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Michel AOUN Elected Lebanese President, Ending More Than Two Years Vacuum

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Michel AOUN has been declared Republic of Lebanon’s 13th president after gaining a simple majority in the Lebanese parliament on 31 October 2016, putting an end to the country’s two and a half - year vacuum.

Only a Maronite Christian can become a President in the country’s power-sharing system that is run according to sectarian affiliation (the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, while the speaker of parliament must be a Shiite Muslim)

The situation turned in General AOUN’s favor earlier in October when Saad HARIRI, the former prime minister, who is the ruler of the Future Movement (the bloc who can influence most the Lebanese parliament, being the biggest among March 14 alliance), expressed his support for General AOUN in the race for presidency.[i] As a result, the MPs ultimately convened in the parliament and met the required quorum for electing a president after so many failed attempts in the past two years.

The founder of the Free Patriotic Movement initially received 84 votes, which is minus two the minimum required in order to secure the presidential seat. However, during the second round of voting he managed to secure 83 votes in his favor, even though only 65 votes are needed for a simple majority. The second round was repeated two times as a result of a mismatch in counting the votes - 128 instead of the supposed 127 – surfaced twice in the counting process.[ii]

Fireworks echoed across Beirut immediately upon announcing the winner.[iii] General AOUN is returning to the presidential palace of Baabda (south-east Beirut), 26 years after he was ousted as an army commander and interim prime minister by Syrian forces and rival Lebanese factions.

Saad HARIRI’s decision to endorse General AOUN has the meaning of an important political concession, which can also reflect a consensus between the external powers that support their proxies in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has backed HARIRI and his allies throughout years in the attempt to limit Hezbollah’s leverage (and its allies, close to Iran) on Lebanese affairs. Lebanon has witnessed in the last couple of years intense political tension and minimum functionality of the executive. However, the two opposing currents have been careful enough to contain further escalation of conflict.

The current financial condition of the HARIRI family is seen to have played a major role in this political agreement. Saudi Oger group (run by the HARIRIS) has faced financial troubles in Saudi Arabia, in the context of austerity in the Kingdom.[iv]

General AOUN, the leader of the largest Christian bloc in the Lebanese parliament is manifestly an ally of Hezbollah and Iran. He managed to obtain HARIRI’s support, after long meetings, offering in exchange the prospective that HARIRI would be Lebanon’s prime minister for the next six years (the duration of the presidential mandate).

HARIRI’s standpoint in the elections stirred controversy in his political group and within his popular base, several MPs having declared that they oppose such decision.[v]

The former Saudi diplomat (Saudi Arabia being the main sponsor of HARIRI’s pathway) Abdullah al-SHAMMARI declared that: “Mr. HARIRI’s latest decision can be described as a sort of political adventurism.[vi] The Saudi diplomat acknowledged the shift in relations between Saad HARIRI and Saudi Arabia, while admitting that Saad HARIRI has to go back to his base: “Maybe this is good for HARIRI. It is time for him to take his decisions by himself after all these years of addiction to Saudi money and staying at his palace in Riyadh; it is time for him to gain strength and return to his popular base.

The Saudi monarchy through its Lebanese Sunni allies has opposed a more political role for General AOUN through years. On the grounds that the regional context is increasingly conflictual, probably Saudi Arabia decided an open front in Lebanon is not really necessary, conceding to General AOUN’s rise to presidency.[vii]

In fact, both Iran and Saudi Arabia do not need more confrontations on the regional scene, according to deputy editor in chief of the Lebanese daily An-Nahar: “They don’t want [new conflicts] in the Middle East.[viii]

General AOUN is not sparred from controversy, because he used to play a prominent role during the Lebanese civil war, when he served as military commander and was standing against the Syrian occupation. General AOUN used to be a main opponent of the Syrian regime. However, his position shifted after he returned to Lebanon after a 15 year - long exile, which eventually boosted his political presence on the return. He proved to gain Iranian protection, given that he tailored his political views in order to please Tehran.[ix]
Nicholas SEHNAOUI, former Lebanese minister of telecommunications and a member of Michel AOUN’s political movement described the election as a “dream (that) has come true.[x] The Christian supporters and other Lebanese allies of Michel AOUN were obviously pleased with the election, a moment they have been yearning for long.

The powerful player in the Lebanese affairs, Hezbollah did not hide its support for General AOUN, whom they seen fit for the presidential office. Even Saad HARIRI’s Cabinet would enjoy the support of rival Hezbollah leader, Hassan NASRALLAH, who has declared prior to the elections that by accepting Saad HARIRI as Lebanon’s next prime minister for the following six years will be making “a big sacrifice.”[xi] HARIRI branded the support for General AOUN as a necessary step in order to “protect Lebanon, protect the (political) system, protect the state and protect the Lebanese people”.[xii]

It is worth noting that the most powerful position in the state of Lebanon is that of prime minister, at least under the Lebanese political framework, known as Taif Agreement (deal brokered at the end of the 15-year civil war).

