Lebanon’s 13th President

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Newly elected Lebanese President Michel Aoun sits on the president's chair inside the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut, Lebanon October 31, 2016. After thirty months of a political deadlock and a presidential vacuum, Lebanon elected its 13th head of state on Monday. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

How General Michel Aoun won the presidency 

By Marlene Khalife 

With a majority of 83 votes, 36 white papers, and cameo nominations for Zorba the Greek and Lebanese Forces MP Strida Geagea, MP Michel Aoun, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement’s (FPM) parliamentary bloc became Lebanon’s 13th president since its independence from France, seven decades ago.

After a political vacuum in the country for 30 months and political bickering that has brought Lebanon’s institutions to a near standstill, the Lebanese people can finally look up to some sense of normalcy now that the country has elected its president.

And as hopes for a sense of normalcy grow, there was nothing normal in the parliamentary session that was held to elect Lebanon’s president.

An unprecedented four voting rounds took place during the parliamentary session to elect the president on Monday, October 31. Aoun needed a two-third majority vote, or 86 of the 128 MPs’ votes in the first round to be elected. However, he received 84 votes. In the second session, Aoun needed a sheer majority of half plus one, or 65 votes to win, but the second and third rounds were cancelled as some MPs used two ballots instead of one, which made the number of votes more than the actual 127 MPs attending the session.

Thus, it was decided, in the fourth and final round, that Aoun will be the newest Lebanese president at the age of 81, with 83 votes. It is worth mentioning that one disgruntled MP decided to vote for Zorba the Greek over voting for Aoun.

SIDE SHOW: Lebanese Forces MP Strida Geagea, and Zorba the Greek each received one vote from disgruntled MPs who refused to vote for Aoun.

SIDE SHOW: Zorba the Greek received one vote for presidency from disgruntled MPs who refused to vote for Aoun.

Upon his election, Aoun vowed to “fight terrorism… reform the economy…work for the return of Syrian refugees to their country… and to support the Lebanese Army, which would safeguard Lebanon’s sovereignty.”

His election also heralded messages of felicitations and hopes for a stable Lebanon from regional and international leaders.

Aounists took to the streets the night before the presidential elections were held, on Sunday, October 30, waving their party’s orange flag, chanting, and beeping their car horns with the party’s signature tune Taratata Taaa, which always ends with people shouting: “General”, in reference to Aoun, who served as Lebanon’s youngest army commander between 1984 and 1990.

The celebrations, in fact, started a week ahead of the elections, even earlier in fact, when Aoun was officially endorsed by the Saudi-backed former Lebanese premier and head of the Future Movement, Saad Hariri, signaling a shift, not only in Lebanese politics, but also in Saudi Arabia’s stance on Lebanon and its parties.

Riyadh’s nod, which resolved a two-and-a-halfyear political impasse over who gets to be Lebanon’s next president was, according to officials and analysts, a “brave and wise move” that allowed Lebanon to breathe and end the deadlock which created the presidential vacuum.

At the same time, Lebanese politicians have expressed their willingness to cooperate with Aoun to help stabilize and revive the country.

“We will cooperate with Aoun on any subject that will herald good things to Lebanon,” says Fouad Siniora, head of the Saudi-backed Future Movement, former prime minister, and current MP.

“It is positive that Lebanon’s presidential vacuum has finally been filled and we hope that it is the beginning for a government that functions normally vis-à-vis the rest of the public institutions to serve the Lebanese.

This will strengthen Lebanon in the face of internal and external threats,” Martin Huth, Germany’s Ambassador to Lebanon tells Newsweek Middle East.

Aounists, on the other hand, carried on with their motorcades across Lebanon as they have been waiting for this moment since 1990, when Aoun was forced into exile in France by the Syrian military that occupied Lebanon, following his objection to the Taef Accord which not only heralded an end to Lebanon’s civil war, but also consecrated Syria’s occupation of Lebanon in the form of a protector and custodian.

In exile, Aoun started the FPM, a party that was outlawed by the Syrian military, who detained and tortured Aounists for the 15 years they ruled Lebanon since Aoun’s exit.

Alliance with Hezbollah
In 2005, shortly after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the Syrian army was forced to withdraw from Lebanon under pressure by an international campaign against the Syrian regime, mainly led by Aoun.

The exiled general returned triumphantly as the head of Lebanon’s opposition in the face of what many saw as a corrupt and decaying political regime. Aoun achieved a sweeping victory when he ran on his own, without allies, in the 2005 parliamentary elections, despite all political parties joining hands to run against him.

