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Lebanon and its de Gaulle: rhetoric, backstory and hopes of an election


Risultati immagini per Michel Aoun

Lebanon and its de Gaulle: rhetoric, backstory and hopes of an election

di Roberta La Fortezza


On Friday, October 31st, the Christian Maronite Michel Aoun was elected president of Lebanon. The election of the former general Aoun was reached after 29 months of institutional vacuum and more than forty parliamentary sessions in which the Lebanese parties, lined up in two different coalitions, have failed to converge on the name of a single candidate. The Lebanese Constitution in fact requires for the election of the President of the Republic, the achievement in the first vote of a majority of two-thirds, equal to 86 votes in view of the fact that the Lebanese Parliament has 128 seats. If none of the candidates receives a majority of two-thirds in the first round, there shall be a second round in which half plus one of the votes is enough for the election[1]. During the parliamentary session of October 31st, General Aoun did not reach the majority of two-third in the first ballot just for two votes but he achieved a large simple majority in the second vote. This result has made him the thirteenth President of the independent Lebanese state.

The election of Aoun comes after more than two years of institutional impasse characterized by obstruction, boycotts, parliamentary delays, lack of quorum required for voting and other ploys aimed at preventing the election of the president. This situation plunged Lebanon into a political and institutional stagnation that paralyzed the country just at the time when the crisis of Syrian refugees, the five-year conflict in Syria, the social situation completely worn out because of the garbage crisis, the growth of public debt[2] and the historic plague of corruption, would require, on the contrary, a strong and decisive action by the state institutions. The country rather remains suspended in accordance with the unanimity rule ratified by Article 62 of the Lebanese Constitution[3]. This unanimity rule applies to all decisions of the Council of Ministers in the case of presidential vacuum. It seems clear that the application of the rule of unanimity is equivalent to condemning a country to decision immobility and Parliamentary inactivity. This is true everywhere but it is truer in a country like Lebanon, which is based on an ethnic and confessional institutional structure where the balance of interests and powers is extremely delicate. Although this is not the first institutional crisis in Lebanon nor the first period of institutional vacuum; such a strong confessional social architecture, reflected in the institutional structure by means of a proportional system of division of the public offices, undoubtedly promoted the development of the periods of crisis and inaction. This happens every time that the discontinuity factors gain a certain level of maturity influencing the precarious institutional balance. However, despite the many historical precedents, this crisis is different from the previous ones because the fracture has not affected, as one might easily think, the classic Christian-Muslim dichotomy, but rather the intra-Christian clivage that has emerged in the recent years within the Maronite Christian political component. It is necessary, in this regard, to point out that in Lebanon, according to an unwritten custom aimed at ensuring a fair distribution of the charges, the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni and the President of the Chamber of Deputies a Shiite. Nowadays, the Maronite component is not presented as a political unicuum because it is divided into at least three different parties that, in addition, do not appear in the same coalition. The largest Christian party represented in Parliament is the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) founded by Aoun during his exile in France between the nineties and two thousand years[4], and led today by Gebran Bassil. The FPM is the largest party of the March 8 Alliance; in the same coalition, we find the Shiite parties Hezbollah and Amal, the Armenian party Tashnaq, the Maronite Marada Party led by Suleiman Franjieh and other minor parties[5]. The other two major Christian parties are instead part of the March 14 Alliance led by the Sunni Future Movement (al-Mustqbal) whose leader is Saad Hariri. In particular, the two Christian parties are the Kataeb Party, founded in 1936 by Pierre Gemayel and now guided by his nephew, Amine Gemayel, and the Lebanese Forces (LF), founded by the deceased Bashir Gemayel and now led by Samir Geagea[6]. The historic and intrinsic rift between the two Lebanese coalitions has become increasingly unbridgeable following the Syrian crisis and the different positions taken by the two blocks in accordance with their very nature and political history. In particular, the anti-Syrian essence of the March 14 Alliance was exacerbated, making the coalition’s positions increasingly inflexible, following the intervention of Hezbollah in favor of Assad's regime began in April 2013. Therefore, when the mandate of the former President Michel Suleiman expired in 2014, the tensions exploded with all their strength throwing Lebanon in two long years of institutional vacuum. The intransigence of the positions, the determination with which these positions were defended, the unwillingness to compromise, the inclusion of third actors in the already complex Lebanese domestic situation are all factors that have exacerbated the crisis by making it appear at times really irreconcilable.

