From exile to Lebanon's political dynamo

Michael Aoun has solidified his place in Lebanese politics as voters went to the polls for the final parliamentary round.

In just one week he has gone from spoiler to one of the most dominant player in Lebanese politics.

Gen. Michel Aoun, who until May 7 was exiled in France for 14 years, is hoping with his allies to follow last week's unexpected success in Lebanon's third round of parliamentary voting with wins in Sunday's fourth and final round.

Once one of Syria's most ardent critics, General Aoun has struck electoral alliances with some of Lebanon's most pro-Syrian politicians. Furthermore, Aoun, who has long campaigned to abolish Lebanon's sectarian political system, has found himself the de facto leader of the Christian community.

The seeming contradictions have angered his opponents, who were hoping to form a unified anti-Syrian front in parliament. But his broad appeal has further solidified this 70-year-old former Army commander as a future contender for the country's presidency.

"[The Christians] accepted my nationalist speech," says Aoun in an interview with the Monitor. "They came to me, I didn't change my speech and I didn't make any appeal to them to vote for me because I am a Christian and a Maronite."

Operating from a heavily-guarded villa in the hills above Beirut, the 70-year-old general has mounted an intensive electioneering campaign, adopting the color orange and the Greek letter omega (the symbol of resistance in electrical terms), and publishing a 43-page manifesto outlining a comprehensive overhaul of Lebanon's political, judicial, and economic system, ridding it of 15 years of Syrian influence.

He delivered a stunning blow in the third electoral round on June 12 when his list of candidates routed the opposition alliance in the Christian heartland north of Beirut, raising the stakes considerably for the final stage in the north. Final results will be announced Monday.

"If Aoun wins [in the north] it's going to be the most interesting parliament we have had in a long time," says Timur Goksel, university lecturer in Beirut who served with the United Nations in south Lebanon from 1979 to 2003.

Having felt disenfranchised since the end of the 1975-90 war and the onset of Syrian hegemony, many Christians are looking to the former general to defend their interests in parliament.

"It's good General Aoun did well because now there is an equilibrium. The Christians have a strong leader to match the others," says Habib Abi Khater, a shopkeeper here. Those "others" include Saad Hariri, the son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who represents the Sunnis; and Nabih Berri, the parliamentary speaker, and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the militant Hizbullah organization, who together lead the Shiites.

Aoun's temporary home is a villa loaned by a supporter set among the hills and pine trees of an exclusive suburb overlooking Beirut. A green canvas screen erected around the perimeter of the property provides privacy while coils of razor wire, searchlights, close-circuit television cameras, and armed body guards provide security.

He seems unfazed by the contradictions of his election decisions, even dismissing a flurry of reports that Syrian intelligence officers have been strong-arming the electorate in the north to vote for the general's list rather than the anti-Syrian opposition.

"I don't care if the Syrians support me," he says. "They respect me because I am an honest adversary."

Aoun fought a quixotic military campaign against the Syrian army in 1989 which ended in defeat a year later and exile. When he returned to Lebanon on May 7, he claimed that Syria's troop withdrawal from Lebanon a week earlier was principally due to his overseas lobbying activities. The comment angered the Hariri family and the Lebanese opposition who maintain that it was the massive anti-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut following the murder of Rafik Hariri in February that were responsible for the Syrian disengagement.

But analysts say that Aoun has proved a divisive figure, splitting the opposition ranks and introducing a strong element of sectarianism into an election that was intended to be a referendum on Syria's lingering influence over Lebanon.

The opposition, needing to win 21 of 28 parliamentary seats in the north, is no longer assured of a parliamentary majority. It has all but abandoned its earlier goal of unseating Emile Lahoud, Lebanon's staunchly pro-Syrian president.

Indeed, some analysts maintain that the true winner in the election is Mr. Lahoud, who has safeguarded his position and ensured that Syria's remaining allies continue to have a presence in the next parliament.

And then there are the persistent reports that senior Syrian intelligence officers have been influencing the electorate in the north.

"Everyone in the government is still afraid of the Syrians. They are being manipulated by the Syrians by phone, e-mail, and fax," says a former senior Lebanese intelligence officer who requested anonymity. He says that he knows of several businessmen who have been pressured by Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officers on how to vote.

But Suleiman Frangieh, a pro-Syrian former minister, dismissed the allegations, even though a newspaper report last week claimed he had lunch with a former Syrian intelligence chief.

"The Syrians are no longer here but these people [the opposition] are trying to dig up the past because they are scared of the [election] results," he says.

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