Lebanon’s parliament has elected former general Michel Aoun, a Christian, as president, ending a two-and-a-half-year power vacuum and leading to celebrations in the country’s Christian areas. The new leader, the only Christian head of state in the Middle East, is backed by the Hezbollah movement.
The 81-year-old former Lebanese army chief secured the presidency by winning the support of 83 lawmakers, well above the absolute majority of 65 needed to win, after 45 failed sessions to elect a new leader since May 2014, when Michel Suleiman stepped down as president at the end of his term, Al Jazeera reported.
Aoun was backed by two of his biggest rivals, Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces, and former premier Saad Hariri, a Sunni who has received regional support from Saudi Arabia.
Hariri’s support is therefore being seen by some as a sign of both Saudi Arabia’s declining influence in Lebanon and an increasing role of the Iran-backed Hezbollah.
Hariri is otherwise known for being against Syria’s government, which is led by the embattled President Bashar al-Assad, who is from a Shiite sect, and a supporter of Hezbollah’s main rival. It is believed that Hariri decided to back Aoun partly because he suffered losses in his Saudi-based construction firm, Saudi Oger, which had weakened his political influence in Lebanon.
Under a power-sharing agreement in Lebanon, the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian while the premier is a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim. Aoun is expected to nominate Hariri to return as prime minister, in exchange for the latter’s support.
Aoun will return to the presidential palace more than two-and-a-half decades after being forced out of it as army commander an interim head of the state by Syrian forces and Lebanese troops loyal to a rival commander.
Aoun declared a “War of Liberation” against Syrian army forces in 1989, when he was the army’s general.
In October 1990, the Syrian forces invaded Aoun strongholds including the presidential palace in Baabda, on the suburbs of Beirut, killing hundreds of Lebanese soldiers and civilians. Aoun fled to the French Embassy, and then to France, where he was granted asylum and where he lived in exile for 15 years until 2005.
Aoun returned to Lebanon in May 2005, days after the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country. In 2006, as head of the Free Patriotic Movement, he signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Hezbollah, starting a major alliance that has remained ever since.