The turnaround that led to the turning point of October 31st, was marked by at least two pivotal moments, coinciding with two different decisions taken, the first, by the Maronite candidate for president, Samir Geagea, and, the second, by the leader of the Sunni movement, Saad Hariri. The January 18th, 2016 the candidate of the FL Party, Geagea, withdrew his candidacy and expressed his support to Aoun. At this point, the only obstacle that interposed between Aoun and Baabda Palace was the leader of the Sunni Future Movement. The difficult and complex Lebanese situation was resolved only when, in the second half of October, Saad Hariri suddenly and unexpectedly declared his support for the candidacy of General Aoun for the presidency of the republic, on the basis of a political agreement for the good convergence of Lebanon. Hariri, during a joint press conference with the general, said that his decision was based on willingness to give a hope to Lebanon with the Presidency of Aoun, to revamp the State, the institutions and the basic services in order to bring the Lebanese to a normal life[7]. At the same moment in which Hariri confirmed, on October 20th, his willingness to support the candidature of Aoun, Lebanon rediscovered the confidence to finally see a way out after two years of institutional vacuum. The sudden turn of Hariri, after promoting for more than a year the candidacy of Suleiman Franjieh, leader of the Christian Maronite Marada Movement, can be read indisputably through the lens of a certain realpolitik approach of the party. Undoubtedly the choice of Hariri to support the candidature of Aoun, in exchange for which he received the promise of getting the position of Prime Minister in the new Government[8], was dictated by party and faction interests: the gradual domestic isolation of Hariri’s political party, symbolically sanctioned by the defeat in local elections last May[9], clearly defines the limits of this decision. The abdication of Hariri in favor of Aoun has allowed him to increase the internal consensus and get the head chair of the Government through which it can carry on its long-term leadership and ensure the survival of their own power. Moreover, this decision has become more necessary when Hariri understood that the dynamics of the regional chessboard were not playing more in his favor. The reference is clearly to the "cold war"[10] being fought between Riyadh and Tehran, that for 29 months has seen the Lebanese Parliament as one of many battle fields of this clash, with his internal struggle between March 8 Alliance strongly influenced by the Russian-Iranian-Damask and March 14 Alliance, close to Saudi Arabia and the West. This "cold war" between the two regional powers that sees in Syria, Iraq and Yemen its warm fronts, has played a key role in blocking for more than two years the election of a new president in this small Levantine country.

The designation of Aoun to the presidency has always been opposed by Riyadh, obvious supporter of Hariri’s Sunni party Mustaqbal against the Iranian position, being Aoun the candidate of the Hezbollah-Teheran axis. However, when Saudi Arabia started to move away from Hariri and Lebanon in general, in order to focus on other hotter theaters, Yemen primarily, Hariri realized that what he needed at that moment, like never before, was to achieve the prime minister position in order to stop his political downfall. The strategic detachment of the Saudis from Lebanon and consequently from Hariri appeared quite clear when Riyadh decided to suspend the delivery agreement of French weapons to the Lebanese army[11]. Hariri, caught in the dangerous grip of immobility and defeat, tried to pursue the only possible way in order to get out of this impasse: a deal with Aoun in which the former General would gain the presidency and, consequently, Hariri would have the office of Prime Minister. The change of Hariri's strategy seems to be a successful result: Hariri decided to compromise with the enemy, given his inability to politically defeat Hezbollah, and more generally the Iranian-Shiite axis, much stronger than the Sunni axis behind Hariri. If undoubtedly the big winner of this agreement is Hezbollah, Hariri played his cards well and at least he did not appear as the big loser.