Saad HARIRI will likely take up on a new prime minister mandate, but at the expense of the monopole over the Sunni political bloc. Saad HARIRI’s political bloc is in the course of being fragmented, because the small-scale allies are going through a slow and a steady process to consolidate their position, opposing HARIRI’s decisions.[xiii]

In his inaugural speech, Michel AOUN addressed security, highlighting the terrorism phenomena, the economic situation and the burden of over one million refugees from neighboring Syria, as the main challenges for Lebanon.

The Syrian state news agency -SANA- reported that President ASSAD congratulated Michel AOUN on being elected, expressing hope for “reinforcing stability” in Lebanon. Al-Watan daily from Syria, which is close to the Syrian regime, mentioned that the election in Lebanon equates “the triumph of the resistance, of Syria and its allies”.[xiv]

The Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Bahram QASSEMI conveyed a message of congratulations to Michel AOUN and to the Lebanese nation over the election of the new president of the country.[xv]

Many Lebanese remain skeptical whether the new government will confront the country’s deepening crises in terms of security and economics.

While Michel AOUN’s election puts an end to the longest vacuum in presidential office in Lebanon, both people of Lebanon and the analysts consider it unlikely to resolve the bottom-line discords that have been hampering the election of a new president for so long.[xvi]

In addition, the parliamentary crisis is another soft spot of the Lebanese political construction. The president is to stay in office until 2022, despite the fact he was elected by the parliament of 2009 (whereas new parliamentary elections are in sight for 2017 and there are many doubts regarding the law under which they will be conducted).

One has to note as well that the fait accompli of the Lebanese politics raises expectations for the following army commanders of Lebanon to see themselves appointed as Presidents. Lebanon has witnessed 24 consecutive years with a former General as leader of the nation. Moreover, the ghosts of the past and the Civil war memories still haunt the divided country. The majority of the political actors are the same since 1990 (including the newly elected President) and they are satisfied with a status quo, hereby they will probably work on preserving it, while the regional context will not push for a change (given the dramatic situation of neighbouring Syria and the case of Iraq, both countries with diverse ethnic groups and religious denominations, just as Lebanon).

 

 



[i] Al Jazeera News, Michel Aoun elected president of Lebanon, 31 Oct 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/10/michel-aoun-elected-president-lebanon-161031105331767.html

[ii] Ramez Dagher, HOW MICHEL AOUN BECAME THE PRESIDENT, 31 Oct 2016, https://moulahazat.com/2016/10/31/how-michel-aoun-became-the-president/

[iii] Al Jazeera News, Michel Aoun elected president of Lebanon, 31 Oct 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/10/michel-aoun-elected-president-lebanon-161031105331767.html

[iv] Idem.

[v] Al Monitor, Ali Hashem, How Lebanon’s presidential problem turned into opportunity, 26 Oct 2016,

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/10/lebanon-president-HARIRI-aoun-hezbollah-saudi-arabia.html#ixzz4OfKxL93Q

[vi] Idem.

[vii] Wall Street Journal, Maria Abi Habib and Noam Raydan, Christian Ally of Hezbollah Wins Lebanon Presidency, 31 Oct 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/after-two-years-lebanon-finally-gets-a-president-1477916251

[viii] Wall Street Journal, Maria Abi Habib and Noam Raydan, Christian Ally of Hezbollah Wins Lebanon Presidency, 31 Oct 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/after-two-years-lebanon-finally-gets-a-president-1477916251

[ix] The Guardian, Martin Chulov, Iran ally Michel Aoun elected as president of Lebanon, 31 Oct 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/31/michel-aoun-elected-president-lebanon-iran-tehran-saudi-arabia

[x] Al Monitor, Lebanon elects Aoun president, ending two-year vacuum, 31 Oct 2016 http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/afp/2016/10/lebanon-politics-vote-aoun.html

[xi] Al Monitor, Lebanon elects Aoun president, ending two-year vacuum, 31 Oct 2016, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/afp/2016/10/lebanon-politics-vote-aoun.html

[xii] The Independent, Bethan McKernan, Lebanon ends more than two years of political gridlock by electing new president, 31 Oct 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/lebanon-elections-michel-aoun-saad-HARIRI-nabih-berri-new-president-a7388681.html

[xiii] The Middle East Eye, Kareem Chehayeb, As a new president rises, Lebanon’s Sunni bloc falls apart, 31 Oct 2016, http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/lebanon-s-fragmenting-sunni-bloc-879452842

[xiv] Al Monitor, Lebanon elects Aoun president, ending two-year vacuum, 31 Oct 2016, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/afp/2016/10/lebanon-politics-vote-aoun.html

[xv] Tasnim News, Iran Congratulates Lebanon’s Aoun on Election as President, 31 Oct 2016, http://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2016/10/31/1227510/iran-congratulates-lebanon-s-aoun-on-election-as-president

[xvi] Middle East Eye, Lebanon set to elect president, ending two-year vacuum, 31 Oct 2016, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/lebanon-set-elect-president-ending-two-year-vacuum-2085747496

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