Lebanon set for new presidential era

Surprise deal supporting leadership of Michel Aoun is expected to end a lengthy stalemate over the country’s top office.

Michel Aoun
Aoun's mixed military and political legacy have made the octogenarian a highly divisive figure [Nabil Mounzer/EPA]

After more than two years, Lebanon is finally set to get a new president in the form of Michel Aoun – barring any last-minute surprises. 

Often referred to as “the General”, Aoun, 81, has been vying for the position for years. But it was not until last week that he appeared to have secured the support of enough parties to win Monday’s vote. 

“General Aoun appreciates the aspirations of all the Lebanese and has great hope for our new era,” his press office said in a statement last week, calling Monday “a big national day”.

But will Aoun be able to usher in the stability and reform badly needed in a country in the throes of economic, political and social disarray?

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Born to a Maronite family in 1935 in the Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik, Aoun joined the army at 20 and climbed through the ranks, ultimately becoming its top commander during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. 

He was a major player during one of the bloodiest periods of the conflict in 1989 and 1990, before being forced into exile in France. He remained there for 14 years as he awaited the end of Syria’s military presence in Lebanon and founded the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) party in an act of symbolic protest against Damascus’ control of Beirut.

Within a week of the Syrians withdrawal in the spring of 2005, Aoun returned home – but less than a year later, he reneged on his previous anti-Syrian position and infamously forged a powerful tactical alliance with the Damascus-backed Hezbollah’s political wing. Earlier this year, he put aside yet more historic differences, striking a strategic deal with the Christian Lebanese Forces party. 

This mixed military and political legacy have made the octogenarian a highly divisive figure, particularly among Lebanon’s large Sunni community.

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“This is his history,” rival presidential candidate Sleiman Frangieh told a local TV channel last Monday. “He can’t fix it with a five-minute meeting with the mufti.”

Many are questioning whether Aoun is the right candidate for the presidency at a tumultuous time for the country.

“I don’t agree with his way of running things,” General Issam Abu Jamra, Aoun’s former right-hand man and now an outspoken critic, told Al Jazeera. “He only does what he does for himself. If he will become president, he will not be better; the country will not be better.”

Politicians and analysts who spoke to Al Jazeera variously described Aoun as stubborn, charismatic, wise and quick to anger.

Last week, his presidential bid was endorsed by erstwhile political foe Saad Hariri, son of former premier Rafik Hariri, who was allegedly assassinated by Hezbollah. The surprise deal is expected to end a lengthy stalemate over the country’s highest Christian post, allowing Lebanon’s various political institutions to return to work – but many worry that all it will do is put power in Aoun’s hands, rather than help to address the political divisions that have paralysed the country for years.

“It’s a forced marriage between two groups who don’t see eye-to-eye on much and have been battling it out since 2005,” Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre, told Al Jazeera. “We’re going to see more of what we’ve seen in the past few years, but in a much more acute manner … This election is not about reinvigorating Lebanon.”

Her opinion was echoed by rival independent presidential candidate Nadine Moussa, the only woman in the running. 

“When you don’t come up with a clear vision or a programme and you make friends with belligerents who hold contradictory positions, like Hezbollah on one hand and Hariri on the other, how do you expect this is going to turn out?” Moussa asked. “How will he reconcile between those two conflicting approaches? I just don’t think it’s going to work.”

I think we will see some concessions from Hezbollah to facilitate his rule and allow him to gain credibility ... under the broad umbrella of bringing back Christian rights.

by Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre

For the jubilant members of his FPM party, however, this is a sign of strength rather than weakness.

“Aoun can play a positive role,” FPM MP Alain Aoun, the general’s nephew, told Al Jazeera. “He has a good relationship starting to grow with Hariri and he also enjoys huge confidence with Hezbollah, so I think he can create a good common ground between the two.”

These feelings of optimism run even stronger in the party’s youth movement. “He represents the majority of the Christian community as well as Lebanese citizens,” said Eli Malhame, the head of the FPM’s national youth sector, who called Aoun the “godfather of the republic”.

“He will be the one able to gather all the sects and communities within his reign because he has no issue at all, whether personal or professional, with any faction in Lebanon. This has been proven by his agreements recently.”

Kamel Wazne, a political analyst and American University of Beirut professor, was doubtful, however. 

“Aoun is a major political operator in Lebanon,” Wazne told Al Jazeera. “But I think when it comes to the political process, most of these relationships will prove to have been marriages of convenience rather than love.”

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This will probably cause major problems for Aoun’s promised agenda of reform and change. FPM members say that he will aim to tackle all of the big problems facing the country, from economic collapse and the refugee crisis, to systemic corruption and infrastructure decay.

The priority, however, will be finding consensus on a new electoral law before much-needed parliamentary elections, already twice postponed and now scheduled for April 2017.


“That agenda can be very positive if the other parties support it,” Wazne said. “But if you are a president without support, then your agenda means nothing.”

Yahya agreed that Aoun was unlikely to be able to create significant change in the current political climate.

“I think we will see some concessions from Hezbollah to facilitate his rule and allow him to gain credibility … under the broad umbrella of bringing back Christian rights, which is very divisive by the way,” Yahya said. “But there are too many things at stake where real reform is required.”

Regardless, the FPM party remains in high spirits at the potential of an Aoun presidency.

“We’re hopeful this is a new era where we can achieve lots of our goals,” MP Aoun said. “He last left Baabda [presidential] Palace by force. Now he’s coming back 26 years later nearly to the day, and the doors are open wide for him.”

Source: Al Jazeera