Who is Michel Aoun? A New President of Lebanon is Elected

In June and July of 2015, I traveled to the Republic of Lebanon. Nestled in a hotel resort in the Maronite heartland, an enclave called Jounieh, I stood in a city with two personalities, famous for being a nexus between nightlife and pilgrimage. In one reality, clubs and bars line the main street that’s closed down to traffic once the party begins. In another reality, there is Harissa, the mountain overlooking the nightlife and the bay of Jounieh. There she stands, Our Lady of Lebanon, a key Christian pilgrimage site that has drawn millions of faithful Muslims, Druze, and Christians. Roman Catholic, Syriac Catholic, the Maronite Church, Melkite Greek Catholics–all venerate Our Lady of Lebanon, a lofty statue of the Virgin Mary accessible by a gondola lift (the Téléphérique) that takes you on a scenic journey to Harissa to pray at the feet of Mary.

The Téléphérique in Jounieh that takes tourists and pilgrims alike from Jounieh, Maronite heartland, to Our Lady of Lebanon (Jul 2015)

The Téléphérique in Jounieh that takes tourists and pilgrims alike from Jounieh, Maronite heartland, to Our Lady of Lebanon (Jul 2015)

Our Lady of Lebanon, the statue of the Virgin Mary in Harissa, is venerated by Catholics the world over and prayer at by Muslims and Christians alike.

Our Lady of Lebanon, the statue of the Virgin Mary in Harissa, is venerated by Catholics the world over and prayer at by Muslims and Christians alike.

In the warming summer months of 2015, a third, very familiar Lebanese personality came to the surface–indignation. I wrote about the Street protests materializing in Beirut amid the political paralysis that left Lebanon without a President for a year, since May 2014 when former President Michel Suleiman’s term of office had ended. The Lebanese were left without a President to represent them, but more consequentially, the Lebanese Christians were left without a President to represent them. Under the confessional system

FPM1 copy

Street protests in Jounieh, Lebanon (July 2015) demonstrating for Christian Rights.

that governs Lebanon, the Presidency is dedicated to a Christian, the Prime Minister is a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker Premiership is to be a Shiite Muslim. With Tammam Salam, the Sunni Prime Minister of Lebanon effectively acting as both PM and President, and the Speaker Premiership being held by a Shiite, the Lebanese Christians lost their representative in a worrying sign for the  confessional system that governed Lebanon. After a year of waiting, the Maronite heartland of greater Beirut’s Keserwan, Jounieh, and other towns and neighborhoods in and around Beirut broke into protests that halted traffic and brought the presidential power vacuum front and center.

The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the largest party in the majority government and the largest Christian political party in Lebanon lead the charge with General Michel Aoun at the helm. Already endorsed by Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah, his March 8 (M8) camp ally, Aoun was incensed  by the March 14 (M14) coalition’s decision to hold the presidential palace captive. I had argued back in the summer of 2015 that if Lebanon’s politics continued to deteriorate along confessional lines, the social fabric of Lebanese society would fray. Lebanon, attempting to process a 2 million+ Syrian refugee crisis and act as a frontline state against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, could not afford to descend into religious and confessional turmoil.

General Aoun, at the center of the presidential crisis as the only viable candidate for the office, put forward innovative solutions that would recover Christian agency in the country, including the possibility of a poll of Lebanon’s Christians to determine who the group most supported. This was met with serious derision by the Future Movement that PM Tammam Salam hailed from. Not every group in the M14 camp was in agreement with Future’s stance. In  a surprising turn of events, the M14 ally of the mostly Sunni Future Movement, executive chairman Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian Party, tacitly supported the idea of polling.

The rivalry between General Michel Aoun and Commander Samir Geagea reached a bloody climax between 1988-1990 when a military civil war was waged.  It required the intervention of the Syrian government to put at an end the civil war. Who did Hafez al-Assad decide to intervene against? None other than Michel Aoun. Aoun’s strongholds were captured and he was forced into exile in France after the French embassy in Beirut granted him asylum.

