Michel Aoun elected president of Lebanon, ending 29-month vacuum

Aoun, who is in his 80s, secured the presidency by winning the support of 83 MPs – well above the simple majority of 65 needed to win.

Michel Aoun, pictured here on October 11, 2015, secured the presidency by winning the support of 83 MPs, well above the absolute majority of 65 needed to win. Nabil Mounzer / EPA
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BEIRUT // The sounds of celebratory gunfire and fireworks rang out across Beirut on Monday afternoon as General Michel Aoun was elected president of Lebanon, ending a two-and-a-half-year power vacuum.

The 81-year-old, a former commander of Lebanon’s armed forces who became a divisive warlord, won a parliamentary vote and was quickly sworn into power.

Lebanon has been without a president since May 2014 when former president Michel Suleiman left office.

Before Monday, parliament had failed to elect a president in 45 attempts, with politicians deeply divided over who the next president should be. Parties, including Gen Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, frequently boycotted election sessions to ensure that there was no quorum to hold a vote.

The impasse came to an end when former prime minister Saad Hariri, the leader of the Sunni Future Movement and a man reviled by Gen Aoun’s supporters, agreed to back the elderly Maronite Christian politician in a deal that would return Mr Hariri to the premiership.

Under an unwritten pact made at the outset of Lebanon’s independence in 1943, the presidency is always reserved for a Maronite Christian, the post of prime minister for a Sunni and speaker of parliament for a Shiite.

Mr Hariri and Gen Aoun make for unlikely bedfellows: the Sunni politician heads Lebanon’s coalition of anti-Syria Lebanese parties, while Gen Aoun is allied with Hizbollah, a close ally of Damascus that is currently fighting in Syria to defend president Bashar Al Assad.

Mr Hariri characterised his deal with Gen Aoun as a “sacrifice” for the sake of the country.

Gen Aoun’s election was not without hiccups. In the first round of voting, he needed to secure 86 of 127 votes, but came up three votes short. One MP submitted a vote for Myriam Klink, a pop star known for her provocative outfits and controversial songs who once flirted with a political career, saying she would wear a mini skirt to parliament and bring 24-hour electricity to Lebanon. Ms Klink’s sole vote on Monday was cast aside after it was determined that she was not a Maronite and thus not qualified to be president.

In the second round of voting, Gen Aoun only had to secure a simple majority of 65 votes, but 128 ballots were submitted despite there being only 127 parliamentarians in attendance. Parliament speaker Nabih Berri then ordered a third round of voting, only to see the same thing happen. On several occasions, an exasperated Mr Berri had to shout at the MPs to stop talking and take their seats.

In the fourth round of voting, MPs were made to walk to the front of parliament to hand in their ballots one by one so that nobody voted twice. The tactic was successful and the votes were finally tallied, with Gen Aoun securing 83 votes and the presidency. Opposition to Gen Aoun was still prevalent though, with dozens of blank ballots turned in along with one vote for “Zorba the Greek”.

Despite the sometimes comedic theatrics Monday, the problems that face Gen Aoun’s presidency will be serious.

“The General”, as his followers call him, is one of the most divisive figures in Lebanon. As a renegade military commander during the country’s civil war, he declared a “war of liberation” against Syrian forces in Lebanon – saying he would fight Damascus to the death – and also fought bloody battles with Maronite rival Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces, the most powerful Christian militia at the time and now a popular political party. His position on Syria shifted when he returned from 14 years in exile after Damascus ended its occupation of Lebanon in 2005. In 2006, he forged an alliance with Hizbollah, though this has largely been seen as a marriage of convenience to gain power.

While Gen Aoun has succeeded in reconciling with some of his many enemies over the years, trust does not come easy among Lebanon’s political elite.

In his inaugural speech, the president has already made statements that could cause his opponents and new friends discomfort. While calling for cooperation, Gen Aoun said Lebanon should work to return the more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country to their homeland “quickly”, warning that their refugee camps could threaten security. And in what is likely to be seen as a reaffirmation loyalty to Hizbollah, he said he would “spare no effort or resistance” in liberating Lebanese territory occupied by Israel, a reference to the Shebaa Farms on the southern border.

Although Lebanon’s divided politicians were largely able to find consensus on Gen Aoun after more than two years of bickering, more challenges lie ahead.

The first will be creating a government and sharing out cabinet positions – a delicate task that will have to appease both Hizbollah and its allies, as well as their detractors. Once a government is in place, Lebanon will also be expected to reboot its stagnant international relations. This, too, could see Gen Aoun running into trouble as western countries such as the United States will pressure the new president to confront the role of his ally Hizbollah in neighbouring Syria.

Another potential hurdle will be getting politicians to agree on an election law for next year’s parliamentary elections – the first such vote since 2009 after parliament extended its term in the absence of a president.

Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at Beirut’s Lebanese American University, said the election law and government formation were “two loaded issues and they can explode and cause risks and a reshuffle in alliances”.

Even in Lebanon’s political landscape of betrayals and frequently shifting alliances and allegiances, it is difficult to make sense of what lies behind the deal between Gen Aoun and Mr Hariri.

Some observers have portrayed Gen Aoun’s election as a victory for Hizbollah and the ambitions of its backer Iran at a time when parties in Lebanon’s anti-Syria bloc have seemingly lost influence and foreign support, leaving them with little ability to resist Hizbollah’s agenda. Others point to an alliance between Gen Aoun and his former enemy Mr Geagea this year, the deal with Mr Hariri and how it initially angered Amal, another Hizbollah ally, to point to a new political axis forming.

Mr Salamey said while there was no real winner, he believed Hizbollah took advantage of the weakened anti-Syria parties.

“It’s pretty much blackmail: give in to Hizbollah’s demands or go to civil war,” he said.

For ordinary citizens, solutions to problems such as chronic water and electricity shortages, rubbish piling up on streets, and the additional strain on infrastructure from more than a million Syrian refugees are unlikely to be found soon despite a new president and a relatively functioning government.