Lebanon's Michel Aoun: exiled by weapons, elected by democracy

26 Nov 2016

 

On October 31, the Lebanese Parliament assembled to elect former army general Michel Aoun as the country’s president. This officially ended the twenty nine-month political deadlock which has tested Lebanon’s ability to function despite the lack of political leadership and almost caused the destruction of state funded institutions. The vacuum was triggered by the conclusion of former President Michel Suleiman’s term in May 2014. On forty-five occasions the parliament had failed to elect his successor, however, after securing a quorum, Aoun was elevated to office.

 

As Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces he oversaw the denouement of the Lebanese Civil War and, although this has been disputed, he has acted as both president and prime minister during its deadliest turn

 

On 22 September 1988, departing President Amine Gemayel dissolved the administration of Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss and formed an interim military government as prescribed by the Constitution of Lebanon naming Aoun as the premier.

 

Under the National Pact of 1943, the position of the prime minister is reserved to Sunni Muslims only, which threw the constitutionality of Gemayel’s decision into question. However, in the event of a vacancy of the presidential office, the prime minister assumes the role of president, a position reserved for a Maronite Catholic. Thus, Aoun could serve through a loophole found in the Pact.

 

Syrian President Hafez al-Assad reached an agreement with the United States which would see Syria support action against the regime of Saddam Hussein. In exchange, the United States would support the Syrian interests in Lebanon. This included the ousting of Michel Aoun.

 

Sources say that he has since been waiting for the chance to return to the most respected office in the nation after Syrian forces – with the approval of the United States – drove him into exile. Victorious, he has returned to the Baabda Palace 14 years later. 

 

'I have come from a long history of struggle full of sacrifices, especially in the military establishment,’ Aoun said in his acceptance speech. ‘I hope that we will guarantee the stability that the Lebanese hope for.’ 

 

During his time in exile, Aoun was highly critical of the Syrian regime under Hafez al-Assad. However, upon his return after the end of Syrian occupation in Lebanon, Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement party signed into an alliance with Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a Shiite militant group supported by the Syrian government and their closest ally, Iran. 

 

The Saudi-backed Sunni movement leader, Saad Hariri, endorsed Aoun in the race for the presidency and he is also Aoun’s pick for prime minister. Despite this, Hariri has not been the strongest of leaders: in 2011 his government collapsed and he fled the country. Hariri’s selection would be nothing more than a lampoon of his political and financial incapability. 

 

This is, of course, a political blow to Saudi Arabia and their life-long diplomatic partner, the United States. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have been challenging one another through proxy wars to see who can claim the most influence in the region and, unfortunately, this has also spread to Lebanon

 

Therefore, it is not surprising that Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy advisor to the Supreme Leader of Iran, said: ‘This is surely a victory for Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of (Hezbollah and) Islamic Resistance in Lebanon.’ With Hezbollah blocking all presidential nominations for the past two years, it is clear that Iran would be the victor.

 

On top of allegations of murdering former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, the father of Saad Hariri, Hezbollah controls an ever-expanding paramilitary far stronger than the Lebanese Armed Forced. This proves that the president is anything but a command-in-chief.

 

The next political challenge for Lebanon will be the parliamentary elections that have been planned for next year. However, it will be unsurprising if they are yet again delayed whilst a new progressive government under the reign of President Michel Aoun seek to perform a radical reorganisation of the political system.

 

Without the blessing of the United States, Michel Aoun would never have been elected. Therefore, they must have engaged in some sort of deal with Iran to ensure his ascension to the presidential throne. However, a question remains unanswered: what will the United States receive in return?

 

Read more articles by this commentator, or follow @AJGoldman21

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