How Lebanon ended lengthy power vacuum and elected Michel Aoun

Political wrangling left Lebanon without a president for 2-1/2 years, until Monday's vote. Mr. Aoun is a former Army commander and a leading ally of the Iran-backed Hezbollah party.

Hassan Ibrahim/Lebanese Parliament media office/AP
newly-elected Lebanese President Michel Aoun, center right, shakes hands with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, center left, as he leaves the parliament building after he elected a new president, in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, Oct. 31, 2016.

Lebanon’s lengthy impasse over electing a new president came to an end Monday, as the Lebanese parliament gathered in its entirety for the first time since April 2014 to elect Michel Aoun as the 13th head of state.

Mr. Aoun's election is the culmination of a 30-year struggle to win Lebanon's top seat – one that has seen the mercurial former Lebanese Army commander gravitate from a staunch anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah stance to a leading ally of the Iran-backed Shiite party and its candidate for the presidency.

Lebanon has been without a president since May 2014, when the last incumbent, Michel Suleiman, stepped down at the end of his six-year term. The absence of a head of state has been costly, not only hampering parliament's ability to pass legislation and hold elections but causing economic deterioration and underperforming state institutions, including a garbage collection crisis that has lasted more than a year.

The 128-seat Parliament, which elects presidents, has convened 45 times over the past 2-1/2 years, but has always failed to reach a quorum due to a boycott by the parliamentary coalition that includes Aoun, and is headed by Hezbollah.

Last week, Saad Hariri, a billionaire businessman who heads the mainly Sunni Future Movement, parliament’s largest bloc, announced that he would support Mr. Aoun for the presidency, arguing that the country could no longer continue to stagnate.

“The economic, financial, and monetary crises we are experiencing and the security risks that lie ahead can only be resolved … through completing the constitutional institutions, starting with the presidency,” he said in a televised speech. 

Hariri's initiative is a high stakes gamble. His critics accuse him of yielding to political blackmail by Hezbollah. At least three members of Parliament in his own Future Movement said they would refuse to vote for Aoun Monday. The move has met with broad public discontent from Sunnis across the country and played into the hands of Ashraf Rifi, a populist Sunni politician and former justice minister who is looking to snatch Hariri’s mantle as leader of Lebanon’s Sunni community.

“We will not allow the country to be handed over to the Iranian project,” Mr. Rifi said in a reference to Hezbollah.

Realism at work?

On the other hand, Hariri’s defenders say he has made a painful but realistic choice that places the well-being of the state first. Even opponents of Aoun believe that the paralysis in the country is no longer sustainable, and that any president is better than no president, analysts say.

“It’s a very hard decision to take … [but] I think he [Hariri] thinks this is one way to salvage and protect the country,” says Raya Haffar al-Hassan, finance minister in Hariri’s previous government.

Still, the decision has benefits for Hariri. In an agreement reached with Aoun, Hariri will be asked to become prime minister and head a new government after the presidential election. It will, perhaps, represent a last chance for Hariri to boost his popular standing and relevance after years of declining political and financial fortunes and emerging rivalry from other Sunni figures.

“I feel like he needs to come back to the premiership to salvage what’s left of the financial and political legacy of his father, and the need to do that became very desperate,” says Sami Atallah, the executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.

Hariri entered the political fray as leader of the Future Movement in the wake of the assassination in February 2005 of his father, Rafik Hariri, a five-time prime minister and the driving force behind Lebanon’s reconstruction effort after the 1975-1990 civil war. Five members of Hezbollah, charged with involvement in Hariri’s murder, are on trial in absentia at a special tribunal in The Netherlands.

Despite being buoyed by an initial wave of public sympathy, the politically inexperienced Hariri struggled to navigate his way through the turbulent waters of Lebanese politics as the country was buffeted by political deadlock, rising sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, street clashes, and government paralysis. He was appointed prime minister in 2009 but ousted from office in January 2011 when the Hezbollah-aligned ministers resigned, collapsing his government. Hariri then moved abroad for four years, citing security concerns.

Hariri also has had to cope with financial difficulties as Saudi Oger, the Hariri family’s flagship construction and telecoms giant, has fallen heavily into debt. A shortage of funds has led to the drying up of Hariri’s financial patronage networks in Lebanon, a vital mainstay of the political system, which has dampened his popularity.

“He’s not in a strong position and will have to play all his cards to put his house in order,” says Mr. Atallah.

The presidential deadlock began 2-1/2 years ago when Hezbollah endorsed Aoun, who has long aspired to the presidency, which in Lebanon’s sectarian system is traditionally reserved for the Maronite Catholic community. Hariri and his allies initially backed Samir Geagea, a leading Christian figure and civil war enemy of Aoun.

But Hezbollah and its allies refused to attend the parliamentary voting sessions unless assured that their candidate, Aoun, would win. Hariri sought a compromise, first by suggesting moderate nonaligned candidates and then, a year ago, endorsing Suleiman Frangieh, grandson of a former president and a staunch ally of Hezbollah, as president. Still, Hezbollah refused to yield.

With Hariri's backing, Aoun gained a sufficient number of members of Parliament to allow him to win the vote on Monday and ascend the steps to the presidential palace in Baabda in the hills above Beirut.

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