In November 2011, various reports alluded that Hezbollah planned to “seize parts of Beirut” should the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al Assad fall, allegedly as a patriotic step to prevent foreign intervention in Lebanon. At the time, the discussion hovered around a military coup, although on a far larger scale than the May 7, 2008, manoeuvres that terrorised Beirut and cost the lives of more than 100 Lebanese citizens.
Given the government’s failure to extend the terms of the six-member Military Council, and because Army commander General Jean Qahwaji, who heads the council, reaches a mandatory retirement age in September, the country may well be exposed to a security vacuum. Coincidentally, the Army’s chief-of-staff, Major General Walid Salman, is scheduled to retire in August, while three other council members are now serving through emergency extensions.
In addition to Qahwaji and Salman, the government must find replacements for three “retired-active” officers who are now in limbo: Major General Nicolas Mozher, a Military Council member whose term ended on May 1 but who continues to handle all administrative and judicial matters; General Inspector Major General Michel Munayyir, a council member who reached the age of retirement on May 2 and who is responsible for implementing the Army Command’s orders; and Major General Abdul Rahman Shihaytli, director-general of the administration at the Defence Ministry, who retired on May 24.
Therefore, to say that a security void was coming to Lebanon would indeed be an understatement. Under the circumstances, it was critical to ask which of the two military powers in the country, the Army or Hezbollah, would take matters into their own hands?
Students of the Levant often recall the 20 coups that occurred in Syria between 1949 and 1970, overlooking the 13 coup de tetes [hot-headedness] that entertained the Lebanese between 1951 and 2010, ostensibly because Lebanon was the only Arab democracy. Most of these coup attempts were organised by politicians, although two were planned and carried out my military officers: The first by Brigadier Aziz Ahdab in February 1976, which led to the destruction of the Lebanese Army and the flight of President Sulaiman Franjieh, and the second in September 1988, when president Amine Gemayel surrendered the reins of power to Army Commander General Michel Aoun.
Few remember it today — on account of fresh alliances between them — but it was General Emile Lahoud who attacked the presidential palace and ousted Aoun in October 1990, to secure the election of president Elias Hrawi.
Thus, discrete coup d’etats occurred in the past, although the last two — on May 7, 2008, and again in October-November 2010 when Hezbollah targeted the “Information Section” of the Interior Ministry — were particularly violent.
To its credit, the Lebanese Army was not idle during the past few years, even if politicians repeatedly clipped its wings. After every skirmish in Tripoli, Sidon or along the porous Syrian borders, overwhelmed units restored order as best as possible, absorbing blow after blow. Columns of tanks and armoured vehicles were regular features throughout the country as if such a presence was a normal occurrence. Brave soldiers patrolled tough neighbourhoods, but were still prevented from entering certain areas. How long will it be before loyal officers who love and serve Lebanon rebel against such lawlessness?
To be sure, the army was not prone to coup d’états and its senior officers were aware that the country was passing through decisive and critical moments. Still, because the officer corps was reluctant to interfere, allegedly fearing a split, it now confronts an unprecedented security vacuum. For without a legitimate Military Council, it was safe to conclude that the Army was in abeyance — a situation that will weaken it further between now and September, when its two most senior officers reach mandatory retirement.
Whether such a vacuum will prompt a fresh coup is impossible to determine, although few ought to be surprised if one were to occur, precisely to prevent a potential Hezbollah operation, which will be most likely coordinated with Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. As Lebanese Army officers gather the intelligence that may anticipate a Hezbollah coup attempt, ostensibly to protect “the resistance and its weapons inside Lebanon,” the possibility that an army coup d’état cannot be ruled out, even if the likelihood of such a development was remote.
There were two reasons for such reservations: First, because Hezbollah is now mired in Syria and unlikely to open a second front. And second, because army officers believed in and accepted the separation of powers. To their credit, Lebanese officers understood the limits of civil-military relations and respected both their interlocutors and themselves. Regrettably, few politicians reciprocated, which was classic in a country where political engagements redefined business corruption to serve everything and everyone save the nation.
Of course, one hoped that the army would keep its distance from challenged politicians whose calculations did not include the security of the country, precisely to protect Lebanon from imminent disasters. Short of a preventive coup, and should army leaders recognise their inabilities to ensure the country’s safety, Beirut may well be forced to call on United Nations forces to protect what is left of its independence.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is an author, most recently of Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia (London: Routledge, 2013).