The same happened when he ran in the 2009 parliamentary elections, nailing 27 seats, which set him as the head of the parliament’s largest Christian bloc and showed that he was popular across Lebanon.

Following the 2005 elections, Aoun extended a hand to Iran-backed Hezbollah, a Lebanese resistance group that fought off the Israeli occupation of Lebanon for three decades.

When the 2006 Israeli aggression on Lebanon took place, Aoun signaled to his followers to open their homes and schools to the displaced Lebanese people, mainly southern Lebanese civilians who supported Hezbollah, and embrace them until the aggression was over.

This show of loyalty to the alliance garnered Hezbollah’s endless support for Aoun, with the group’s Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah announcing in a speech that Hezbollah will be indebted to Aoun until Judgement Day.

This alliance also helped Aoun get 10 ministers in the cabinet of former Lebanese premier Saad Hariri, son of the late slain prime minister Rafik Hariri, and leader of the Future Movement.

Despite this strong alliance, Hezbollah was unable to convince other parties to endorse Aoun for presidency, especially with a Saudi veto on anything endorsed by Iran’s extensions in the region.

At the time, Hezbollah managed to convince Aoun to accept the next best option, and the country picked the-then army commander, General Michel Suleiman, as president in 2008 for a six-year term that ended in 2014.

A GOOD SPORT: MP Suleiman Franjieh, who ran against Aoun for presidency, cast a white paper to please his ally, Hezbollah, which backed Aoun.

A GOOD SPORT: MP Suleiman Franjieh, who ran against Aoun for presidency, cast a white paper to please his ally, Hezbollah, which backed Aoun.

Angering Arab Gulf States
Thirty months ago, after Suleiman’s term was over, Hezbollah openly declared that it supports Aoun as its presidential candidate amid a Saudi veto, which meant that Saudi Arabia’s Lebanese allies, especially Hariri (the son), would not endorse Aoun. A sense of uncertainty took over as the country remained divided over who gets to be the next president.

As Aoun refused to get dragged into Hezbollah’s regional wars in Yemen and Bahrain, he did, however, state that the party’s fight in Syria was against takfiri groups (radical groups such as Daesh and Al Nusra Front).

This extended Hezbollah an internal cover for its external activities. This support was further manifested via Lebanon’s Foreign Affairs Minister Gibran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, when he refused to condemn Iran’s meddling in Arab affairs or name Hezbollah as a terrorist group during Arab League meetings, which pushed Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states to ban their nationals from traveling to Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia further blocked a $3 billion military aid that it had promised to Lebanon a year earlier.

The tensions at the time also signaled the first instance that Lebanon flew outside the Arab nest and into Iran’s arms, according to Arab diplomats who spoke with Newsweek Middle East on the condition of anonymity.

The Demise of Lebanon’s Public Institutions and Economy
Two years and a half of a presidential void did not deter Hezbollah from backing Aoun in his presidential quest.

The country’s economy deteriorated, institutions came to a standstill, unemployment soared, tourism came to a halt, suicide bombings increased at one point, and Lebanon was absent from international events that the president usually attended, including the U.N. General Assembly’s session in September, and London’s meetings to aid Syrian refugees, earlier this year.

The cabinet’s work was impacted, given that the president attends those meetings usually, while the legislative work at the parliament was scarce because the main mission for the parliament, in the absence of a president, was to elect one.

The absence of a president also obstructed diplomatic circles in Lebanon as Arab and foreign ambassadors and diplomats were unable to present their accreditation to the president, as per the Lebanese constitution.
At that, most ambassadors became acting diplomats rather than endorsed diplomats. Lebanese embassies abroad were empty of ambassadors who had to retire but had no replacement because the president is the one who endorses their appointing.

Months went on and Aoun held his ground, refusing to back off, while Hezbollah refused to back off from endorsing him, which meant the party would no longer present political concessions as it did in the past.

Active Diplomatic Activity
Between April 2014 and October 31, 2016, active Arab and foreign diplomatic activity was visible in Lebanon, from Sir Derek Plumbly, a British diplomat who served as the former U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon, to his successor Sigrid Kaag. Those diplomats and many more toured the region, meeting with officials from Saudi Arabia and Iran—the region’s leading powers—to get their support to end the Lebanese presidential impasse.

Both Riyadh and Tehran insisted that they weren’t interfering in the Lebanese internal affairs, with Tehran bluntly telling several diplomats, including Jean-François Girault, the former head of the Middle East and North Africa division at the French foreign ministry, that they should discuss the matter with Nasrallah.

All diplomatic efforts were without avail, even when concerned French diplomats tried to lure Hezbollah into endorsing a political figure that all parties agreed to, but the latter refused to fall for that.

