Former Lebanese army chief Michael Aoun has been elected president of Lebanon after the post had been left vacant for more than two years, renewing hopes for an end to the political deadlock which has gripped the country.
Aoun, 81, served as leader of the army during the end of the Lebanese Civil War and is a strong ally of Hezbollah. It was announced that will be return to the presidential palace near Beirut exactly 26 years after he was removed as an army commander and interim leader by rival Syrian and Lebanese forces.
He was elected during a chaotic parliamentary session in which several attempts were made to fairly assess the votes. Each time, too many votes were counted. Finally, a voting box was placed clearly in the middle of the room, which allowed a fair and transparent vote for each MP. MPs broke out in applause when the announcement of Aoun’s victory, two votes short of an expected two-thirds majority, was made.
“We haven’t voted in a long time. We’re learning again,” Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri joked at the end of the two-hour session.
Mr. Aoun will be the country’s thirteenth president after Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943. Lebanon has lacked a head of state since President Michel Suleiman stepped down at the end of his term in May, 2014. Parliament had failed to elect a leader 45 times during the interim.
The change of heart by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, to endorse Aoun last week clinched the long-stalled decision-making process.
Many were happy to see Lebanon exercise free elections.
“The United States congratulates the people of Lebanon on the election of President Michel Aoun, in accordance with Lebanon’s constitution”, said John Kirby, Assistant Secretary and Department Spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Public Affairs in a statement on Monday.
“This is a moment of opportunity, as Lebanon emerges from years of political impasse, to restore government functions and build a more stable and prosperous future for all Lebanese citizens.”
The news of Mr. Aoun’s election was greeted with jubilation in Christian-majority areas of Lebanon.
In Beirut, where security forces had tightened their grip and cars were banned from most of the city in preparation for the announcement, fireworks greeted the news of Aoun’s election as it was learned that he had gained the support of 83 Lebanese MPs, well above the requisite number of 65 to win the election.
In Lebanon’s political system, only a Maronite Christian can be president (the parliamentary speaker must a Shiite Muslim and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim). This has created intra-governmental tensions in religiously mixed Lebanon.
Aoun will face severe challenges in the months ahead, as he attempts to form a government in a country that is gripped by internal divisions. Additionally, he will have to deal with the 1 million Syrian refugees who have come to Lebanon, as well as the violence from the war in that country which occasionally spills into Lebanese territory.
“Lebanon is passing through minefields and has been safe from the raging regional fires, and we will prevent any spark from reaching it,” he said in his first televised statement as president.
Mr. Aoun enjoys the support of the country’s Christians, who form much of the intellectual and economic elite. His role in the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War has been more controversial with the public, however. His alliance with Hezbollah is also troubling to many.
Those who feel concern about the increasing divide between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have formed rival axes in the Middle East, believe that his presidency will be a clear win for Iran and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Parliamentary Speaker Berri, a Shi’ite Muslim, would most likely have accelerated the strategic pivot towards the Shi’ite-dominated axis, but he and Aoun have become strategic rivals within the Lebanese government. Aoun will have to persuade Berri to support his government in order to maintain a strong grip on parliamentary power.
Aoun quickly received congratulatory phone calls from many controversial Shi’ite political leaders.
“We are certain that with your election, the resistance movement will be strengthened,” Iranian President Rouhani reportedly told him. Bashar Al-Assad and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah also offered him their congratulations.