The political and public interest in the recent meeting between Free Patriotic Movement head Michel Aoun and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri is a reflection of how distant the two have been for years.
Relations between the officials were so tense that the talks were kept secret for a long time, with Aoun initially publically denying it even took place.
High-ranking Western sources in Beirut say such a meeting should have taken place a long time ago, but suggest that the March 14 bloc was unsure of how to take advantage of Aoun’s disagreement with Hezbollah over its role fighting alongside the Syrian regime.
So instead of establishing dialogue with him, the sources said, the bloc maintained its narrow policy toward the FPM.
Today, the broad results of that meeting, which took place at Hariri’s home in Paris, are more important than the details, especially given its potential to boost Aoun’s chances in the presidential election on May 25.
The Western sources ruled out the possibility that Aoun and Hariri discussed the presidential polls. They suggested that March 14’s aim was likely to create a crack, albeit a small one, between the FPM leader and his ally Hezbollah, partly in order to curtail the latter’s control of political life and security in Lebanon and partly to prompt the party to review its options, particularly regarding the Syrian conflict.
Aoun himself has insinuated to some of his close partners that he and Hariri reached a political deal on most of the files that were raised. Although he did not go into any details, he did say the matter of the presidential election was the one topic that had yet to be resolved, adding that there was no hurry as it has not yet been decided by the relevant regional and international powers.
Sources said Aoun was very optimistic that Hariri would eventually decide to back his presidential bid, and suggested that the issue would become clearer in the coming weeks.
But according to parliamentary sources from Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc who have been following up on the consultations leading up to the meeting, although the talks have not yet touched on the presidential election, work to prepare for such discussions was underway.
According to these sources, the primary accomplishment of the meeting was the deal surrounding the current Cabinet’s formation.
The sources added that as a result of that meeting, FPM-affiliated ministers will now coordinate with Future Movement ministers regarding which files to raise after the Cabinet receives a vote of confidence.
Having ministers associated with different political parties working together is bound to create some tensions, the sources said, but the Change and Reform bloc is focusing on securing a positive outcome as a result of the newly open relations between Aoun and Hariri.
The sources also said that even if Hariri eventually decided not to support Aoun in his presidential bid, the FPM leader would continue to pursue more open relations with all political powers in the country as he has recently been doing, and would not return to the discriminatory pattern he adopted in the past.
Sources close to the Future Movement said the meeting took place at Aoun’s request, adding that it was not the first time he had requested such an assembly. The goal of the recent meeting was to gain support for the presidential polls, they confirmed, but said the Future Movement felt it was too early to delve into such an issue, not to mention the fact that March 14 would be putting forward its own presidential candidate.
Sources familiar with the issue said Aoun could simply move from one party to another just to gain support for his candidacy. In addition, the sources added, nearly all political powers – whether allied with him or not – are concerned about the position Aoun might take on a number of issues if he does succeed in becoming president.
These sources suggested Hariri responded to Aoun’s request for a meeting in order to redress the Future Movement’s previous policy, which prompted the Christian leader to embrace Hezbollah.
But the new positive atmosphere between the two was not likely to extend to Hariri providing support for Aoun’s presidential bid, the sources said, unless the regional and international powers were receptive to the idea.
The probability of a centrist character reaching the presidency was far more likely than Parliament voting for a strong Christian candidate from either March 8 or March 14, the sources said, unless there was a strong consensus with Bkirki.