Even Pope Francis was active in this regard, trying to help push the presidential file forward. According to the Vatican’s envoys, the Vatican worked on bringing the differing Christian viewpoints in Lebanon together, and the Pope brought up the issue of the presidential vacuum in Lebanon with U.S. President Barack Obama, when the two met in the U.S. earlier this year.

Saad Hariri, the ultimate Sunni leader in Lebanon backed by Saudi Arabia, lost the premiership in January 2011, took up the initiative and, in early December 2015, after securing the backing of Saudi Arabia, announced his support for just such a man: Suleiman Franjieh.

“Aoun isn’t a classical player of Lebanese politics like Franjieh is,” Mustapha Allouch, a key advisor for Hariri as well as the Future Movement’s head in the northern city of Tripoli, had told Newsweek Middle East.

Franjieh, a Christian MP aligned with Aoun and a staunch supporter of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, was seen by many analysts as a wildcard drawn by Hariri.

Hariri momentarily looked like a master puppeteer who could finally end the presidential vacuum, shake the longstanding FPM-Hezbollah alliance to its core and, in all likelihood, regain the post of prime minister, back then.

However, Aoun’s well-played alliance with his long-time adversary and head of the Lebanese Forces Party Samir Geagea earlier this year, changed the game.

Geagea viewed Hariri’s move as an outright betrayal since he had long been backed as the primary presidential candidate by Hariri as well as the March 14 coalition which opposed Aoun and Hezbollah for more than a decade. The Aoun-Geagea alliance gave Aoun the strongest Christian backing in the face of any candidate a Muslim party would later try to propose.

Indeed, the roots of Aoun’s agreement with Geagea, which have been developed in the shadows throughout 2015 “are deep and are strategic,” according to Dr. Antoine Habchi, head of the Lebanese Forces Political Development Department.

Moreover, both Franjieh and Geagea are historical rivals, while Franjieh’s alliance with Hezbollah morally obliges him to respect the party’s choice at one point, and that was what happened on October 31, 2016, when he opted to vote with a white paper, in a diplomatic gest to Hezbollah that he will not vote against Aoun.

At that point, Geagea, who no one had ever imagined would shake hands with Aoun, his foe for 30 years extending across and beyond the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 until 1990, found another new friend in Saudi Arabia, and throughout 2016, Geagea visited the Kingdom often to bring viewpoints together.

According to insiders, Hariri, who was not happy with Geagea’s bypassing him to Riyadh, was later brought to terms with the situation at hand: “Better have a president than a vacuum that is leading the country towards chaos.”

Aside from the Saudi and Geagea nod, Hariri did not endorse Aoun for presidency until after his last national dialog with Hezbollah when he was told that he “will not be the next prime minister unless Aoun becomes president.”

According to Gulf sources and diplomats, the Arab Gulf states have also had a change in heart and decided to handle the Lebanese file from a different angle.

For them, Lebanon should never leave the Arab nest, and the Gulf countries must work to prevent it from sliding further into Iran’s open arms. They further are “betting on the fact that once in power, Hezbollah’s alliance with Aoun would fall apart, especially if Aoun turns into a president for all the Lebanese parties, and not only a Hezbollah ally,” according to an Arab Gulf politician who wished to remain anonymous.

On his part, Hariri also received a “green light” from Saudi Arabia’s strong man, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to endorse Aoun.

“Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah does not seem to worry Saudi Arabia at the moment. The Kingdom prefers to see a stable Lebanon rather than meddling in its internal affairs, even if the new Lebanese president does not match the Arab Gulf State’s expectations in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular,” a Saudi strategist and analyst tells Newsweek Middle East.

At the moment, he adds, “the bet is on a neutral president who would not be part of the regional fights, despite his alliance with Hezbollah.”

However, the idea of a “stable Lebanon,” which Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for the Arab Gulf Region Thamer Al Sabhan carried with him to Lebanon three days prior to the presidential elections, has caused some doubt among Aoun’s Shiite ally.

“There is a Saudi scenario that pushed for an agreement between Aoun and Geagea, then Hariri joined them, in an attempt to protect the Taef Accord, which safeguards Saudi Arabia’s interests in Lebanon, at least for the near future,” a March 8 Forces analyst tells Newsweek Middle East.

According to him, Riyadh has neutralized Lebanon so that it wouldn’t be a dish served on the negotiations table between the Kingdom and Iran in the upcoming period.

As for March 14 Forces, they hope that Aoun would tell Hezbollah: “I am now the president of Lebanon. Your alliance is with the FPM.”

