Inside The House of Michel Aoun: A Feuding Dynasty

Saturday 9 November 201912:00 am
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What is happening behind the scenes at Baabda Palace – home of Lebanon's president Michel Aoun – and more specifically, within the Presidential family? Many Lebanese citizens are today asking this question, with reports suggesting internal differences between the two "sons-in-law": namely, Foreign Minister (in the caretaker government) and leader of the "Free Patriotic Movement" Gebran Bassil, and former army brigadier-general and current member of parliament Chamel Roukoz – married respectively to Chantal and Claudine Aoun, two of President Aoun’s daughters.

Indeed, reports alleged differences between the two daughters themselves, attributed to differing public stances taken by each, as well as to 'gossip' by workers in the palace and those close to the family.

President Aoun – age 84 – has three daughters: Chantal, Claudine and Mireille – the latter married to the Director of OTV channel, the voice of Bassil’s "Free Patriotic Movement", Roy el-Hachem. We mention the husbands of Aoun's daughters not out of a patriarchal motive, but for the role the husbands play in formulating the family’s political stand as they rose to leading position in the country.

Yet Aoun's daughters themselves are not neutral observers in the family's political scene: Claudine is the media consultant of the president, she runs the "National Commission for Lebanese Women" and also runs Clémentine, an advertising company. Mireille is the principal advisor of the president. Chantal on the other hand does not appear to take an active frontline political role, assuming mostly the role of "first daughter" while at other times the "wife of the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement."

Aoun Supporters Join the Uprising

The president's family tree, its dynamics and the respective roles of the president's relations have taken center stage with the onset of the October revolution. Old differences between Gebran Bassil and Chamel Roukoz have resurfaced, with the latter appearing on the fourth day of the uprising where protesters were cursing Bassil’s mother, Roukoz was carried on the shoulders of demonstrators calling for the downfall of the Aounist-led regime.

The video of Roukoz's flash appearance in the mob was widely shared labelled: "Has Roukoz joined the ranks of protesters?" – however, Roukoz himself downplayed the incident, saying that he was driving by with his and the street was blocked by the protesters " so I got out of the car, said hello to the young people, who carried me and were affectionate. It's a normal matter."

Yet Roukoz's clarification did not dilute reports of what appeared to be a division within Aoun's extended family caused by the October revolution – allegedly exacerbating previous grievances which were apparent beforehand.

During the first post uprising speech by the president, eight days after Lebanese citizens went to the streets and squares, there was a sentence in the president's speech which was in turn relayed later on Twitter by his two daughters Claudine and Mireille: namely "reconsidering the government", the statement was understood as opposing Bassil and an insinuation that he could be sacrificed from the government.

Lebanese citizens had taken to repeating a phrase that connoted Bassil's central role in the regime – "either he is minister or the country falls into ruin" – Bassil possibly being the only thing that stands in the way of a new technocrats’ government.

The Disagreement

Before delving further into the Aounist state of protest against the "Bassil" role in the country's governance, it is useful to return to the origins of the divisions – or at least the emergence of these divisions.

Raseef22 asked many Lebanese citizens about the reason for Bassil being the most hated figure these days, a unanimous response cited Bassil's "provocative arrogance" which implies near-full control over the president.

Bassil's transformation from being a leader in the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) to the strongman of Lebanon happened in a very short time, with some describing his ascension to the head of the party's leadership as a "parachute landing" – marginalizing veteran Aounist activists. This reality would force many to leave the party while others would retrench after witnessing Bassil's template of governance and viewing it as the opposite of the Aounist dream they struggled for.

It should be noted that Bassil assumed the leadership of the Free Patriotic Movement on the eve of Michel Aoun’s election to the presidency three years ago, pushing aside two possible candidates for the party's leadership. Last September Bassil would win a new term as party leader, amidst a backdrop which critics described as one that favored businessmen in the party over activists, and where a policy of absolute loyalty to Bassil – that or the risk of marginalization – prevailed.

While Bassil was celebrating winning his second term at the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Roukoz was hosting a group of "Aounist opposition" figures in the presence of his wife Claudine. While the meeting was described at the time as a social visit, in reality it entailed many messages – not least serving as evidence to a new movement which defined itself as 'Aounist' separate from the Free Patriotic Movement.

Heated Exchanges

Ten days after the outbreak of the revolution, Roukoz resigned from the "Strong Lebanon Bloc" – a coalition formed by the Free Patriotic Movement. Roukoz declared that he had not been attending meetings for months.

In an interview with Sky News, Roukoz declared his wish for the president to "work on changing the government and for a new government with the strongest hand belonging to the president and the prime minister."

