Military man


A few weeks ago, as Army Day and Independence Day approached, someone, no doubt at the instigation of a pushy army officer, decided to hang up a gigantic portrait of the army commander, Jean Kahwaji, above Sassine Square in central Ashrafieh. Regardless of Kahwaji’s merits or demerits, this struck many people as remarkable excess on behalf of an individual who is, after all, a mere employee of the state.

Imagine for a moment the absurdity if the director general of the Social Security Fund were to do the same thing; or the governor of the Central Bank. To be fair to Kahwaji, he’s not the first to allow his mug shot to decorate a thoroughfare. The faces of former President Emile Lahoud and current President Michel Suleiman filled our skylines when they led the battalions, and were usually far more invasive than that of the present commander.

Somehow the Egyptians, or at least those who returned to Tahrir Square a few weeks ago, got it right. You cannot have genuine transformation in the Arab world in the overbearing shadow of soldiers. The sacrifices of the military – real or, more often, imagined, given how Arab armies usually plunder the state –do not entitle the institution to a blank check of popular sympathy and obedience.

Jean Kahwaji is no Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi; nor is he even ruling over Lebanon. Indeed, if there is one criticism we can level at our armed forces it’s that they do not hold the monopoly over the use of violence in the country. Rather, the army commander, like his predecessors (and no doubt his successors), simply dreams of becoming president. After all, our last two heads of state have hailed from the military, and Lebanon went through two years of trauma between 1988-1990 because a third army commander sought to exploit the conflicts he ignited to ease himself into the presidency.

Lebanon is a paradox in some ways. Here is the one country that mostly elected civilian leaders during its post-Independence years, unlike a majority of other Arab countries. Until 1998, when Lahoud was appointed by Syria, only one other army commander, Fouad Chehab, had been head of state, and his election was the consequence of a compromise to end the 1958 conflict, reached largely outside Lebanon’s borders. Chehab was an estimable man, refusing to accept an unconstitutional extension of his mandate, but that did not prevent his comrades in arms from abusing their power.

And yet it appears these days that the country can do no better than a beret when it goes in search of new presidents. How demoralizing it is for the Lebanese, who pride themselves on their civil institutions, to have to look no further than an officer as their national representative. How demeaning to know that when a new army chief takes over, a military cabal begins maneuvering to get him elected, hoping that it will ride to Baabda on his coattails.

Kahwaji is as entitled as another Maronite Christian to become president. The problem comes when an army commander uses his position to campaign for the job. Nothing politicizes the army more, raising the probability that security decisions are taken with the presidency firmly in mind. Gone, it seems, are the bluff, blunt military men, straight as arrows. Lebanon’s army commanders have become as agile as ballet dancers, able to walk through raindrops without getting wet.

This must end for the good of the country, and the army. Article 49 of the constitution obliges grade-one civil servants and those in equivalent positions aspiring to stand for the presidency to retire from their post two years before an election. In practice, that condition was ignored before the elections of Lahoud and Suleiman. Parliament would do best to amend the article and extend that period to six years, to ensure that officials do not prepare their candidacy while still serving under the president they hope to replace. The article may yet be ignored, but the amendment process will inject seriousness into it, making the rule more difficult to disregard.

A second proposal, and it may not mean much beyond the symbolism, is to cease referring to military figures who have taken on civilian responsibilities as “general”. This should apply as much in media citations as when these individuals are addressed publicly.

Is there any reason why we should still call Sleiman, Lahoud, or Change and Reform bloc leader Michel Aoun, for that matter, by their rank, when they have moved beyond the military establishment and are in positions where they represent, or have represented, the country as a whole? To refer to an individual as “general” is to underline his association with an institution that is, constitutionally, under civilian authority. There is no reason not to recognize that hierarchy by identifying such figures through their non-military titles. Furthermore, to continue giving officials a military rank has intimidating overtones, since the army, among many other things, is an instrument of intimidation.

Finally, it would be very useful if the government prohibited, once and for all, the habit of allowing state representatives to hang up their portraits publicly. You might have trouble forbidding images of the president, parliament speaker, and prime minister (though there is no reason not to do so), but it should be easier to impose such a ban on other functionaries, including the army commander.

It’s not personal. Jean Kahwaji is no worse than anyone else, and may be better than many. But as much as Lebanon tries to behave like a banana republic, there is no reason for our governing institutions to encourage such behavior. As Lebanese, we are entitled to ask that civil servants be more modest. After all, they allegedly work for us.

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