Lebanon's Aoun: ex-general who long dreamed of presidency

AFP , Monday 31 Oct 2016

File Photo: Michel Aoun (Photo: AP)

Former general Michel Aoun, who was elected Lebanese president Monday, was once in the vanguard of opposition to Syria's regime before an about-face that saw him join forces with Hezbollah.

The stubborn 81-year-old now realises his long-held dream of taking the country's highest office after winning support from two fierce rivals, the Christian leader of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea, and Sunni ex-prime minister Saad Hariri.

Both men are fiercely opposed to Syria's regime and its ally Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite movement, but have decided to back Aoun for the presidency and end a void of more than two years.

Aoun has long been a controversial figure in Lebanon, revered as a charismatic leader by his followers but loathed by his opponents.

A Maronite Christian, Aoun was born in the working-class Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik and, like many Lebanese from modest backgrounds, pursued a military career.

He rose through the ranks during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war to become the army's youngest-ever commander in chief in 1984.

Four years later, he was appointed head of one of two rival governments in war-torn Lebanon.

He launched the unsuccessful "war of liberation" against the Syrian army, which had entered Lebanon in 1976, and tried in vain to disarm the Christian Lebanese Forces militia led by his rival Geagea.

The clashes between Aoun and Geagea's forces proved disastrous for Lebanon's Christians, who found themselves divided between the two leaders.

Aoun refused to sign the 1989 Taif agreement which brought the civil war to an end, arguing it cemented Syria's military presence and reduced the power of the presidency, the key governmental post reserved for Lebanon's Christians.

The agreement proceeded without his endorsement, and he was dismissed from his post as army chief with the ascension to the presidency of pro-Syrian Elias Hrawi.

On October 13, 1990, Aoun was forced by advancing Syrian army troops to seek refuge in the French embassy, heading to Paris the following year.

He would spend 15 years in exile there, founding the staunchly anti-Syrian Free Patriotic Movement in 1996.

In April 2005, Syria's army withdrew from Lebanon after massive protests sparked by the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Aoun returned to Beirut, scoring a surprise win in that summer's parliamentary elections -- 21 out of 128 seats -- after running a campaign decrying sectarianism and corruption.

But he made a dramatic about-face in 2006, aligning his FPM with Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite militia that backs Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

Aoun's shift to the Hezbollah-led camp earned him the contempt of Rafik Hariri's son, Saad.

Ironically, it was Hariri's endorsement 10 years later that finally secured Aoun the presidency.

Aoun had the backing of his ally Hezbollah since 2015, and scored the endorsement of rival candidate Geagea in early 2016.

Hariri initially backed Christian political figure Sleiman Franjieh -- a childhood friend of Assad -- but switched his endorsement to Aoun on October 20.

Aoun had made no secret of his presidential ambitions since Michel Sleiman completed his term as head of state in May 2014.

For two years, parliament failed to reach a consensus for a successor, with its political landscape divided by the war in neighbouring Syria.

Aoun used that time to campaign, insisting he could be the national leader who turned the page on the sectarian politics that fuelled Lebanon's civil war and still determine its electoral system.

In Christian-majority areas around the country, Aoun's supporters have strung up banners hailing him as "the strong president" who can "work miracles".

Parliamentarian Alain Aoun -- Michel Aoun's nephew -- describes him as "patient, stubborn, and persevering".

"He spent 15 years in Paris without giving up," the MP said.

Referring to Aoun by his nickname of "the General", he added that the candidate was perfectly healthy despite his age, "and has an elephant's memory".

He expects his uncle to be able to effect change, armed with a "broad political mandate" and allies across all major blocs in the country.

But his opponents see him as high-strung and volatile, and ready to ally himself with rivals to get what he wants.

In footage posted by an opponent, Aoun can be heard railing against the same parliament that elected him on Monday as an "illegitimate" body after it extended its own mandate twice.

Detractors also accuse Aoun of nepotism, pointing to the ministerial posts held by his son-in-law Gebran Bassil and to his repeated efforts to secure the nomination of another son-in-law as army chief.

"I swear to God the great that I will respect the constitution and its laws, and preserve the independence of the Lebanese nation and peace on its lands," he said as he took the oath of office on Monday.

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