Michel Aoun set to be elected president of Lebanon

Election by parliament will end 2½ years of caretaker government and no head of state

Former general Michel Aoun commanded the country’s armed forces during the waning years of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war. Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

Former general Michel Aoun commanded the country’s armed forces during the waning years of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war. Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

 

The Lebanese parliament is set to meet on Monday to elect former general Michel Aoun as president, following 2½ years of caretaker government since Michel Suleiman retired in May 2014.

Lebanon has been without a president since Suleiman’s retirement, and while deputies elected in 2009 renewed their mandate twice, and tried and failed 45 times to secure a quorum to elect a new head of state. Since Aoun (81) was the sole candidate acceptable to Hizbullah and his Free Patriotic Movement, his opponents have bowed to the inevitable.

The breakthrough came when former prime minister Saad Hariri declared his support for Aoun, arguing the country could no longer afford to drift. Hariri’s decision has been opposed by some members of his own Future Movement, the largest bloc in parliament, but praised by the Maronite Catholic patriarch Beshara al-Rahi and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.

Aoun commanded the country’s armed forces during the waning years of the 1975-90 civil war. His ambition to rule was realised in 1988 when outgoing president Amin Gemayel staged a coup by appointing a military council of three Christians and three Muslims to take over from the legitimate power-sharing government. The Christians accepted, the Muslims did not. According to Lebanon’s national pact, the president should be a Maronite Catholic and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim.

Competing cabinets

Aoun became both prime minister and president; the incumbent government challenged his elevation, leaving Lebanon with competing cabinets. In March 1989 Aoun declared war on Syrian troops who had been invited to enter Lebanon in 1976 as peacekeepers and stayed on. His “liberation war” killed scores of civilians and prolonged the civil war until October 1990 when Washington gave Damascus the green light to oust Aoun who fled to France.

Aoun returned to Beirut in 2005 after the withdrawal of Syria’s forces and forged an improbable alliance between his movement, the largest Christian party, and the Shia Hizbullah, the largest political grouping in the country. Since then the Shia-Christian parliamentary bloc has rivalled the Sunni-Christian coalition headed by Hariri, creating periodic deadlock on the political scene.

The quid pro quo for Hariri’s support for an Aoun presidency is the appointment of a new cabinet headed by Hariri. The deal has been blessed by his patron, Saudi Arabia. Its acceptance of Aoun appears to signal a softening of Riyadh’s hard line against Hizbullah, an ally of Saudi antagonists Iran and Syria.

However, with Hariri as prime minister, Saudi Arabia expects to exercise influence in Lebanon. Hariri expects Riyadh to restructure his company’s $8 billion debt incurred when the Saudis suspended payment for completed construction projects following the fall in the price of oil, the kingdom’s chief source of income.

Aoun is set to win the presidency if Lebanon’s 127 deputies constitute a quorum and two-thirds vote for him in the first round or a simple majority backs him in the second. He is most likely to secure the required votes in the second round.