But Hezbollah seems to have been hedging for all scenarios possible as Nasrallah lately said that “getting the General [Aoun] Baabda [presidential palace] does not mean that he will receive [from Hezbollah] an open support on all the issues, including the formation of the cabinet.”

How the West Sees Lebanon’s New President
The new president, according to foreign diplomats, is yet to announce his commitment to side Lebanon away from regional conflicts, and is yet to discuss his defense strategy.

Western diplomats are also yet to hear what Aoun has to say with regards to another thorny issue—that of the Syrian refugees—though he addressed the matter briefly in his presidential speech when he said: “There will be no solution in Syria without the return of the refugees to their country.”

However, the same diplomats have expressed their comfort with the idea that life will be brought back to the country’s constitutional institutions, and will further help Lebanon be an active part in the upcoming international support group for Lebanon which will convene this November in Paris, and which France aspires to see the U.S. and Russian Secretaries of State John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov attending, to further help Lebanon find its stability, especially when it comes to the refugees’ file.

“We hope that [Aoun’s election] will make the international support for Lebanon continuous, and it will help countries fulfill their pledges to ease the pressure of refugees from Lebanon’s shoulders,” Huth says.

The Challenges
As important as it is that an internal Lebanese agreement and alliances have forged the country’s new president, unlike most predecessors who were picked following a regional settlement, it is worth noting that the lack of an agreement between Tehran and Riyadh, and the rising Saudi-Iranian tension, especially when it comes to the Yemeni file, will herald new challenges for Aoun’s presidency.

Aoun has to steer Lebanon through various local, regional and international interests, and amid a war across the border in Syria, which many Lebanese parties have jumped into. He has inherited an ailing economy, a shaky security situation and millions of refugees who have been staying in Lebanon for nearly five years.

Meanwhile, Tehran was among the first to congratulate Aoun, who is an ally of Iran-backed Hezbollah party in Lebanon, in controversial words that would surely leave a sour taste in some politicians’ mouths.

“The election of General Michel Aoun as a President for Lebanon, constitutes a victory for [Hezbollah],” Ali Akbar Velayati, advisor to Iranian Supreme Commander Ali Khamenei and the head of the Center for Strategic Research, reportedly told Iranian media.

All these aspects will surely put Aoun in front of a tough test, and should he appoint Hariri as prime minister, as expected later this week, both men have tough challenges ahead to ensure the country’s stability and its course towards revival.

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Michel Aoun in History

  • Born February 18, 1935 in Haret Hreik, Beirut’s southern suburb, to a Christian Maronite family at a time when the area was a mixed Shiite and Maronite constituency before it was turned over the past three decades to a Hezbollah stronghold.
  • Graduated from the Military Academy in 1958 as an artillery officer, and was appointed to defend the Presidential Palace in Baabda during the second Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 as the head of the 8th Legion.
  • He was appointed at the age of 49 as the Lebanese Army commander in 1984, making him the youngest General to hold the post.
  • Father to three women, Aoun believed in the role of a woman in serving her country and allowed women to join the army for the first time under his command.
  • He was constitutionally appointed by then-President Amine Gemayel on July 22, 1988 to head a transitional military government to steer the country during the toughest days of the Civil War (1975-1990). Despite being legally appointed by the president to head a military government, yet the norm was that a Sunni be the premier, which meant clashes with then former Prime Minister Salim Hoss and Lebanon was divided between two governments.
  • In March 1989, Aoun was blamed of allegedly shelling Beirut, to which he responded by accusing the Syrian army in Lebanon of standing behind the bombardment of the capital. He further announced a “Liberation War,” against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.
  • In 1989, Saudi Arabia hosted negotiations that ended up in the signing of the Taef Accord that put an end to the Civil War in Lebanon, and endorsed Syria’s military presence in Lebanon as a friendly presence and a protector of Lebanon. Aoun refused to endorse the agreement because, according to him, the agreement “did not set a time frame for the withdrawal of the Syrian troops from Lebanon.”
  • On January 31, 1990, the Lebanese army under Aoun’s command, clashed with the Syrian army.
  • On October 13, 1990 Syrian tanks bombed Lebanon’s Presidential Palace and Syrian warplanes flew over it, which forced Aoun to call his fighters to surrender to prevent bloodshed. He later was taken on a French frigate to his 15-year exile in Paris.
  • On May 7, 2005 he returned to Lebanon after the withdrawal of the Syrian military from the country following the assassination of PM Rafik Hariri.
  • On February 6, 2006 he signed an alliance agreement with Hezbollah.
  • He became the head of the largest Christian bloc in the Parliament with 27 MPs following the 2009 elections.

 

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