“Let no one think that we will be a vehicle for a civil war, and let no one think that we may even consider aligning ourselves with Israel against any internal party,” Future Movement’s Secretary General Ahmad Hariri emphatically said on November 24.
Lebanon’s Christian president, Michel Aoun, called the incident a Saudi act of aggression. “Nothing justifies Hariri’s lack of return for 12 days,” he said.
But in these expressions of nation-wide solidarity, there is one question that has not really been discussed: Why didn’t Lebanese Christians join Saudi Arabia’s campaign against Hezbollah, since one would assume they consider the “Islamic resistance” (al-Moqawama al-Islamiyya) an existential threat?
To be sure, some Christian politicians were quick to show loyalty to Saudi Arabia, rather than to President Michel Aoun’s position in calling for Hariri’s release. But a recent Ipsos poll showed that 81 percent of Christians (and 79 percent of Lebanese people as a whole) considered Aoun to have done a good job handling the crisis. Surprisingly, this included 67 percent of Sunnis, who have generally been hostile to Aoun in the past.
Hezbollah’s agreement with Aoun
Hezbollah has employed a winning strategy when it comes to its relations with Lebanese Christians. It needs to be noted before proceeding that “Christians” in Lebanon are not a monolithic entity. I am using the term here to denote elected Christian parties based on the 2009 parliamentary elections. That said, Hezbollah’s success with Lebanese Christians is not a value judgment, but a mere reading of the state of affairs in the country – one that helps understand the complexity of the Lebanese mosaic.
When Aoun, as head of the largest Christian party, and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, signed the Paper of Understanding in 2006, critics accused Aoun of providing Hezbollah with a “Christian cover”.
This was definitely true, especially during the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon, and in all major political battles since. However, Hezbollah has also given Aoun and his party an unshakeable commitment when it comes to internal feuds.
It is, in some ways, fascinating that the 'Islamic resistance' was Aoun's strongest ally during this period.
During the presidential vacuum (May 2014-October 2016), Nasrallah was steadfast in his support for Aoun’s candidacy, and he rhetorically said: “Everyone knows our candidate, and his name begins with the letter ‘Michel Aoun’.”
To understand the significance of Aoun’s election, we need to remember that he has been widely described as Lebanon’s first “strong president” since the end of the civil war in 1990. This is because previous presidents lacked Christian popular support and were elected during the Syrian tutelage (1990-2005) or as a result of a political settlement (2008).
Electing a president who enjoys similar, popular backing among his/her constituency as the Sunni prime minister and the Shia house speaker do, has been a “Christian demand” since 2005.
By supporting Aoun, Hezbollah was seen as a positive factor leading to the current presidency, which even the anti-Hezbollah Christian party, Lebanese Forces, has described as a step forward when it comes to Christian representation in government institutions.
Of course, both Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, and Hariri had a major role in Aoun’s election when they agreed to endorse him. But there is no doubt that the Nasrallah-Aoun alliance that started in 2006 was equally crucial in the president’s election. It is, in some ways, fascinating that the “Islamic resistance” was Aoun’s strongest ally during this period, and a major reason behind him eventually becoming Lebanon’s “strong Christian president”.
Another factor that made Christians less hostile to Hezbollah in the past few years was undoubtedly the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
While most Christians would naturally side with the sovereignty of the state and would support the need for Hezbollah to hand over its weapons, there is a general perception that the party has played a role in protecting Lebanon against ISIL, despite attempts by Saudi Arabia and its allies to equate the two as being one and the same manifestation of terrorism.
In this regard, it was interesting that even US President Donald Trump’s letter to Aoun on Independence Day described Lebanon as a strong partner in the fight against terrorism – the same Lebanon that Saudi Arabia calls a “Hezbollah government”.
Again, this is not a value judgment and only relates to internal perceptions, and not to the larger question about Hezbollah’s involvement on the side of the Syrian regime that has been accused of countless war crimes.
The Saudi efforts
The Lebanese Forces and Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai have been two important voices within the Christian community talking about the danger of Hezbollah’s growing influence.
But as both Hariri and Aoun currently enjoy high ratings in the country, Geagea’s pro-Saudi stance and Rai’s visit to Riyadh did not manage to create a viable bloc to support the recent Saudi escalation, and calls for Lebanon to “do something” about Hezbollah.
Aoun now needs to bring Hezbollah 'back to Lebanon'.
In fact, Rai’s visit to Riyadh on November 13 in the midst of the Hariri crisis was not met with widespread internal approval, as it was seen by many as whitewashing Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Lebanon – not to mention its treatment of minorities. However, some have justified the visit as necessary to appease tensions, especially the fears of Lebanese expats in the Gulf who were worried that Saudi Arabia would force them out.
Next spring, when Lebanese citizens go to the ballot box for the first time in nine years, we will know for sure where the majority of Lebanese Christians stand vis-a-vis Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia.
But there is no doubt that Aoun has won the battle for public opinion during the last three weeks.
Whether he will be able to keep the momentum going in his favour will be determined by his ability to secure a viable settlement that would avert a potential Qatar-like embargo, should Saudi Arabia decide to escalate.
In fact, Aoun now needs to bring Hezbollah “back to Lebanon”.
In other words, he needs to deliver a viable agreement with the party concerning its regional involvement and its “armed status” – one that would satisfy its regional and local opponents who rightly see, in its growing influence, a threat to Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence.
Attacks on Aoun in Saudi media reflect the growing Saudi resentment towards him. His role in providing a “Christian cover” for Hezbollah, as well as the consensus around his “official position” against Saudi Arabia during the Hariri episode, made it harder for Riyadh to speak of Lebanon as a “Hezbollah government”. This seems to have backfired for now, as Aoun and Hariri seem set on solidifying their alliance, much to the detriment of Saudi Arabia’s hardline supporters in Lebanon.
The clouds seem to have settled after a stormy three weeks in Beirut. One of the factors that have aided the de-escalation of tensions is that Lebanon is not a simple “Sunni vs Shia” dichotomy, as short-sighted analysis of the country and the region generally slides into.
There is a myriad of other political, social, religious and economic factors at play in Lebanon and each country in the region. The recent events in Lebanon were yet another example of how Christians play an important role in shaping the country’s internal and international policies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.