Attacks subsequently began targeting Roukoz and his wife from Bassil’s wing of the party, with the two accused of "treachery" and "defaming the image of the president."

Lebanon’s President has three daughters: two of them are “palace consultants". He has three sons in law: two are members of parliament, one is also a foreign minister and FPM party leader, and one runs OTV, the dynasty’s TV station

Three days after Roukoz's resignation, Bassil's deputy-leader in the Free Patriotic Movement May Khreich appeared in a television interview and dismissed the Roukoz's role. When asked about the statements by the two daughters of Aoun declaring the necessity of holding early elections, Khreich angrily responded and trivialized their opinions, declaring: "What do Claudine Aoun and Mireille Aoun represent?"

On the 3rd of November, the road leading to the presidential palace at Baabda witnessed a demonstration in support of Aoun, in which Bassil – accompanied by his wife – was the star, while Claudine and Mireille were both absent. Bassil spoke to the crowd heavily praising the performance of the Free Patriotic Movement, only for Aoun to come out afterwards with a brief statement; the event was a source of dismay for the two daughters, as it contrasted the strong image that Bassil appeared in contrasted with the weakness of the president.

Two days after the protest, Claudine appeared in an interview explaining why she was absent from the rally at Baabda palace, directing many pointed messages in the process. She declared: "I am a member of this establishment, so how can I demonstrate in support of myself?" – adding that she had not heard Bassil's speech.

Bassil had earlier declared that "there is no space in the movement for those who are scared or for traitors." Here, Claudine took the opportunity to declare that no one can give her husband lessons in patriotism and loyalty, adding that it was "necessary to dilute all of our egos."

Claudine had rejected in a previous interview her description as the "daughter of the Free Patriotic Movement" – declaring that she considered herself to be an Aounist, not an FPM daughter, now that Bassil heads the party.

On November 7, Roukoz returned to the scene, declaring in a television interview that "what is happening is an opportunity to launch new reforms and a new political climate," and warning that "personal interests are still dominating until now." He warned against attempting to "circumvent the demands of the street" – while calling for a separation members of parliament and government ministers.

Roukoz also praised the students protesting in the streets – in the meantime, OTV channel simultaneously disseminated reports alleging "ambiguous parties orchestrating the revolution" and "Israeli infiltration attempts."

Skirmishes Everywhere

There is an additional source of disagreement between Claudine and her brother in Law Gebran Bassil: in addition to holding Bassil responsible for obstructing the appointment of Roukoz as minister and his control over Baabda palace, reports has also proliferated about Bassil's negative attitude to Claudine's work in the "Women's Commission" – both regarding the laws that the commission proposed and worked on, as well as a general lack of cooperation where possible.

Many have taken to ask about the reality of Claudine's exclusion from the palace's media-related decisions, rand the exclusion also of her sister Mireille from other consultations after her name was proposed for a ministerial position.

Accordingly, critics citing Claudine's exclusion declare: "How can a media consultant who runs an advertising company that is renowned for its successful campaigns allow the president to emerge in his first speech to Lebanese citizens after the revolution in this controversial image?" Aoun had appeared exhausted during his speech, which was not broadcast live – despite it being claimed otherwise.

Followers of Claudine's Twitter account can observe the sheer scale of attacks against her from different accounts, including by supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement, doubting her loyalty and criticizing her performance and that of her husband. This gives rise to an important question: who is behind the accounts that are launching these concerted attacks the moment she posts a Tweet?

On the other hand, Raseef22 posed a series of questions to protesters of various affiliations, on the position of Claudine and Roukoz. There was a near unanimous response that "we should not fall into the trap of being infatuated with them both, or considering them heroes standing in the ranks of the revolution."

According to the responses, both Roukoz and Claudine had their own calculations and interests in projecting a certain image, which will reserve a role for them in the upcoming political scene, and which ensure they have another chance however events turn out. On the other hand, there were also responses criticizing Roukoz, pointing to his military background and his lack of political acumen.

Amongst the responses, some also pointed out to what they considered the "patriarchal" nature of Aoun, who promoted his sons-in-law at the expense of his daughters, not least Bassil who he considers "the son he never had" – otherwise, in the words of one protester, "why has he [Aoun] not passed on the presidency of the Free Patriotic Movement to one of his daughters?"

While protesters continue to deploy various means to express their rejection of the ruling authority, its policies and its deeply-rooted ways, the state of division inside the Aounist camp continues to emerge more clearly – allowing the revolting street to target the ruling authority without raising the status of the anti-Bassil Aounist crowd to that of "heroes" and "revolutionaries."

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