Former general Michel Aoun elected president of Lebanon

Election of military man (81) with support of Syria ends 2½ years of political stalemate

Newly elected Lebanese president Michel Aoun reviews the honour guards upon arrival to the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut, on Monday. Photograph: Aziz Taher/Reuters

Michel Aoun, a former artillery officer who more than a quarter century ago ran from a Syrian aerial bombardment in his pyjamas, was elected president of Lebanon on Monday with the support of the Syrian regime and its Lebanese allies.

The Lebanese parliament elected Aoun by 83 votes, with 42 ballots blank or cancelled. The country had been unable to choose a president for 2½ years.

The election rewards the stubbornness of Aoun (81) and symbolises the cynicism and discredit of a political class that long ago sacrificed Lebanese sovereignty to personal ambition.

Lebanese people take to the streets in Jdeideh, on the northern outskirts of Beirut, on Monday to celebrate the election of former general Michel Aoun as president. Photograph: Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

I first interviewed Aoun during his March-September 1989 “war of liberation” against Syrian forces in Lebanon. During a lull in the six-month long artillery battle, the general received journalists in his bunker beneath the presidential palace at Baabda.


Aoun was a short, pudgy man in a camouflage uniform with a general’s crossed swords, his eyes blinking like a bat’s when he came up to ground level to see us off. He had not seen the light of day for a long time.

Maronite government

President Amine Gemayel had made Aoun prime minister of a Maronite Catholic government on leaving office in 1988. The Muslims did not recognise his appointment, so Aoun launched a war on his rival prime minister, Selim El Hoss, in Muslim West Beirut.

Some 3,500 Lebanese civilians were killed or wounded. Aoun accepted a ceasefire in September 1989, then changed his mind. He remained holed up in Baabda, depriving the internationally recognised President Elias Hrawi of use of the ruined palace.

In early 1990, Aoun started a second war, of “elimination” against Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces militia, the former Phalange. Another 3,300 Lebanese were killed or wounded.

Hafez al-Assad had sent 35,000 Syrian troops to Lebanon at the request of a Maronite president. Aoun blamed the Syrians for all the woes of the civil war, including car bombs, assassinations, drug-trafficking and hostage-taking.

Despite his violent, dictatorial methods, Aoun convinced figures of international repute that he was a bulwark against fundamentalist Islam.

John Cardinal O’Connor, then archbishop of New York, visited Aoun’s bunker in May 1989. The conservative French politician François Léotard, later defence minister, was one of several prominent Frenchmen who made the pilgrimage to Baabda to receive a Lebanese passport from Aoun.

The messianic general compared himself to Christ and General de Gaulle. The US closed its embassy in Beirut after, in the words of the state department spokesperson, Aoun threatened to expose diplomats to “a good dose of Christian terrorism”.

Aoun’s supporters ransacked the residence of the Maronite patriarch because he supported the Taif peace accord. Aoun banned from his 80 square mile enclave newspapers that referred to Hrawi as president or El Hoss as prime minister.

But when the Syrian air force bombed Aoun’s ruined palace early on the morning of October 13th, 1990, the French ambassador, René Ala, sent an armoured personnel carrier to rescue the general. Legend has it that he ran away in his pyjamas. The French returned later to fetch his wife and daughters.

Aoun stayed for more than a year in the ambassador’s residence, until the French intelligence service DGSE spirited him out through the port at Dora. He spent the next 15 years in Marseille and Paris.

No remorse

I saw Aoun again in early 2005. He felt no remorse for the nearly 7,000 civilians killed or wounded in the wars he started, because “there is no war without losses. The cause for which these martyrs fell was a just war.”

Aoun returned to Lebanon in May 2005. In one of the most stunning flip-flops in the history of the Middle East, Aoun, the erstwhile self-proclaimed scourge of the Assad dictatorship, announced an alliance with the secretary general of the Iranian and Syrian-backed Hizbullah on February 6th, 2006.

Slowly but surely, over a decade Aoun's opponents rallied to him. The support of Saad Hariri, the son of the slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri, finally swung his election. Hariri wants to be Aoun's prime minister.

French president François Hollande telephoned Aoun to congratulate him.

Aoun is now Tehran's and Damascus's man in Beirut. Despite nearly six years of civil war in Syria, Lebanon remains the lung through which Damascus breathes.