heading toward more religious strife, especially between groups for and against Syrian intervention. Then Michel Aoun returned from exile.

Aoun, also a Maronite Christian, is one of Lebanon’s more interesting characters and likely to become an even more important player in postwar Lebanese politics. His long, colorful history, including stints as a brigadier general and transitional prime minister, has earned him the people’s respect even when they have doubted his methods. The cost of his attempt to free Lebanon from Syrian rule was a 14-year exile in France at then-President Francois Mitterand’s personal request.

Appearing this week on al-Jazeera, Aoun reiterated his stance that a united Lebanon must include Hezbollah members because they are “an integral part of the people.” Now that the Syrian troops are gone, Aoun believes the country can reunite across religious backgrounds. As leader of the third largest political party, the Free Patriotic Movement, Aoun even came to an agreement of understanding with Hezbollah last winter.

“We want to create a secular culture with the people so that the population begins to demand it and [will] be able to confront religious authorities that refuse it, ” reads a statement on the FPM leader’s Web site. Still, some are angered by the FPM’s alliance with Hezbollah and fear a Hezbollah win almost as much as an Israeli one.

However, with the war raging in the South, Aoun has joined a number of Christians who are accepting Shi’ite refugees into shelters and homes as fellow citizens in danger. Because the Christians are also not immune to Israeli attacks, the dream of secular unity seems increasingly possible under Aoun’s populist leadership.

Analysis by Margaret Griffis for