IF YOU'RE LUCKY enough not to be obsessed with Middle East politics, you may be surprised to learn that the keynote speaker at Hezbollah's massive Beirut demonstration last week was not a Shiite Muslim but a Maronite Christian. Michel Aoun, the army general who was driven into exile by Syria in 1990 but has been oddly friendly with Syria and its local allies since his return to Lebanon last year, addressed an overwhelmingly Shiite crowd and called for the resignation of Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
Aoun's primary objective is to become president. To achieve this goal, he concluded a political alliance with Hezbollah in February, hoping to build a strong enough coalition to win the presidency (a position that by long custom goes to a Christian leader).
With one year remaining in Syrian-installed President Emile Lahoud's term, time is running out for Aoun. Even with Hezbollah's support, he lacks the seats to be elected by parliament. Toppling the current government, however, might be a first step toward a full shift in the country's internal political balance.
Aoun's personal ambitions are quixotic at best. But his drive to be president has been a great gift to Hezbollah, allowing the extremist party to disguise its current attempt at a sectarian coup against one of the Arab world's few democracies as a broad national movement. Lebanon is made up of large minorities of Shiites, Sunnis, Druze and Christians of various sects, along with dozens of smaller groups. To create the illusion of a national consensus, you need useful idiots from outside your own sect. This is where the general comes in.
Aoun has chosen the Shiite option. His soft policy toward Syria (including ambiguous statements about an international tribunal to try the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri) is aimed at securing Syrian acceptance of his presidential bid. Is it likely that the same regime the general fought in a bloody 1990 war will be interested in making him president of Lebanon? Aoun's newfound ally, Suleiman Franjieh, a longtime Syrian loyalist and a fellow Maronite, seems to think so. Franjieh may envision a new alliance among Maronites, Shiites and the ruling Alawites in Syria.
But Aoun's calculations fail to take in some dangerous regional realities. Syria is more than pleased to see Aoun attacking the anti-Syrian government. So is Iran, whose supreme guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently predicted the defeat of U.S. and allied interests in Lebanon. Wittingly or not, Aoun is serving these foreign masters for free.
There's a cardinal rule in Lebanese politics that the president must be acceptable both to his own community and to the others. Aoun is neither. His positions have been antithetical to the Maronite patriarchate, the seat of moderation in the community and a strong opponent of using street rallies to unseat the government. Aoun's alliance with Hezbollah and Syria's puppets has infuriated the anti-Syrian Christian community, which aimed much of its anger at him after the assassination of Maronite Cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel last month. Now, by agreeing to be the vanguard of a Shiite-led coup attempt against a Sunni prime minister, he has broken an unwritten rule against getting his community involved in a Sunni-Shiite conflict, potentially putting the already polarized Maronite community at risk.
Meanwhile, there is strong opposition to his candidacy from the main Sunni and Druze leaderships. Their lack of trust in him is exacerbated by his vague position on the international tribunal in the Hariri assassination -- unquestionably the priority of these leaderships, as well as of France and the U.S.
It's not even clear that the Shiite parties Amal and Hezbollah would back him for president. Although they have been happy to use Aoun as a club to beat the majority coalition, the Shiites have never made any public endorsement of him. That may be because Aoun has shown the Shiites too that he can't be trusted. During recent national dialogue sessions among the country's leaders, Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement reportedly tried to cut a deal that fell short of what his Hezbollah allies were seeking, embarrassing Hezbollah and prompting it to scuttle the deal.
In the end, the fact that the various communities are opposed to him will make Aoun's gambit a long shot. But his tone-deaf presidential bid should be instructive to anybody who believes that the current street theater in Beirut reflects the will of the Lebanese majority.
For all the chaos that plagues Lebanon, the country's sectarian balance imposes a complex and durable structure of protocols, restrictions and unwritten rules on the various communities. When these boundaries are transgressed, the result is often conflict. The region has a similar set of unwritten rules, and Aoun's support for a possible (Syrian- and Iranian-backed) Shiite coup against the Sunni prime minister has sent the Sunni Arab powerhouses strongly backing Siniora and warning against Iranian interference.
As such, Aoun is but the latest in a line of challengers of Lebanon's unwritten codes. He will fail like all the others; the question is how much damage he causes in the meantime.