IT WAS political theatre writ large – four rounds of voting, two cancelled due to an extra ballot, along with a vote for Zorba the Greek and another for the wife of a former rival – but Lebanon finally has its 13th president in Michel Aoun.
Fireworks were heard across Beirut as supporters of the octogenarian former commander of the Lebanese army and Hezbollah ally celebrated his election yesterday, the 46th attempt to fill the void left when former president Michel Sleiman’s term ended back in May 2014.
After a dizzying array of about-faces, Aoun’s election brings to an end a paralysing political stalemate that has prevented parliament from legislating or holding elections, and crippled the country’s state institutions.
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For close to two-and-a-half years the country’s two main political factions – the Saudi-backed March 14 alliance and the Iranian-backed March 8 – had bickered over who to nominate as president.
The past decade has seen political power divided between the two party political alliances, formed in the wake of the 2005 Cedar Revolution after the assassination of Lebanon’s prime minister Rafik Hariri sparked mass anti-Syrian demonstrations and led to the removal of Syrian troops from the country.
Led by Hariri’s son Saad Hariri, the anti-Syrian March 14 alliance is backed by Saudi Arabia. The March 8 alliance, named after a pro-Syrian counter demonstration, is led by Hezbollah and, in a surprise move back in 2006, was joined by Aoun after March 14 failed to support his long-running presidential ambitions.
Aoun’s victory has underscored the power shift towards Hezbollah and further weakening of March 14, which, even after an attempt last year to compromise by endorsing Suleiman Frangieh, another Hezbollah ally, was forced into backing Aoun.
Hilal Khashan, professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut, believes the Aoun election will mean the end of both blocs, with March 14 undermined and March 8 spilt on support for Aoun.
“This will reshuffle the entire Lebanese political landscape,” he told The National prior to the vote. “Aoun will be elected, there is no question about it, but the real troubles for Lebanon will begin after.”
It could open a rift between the president and Hezbollah, whom Khashan believes were put into a corner when Aoun received broad party support.
“They need him to be part of a so-called national coalition that includes a prominent Christian,” says Khashan, explaining that the party was never truly interested in seeing Aoun as president.
For his part, Aoun could also see his relationship with Hezbollah become strained. “Aoun is determined to insulate Lebanon from the Syrian conflict," says Khashan. "Hezbollah will not like that. I think in due time divisions between Aoun and Hezbollah will come to the surface."
Aoun’s path to the presidency was paved two weeks ago by the shock endorsement of long-term rival Hariri. Though it has not been explicitly stated, there is broad consensus that part of Hariri’s endorsement was an agreement that he would reclaim the role of prime minister.
His last premiership, which lasted from 2009 to 2011, collapsed after Hezbollah-allied ministers resigned from the government.
“With the election of Aoun and the likely naming of Saad Hariri as next prime minister, the question then becomes will he [Hariri] be able to form a government?” asks Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre.
“He and Aoun will have to balance off between very conflicting and contradictory demands.”
Khashan agrees, saying that Hezbollah have already made it clear that all they have committed to is putting Aoun in the presidential palace.
“The formation of the cabinet will be turbulent," he says. "I don’t expect it to happen any time soon.”
Hariri’s political standing is on shaky ground after forced compromises with Hezbollah – members of whom still stand accused of involvement in his father’s assassination – and decreasing support from Saudi as they turn to other issues in the region.
“The Saudis understand that they are not the preponderant force in Lebanon, Iran is definitely the foreign country that controls politics in Lebanon because of its connection with Hezbollah,” Khashan says, adding that the kingdom realised “it was better to have some sort of influence (via Hariri) than not have any at all”.
As for Aoun’s presidency, Yahya cautions about having any high expectations. “It’s an opportunity for something new to come out, however, given the history of the leadership that’s involved, it’s unlikely that will happen,” she says.
“You’re electing somebody who was an active part of the civil war ... who’s been part of the political establishment since then and is involved in the political paralysis that we have seen in the country ... involved in the political bargaining, in the negotiations, in currying favours.
“At one point the formation of government was put at a standstill because he was absolutely insistent that his own son-in-law be part of the government.”
Aoun first came to prominence during the Lebanese civil war as leader of the Lebanese armed forces and prime minister of one of two rival governments.
He led the “war of liberation” against Syrian occupying forces, as well as fighting intra-Maronite battles against Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces, described by David Hirst as “the civil war’s last great paroxysm of futile, demented, self-destroying violence”.
Driven into exile in 1991, he returned when Syrian forces withdrew in 2005, only to execute a political about-face by allying with Hezbollah. His former enemy, Geagea, who had also been running for the presidency, made his own U-turn in January this year, dropping his candidacy in favour of Aoun’s.
Lebanon is about to enter into a new era. While constitutionally the president must be a Maronite Christian – part of the confessional power structure that also reserves the roles of prime minister and speaker of the house to a Sunni and Shiite respectively – Aoun is notable for commanding a large bloc in parliament through his Free Patriotic Movement.
The new president has his work cut out, however, as according to Yahya, those opposed to Aoun’s presidency have been left feeling angry, believing the “fundamental principles of the whole March 14 movement were completely undercut by [Hariri’s] endorsement”. More pragmatic observers see any presidency as a step in the right direction for the country.
But there is no doubt that yesterday’s political manoeuvrings were the result of the Lebanese political class banding together to preserve their interests.
For activists, the election was business as usual. “No-one can grasp the amount of political hypocrisy, law violations and constitutional interpretations that are taking place,” says prominent activist Assaad Thebian.
“The only positive outcome is that Lebanon now has a head and hence [is] obliged to form a new cabinet and have parliamentary elections in 2017,” he told The National, warning this was the government’s “last chance”.
Khashan, however, is more blasé about the reaction on the streets, saying: “If the situation in Lebanon will improve, economically and security wise, then the people will be happy with the outcome of the election.”