The rivalry between Michel Aoun and his foes; Samir Geagea, the Syrian Government, and their Lebanese ally Hezbollah, went on for decades. Today, President Michel Aoun accedes to the presidential palace with the support of all three. And one other surprising character, the last to cede the fight, but his acceptance made it instantly possible, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. A Sunni Muslim who draws his support from Saudi Arabia and is at odds with Hezbollah and the Syrian government over the speculation of his father’s assassination endorsed Michael Aoun in a last minute decision that raised many eyebrows among his supporters in the Gulf press. How did Michel Aoun manage to overcome his feuds with both sides of this political rivalry? Shiite and Sunni, M8 and M14, Syria and Saudi Arabia, to become President Aoun?

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun (Jan, 2016)

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun (01/2016)

2005, The Cedar Revolution and Forward

The political dynamics in Lebanon dramatically shifted in May 2005 when General Aoun came back to Lebanon as the first in a series of dramatic political calculations that would upend the political order. With his return to Lebanon, he visited his formal rival Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces and the grave site of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, whose assassination, some speculate by Hezbollah, others by Syrians, but no evidence of either’s involvement was ever proven, is what sparked the Cedar Revolution which led the the withdraw of Syria’s military from Lebanon and the crystallization of the March 14 Coalition.

Michel Aoun was never to join this coalition, however. Though he paid his respects to leaders of the coalition on his return, after the FPM became the strong Christian Party in Lebanon in the May 2005 parliamentary elections, Aoun went on to sign a memorandum of understanding with none other than Hezbollah, and officially joined the March 8 Coalition that went on to become a majority government.

In their years in power together, Aoun, Hassan Nasrallah, and further away in Damascus, the coalition consolidated after decades of dislike. With the parliamentary numbers on their side, and a presidential vacuum that refused to be filled, Michael Aoun, from 2015 to today, October 31, 2016, mobilized Lebanon’s Christian community. The threat from the near abroad against Christians in Syria and Iraq was severe, and it became the duty of Lebanon’s Christian leaders to ensure their agency remained absolute.

Michel Aoun of Lebanon meeting with Syriac Christian Patriarch Ephrem

Michel Aoun building bridges between Syrian and Lebanese Christians amid a new genocide in Syria and Iraq.

The decision by Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces to endorse Michel Aoun for president stunned the press, ending a complicated political rivalry that, in hindsight, Aoun may have been planning from as far back as 2005 when he chose to meet with Geagea, then a political prisoner. Geagea’s tacit support for a poll of Christians should have been another sign, but it wasn’t until the two met in January 2016 and Geagea endorsed Aoun that the reconciliation would produce such game-changing effects.

The two Christian leaders united their efforts to find a common ground and announced their cooperation to end the presidential deadlock. Cite

Hariri Endorses Aoun: The Vacuum is filled

With the second most influential Christian Party, also important a rival M14 party, endorsing Michel Aoun, it was only a matter of convincing the country and the Future Movement that the time for the political deadlock was over. On October 20, 2016, Saad Hariri endorsed Michel Aoun.

The Free Patriotic Movement celebrate in the streets of Beirut with the announcement that Parliament declared General Michel Aoun President of Lebanon

The Free Patriotic Movement celebrate in the streets of Beirut with the announcement that Parliament declared General Michel Aoun President of Lebanon

Michel Aoun takes the office of President of the Republic of Lebanon at a time when many of its youth hope to escape to the West, electricity continues to be too expensive, basic governance is stalled or ignored, refugees are a quarter of the population, and Al Qaeda wages a war in Aarsal and other parts of the Lebanese-Syrian border. Today, however, the confessional system stalled underlying tribal or religious animosities revved up by longstanding political rivalries and outside influence. From the Future Movement to Hezbollah, from the Lebanese Forces to the Free Patriotic Movement, President Michel Aoun has the consent of all these rival forces. If he is able to govern as wisely, fairly, and justly as he has seen farsightedly, Lebanon may have a chance to chart a new more harmonious course. If power struggles within the cabinet and brought on by outside forces insist on overtaking this moment, with rejectionist attitudes and sabotage, then Lebanon may not achieve the great things it is capable of. An important milestone was made today, the Christian identity was shown respect, and its agency returned to the Presidency. Now, the different groups in Lebanon must respect that, and each other, if they are to move forward and reform an inefficient system.

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