Furthermore, the presidential election of Aoun, just in terms of regional dynamics, seems to confirm the trend already become clear in the Syrian theater: at the moment, the Damascene and Iranian front gains the upper hand in the Syrian war against the Sunni front. Even the Lebanese turn and the consequent appointment of Aoun, would seem to underline how Iran, which has seen ascending to the presidency his trustworthy man, is the big winner in this war. Consequently, the election of Aoun would mark the already evident weakening of Saudi Arabia influence in the region and indirectly the Lebanese detachment from the Western alliance, moving on the contrary towards Iran. In fact, these elections mark the newfound role of Hezbollah as a key player in the Lebanese political life after losing much consensus especially after the adventure in Syria in favor of Assad; nowadays the Party of God seems to have regained a past glory managing to impose, after 29 months of infighting, the candidate Hezbollah-Tehran axis. However, the appointment of Aoun, while may seem to appear as a defeat for the Sunnis, could paradoxically restore strength, while the power of the Sunnis in the region seems precisely to suffer a big erosion, to a renewed axis Hariri Saudi Arabia, just through the conferral of the Prime Minister position to Hariri. The resolution of the Lebanese institutional crisis right now along with the nomination of Hariri could be a new card in the hands of Riyadh, which if properly exploited, could allow the Saudis to make up ground at least in Lebanon. Undoubtedly there are some special interests behind the change of Hariri's strategy; nevertheless, we cannot neglect a priori the ethical and national value of this choice. Six years after the outbreak of war in nearby Syria, the hugeness of the Lebanese problems required a precise change and especially strong and functioning institutions that are the only ones which could give an answer to the huge political, social and economic challenges with which the country must necessarily deal, in danger of state and social structures collapse. Furthermore, the appointment of the President of the Republic’s restores the balance of power between Christians and Muslims by following the line drawn by the fathers of the Lebanese independent state and by re-lauching in this way the principle of a common life in an inclusive State, cardinal principle of the Lebanese model and essential example in a region in which the principle of peaceful coexistence of various different confessions is constantly put to the test. The restoring of this balance and of the normal functioning of the national pact of 1943, foundation, essence and substance of the same Lebanese nation, means defending this country which still has strong memories of that civil war that devastated the country’s soul. The need to protect Lebanon from a possible new fall into the abyss of confessional crash is even more necessary at a time when the Syrian immigration and the consequent changes in the weight of the various confessions[12], bring to mind the past Palestinian immigration that so much affected in the conflict started in 1975.

Even the choice of the new President of the Republic, despite some contradictions, appears to go in the same direction of the protection of the Lebanese nation and its balance. The popularity of Aoun in the Christian community is indisputable; but his charisma and his story, so inextricably linked to the history of a Lebanon that was able to achieve its freedom from Syrian controlling father, makes the figure of the General very popular, appreciated and supported outside of the Maronites environments as well. The Lebanese people has never repudiated this central figure in the life of the country even when in 2006 the alliance between the FPM and Hezbollah reached through the signing of a memorandum. Even in this case, most Lebanese read the choice of Aoun as a choice for the Lebanese nation: in fact, Aoun supported Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 in the war against the Israeli enemy in order to protect and safeguard the independence and the sovereignty of Lebanon. The General, the nickname of Aoun when he directed the 8th Brigade during the Lebanese civil war, personifies the resistance to all forms of occupations, be of Syrian or Israeli origin; as a sort of Lebanese de Gaulle, called to lead the country in the most difficult moments just as de Gaulle was called to lead France during the Algerian crisis. Aoun is seen by the Lebanese as the only man able to change the current situation and to reform a political-bureaucratic system characterized by a very high rate of corruption. Aoun is the man of the Lebanese, chosen by the Lebanese, the strong man made in Lebanon, since he is not diplomatically or politically manipulated by external State actors, Arab or Westerners. This is a remark made by many observers; these observers underlined the undeniable difference of this crisis from previous political and institutional crisis in Lebanon. In the eighties, as well as in 2007, the two institutional crises were resolved not by the will of the Lebanese themselves but thanks to the intervention and the ensuing compromise reached by the influential regional powers in Lebanon. Therefore, thanks to Aoun, the Lebanon hopes and dreams of getting of "men puppets", stakeholders connected to individual clans or factions, and to be represented by a man who embodies a free and independent Lebanon, a man who, as mentioned in various slogans during the last weeks, seems to have the will and the strength to reinvent Lebanon. The country tries once again to bring to the center of its policy the vital need to assert its formal and effective independence and its state sovereignty, even more so in a time when the wars in Syria and Iraq and the confusion that reigns in the Middle East are likely to have a tragic impact on the country. The need to ensure the independence of the country has always been the driving force of Lebanese history since 1943 and now to guarantee the independence of the country means to ensure the return of strong institutions that can direct and guide the nation. Maybe, thanks in part to this awareness, the Lebanese leaders have finally reached a compromise.

Clearly, the sole election of the president will not solve all the problems of the small Lebanon. All the more so, as pointed out by many analysts, now that this election is full of paradoxes: the first paradox concerns the Chief Executive, Hariri. The latter with the decision to support Aoun concludes indirectly an agreement with the main suspects of the murder of his father (the Syrians and Hezbollah). The Lebanese constitutional structure is a delicate balance between powers; consequently, it will be necessary to understand how and what will be the room for manoeuvre of the two charges, President of the Republic and the Prime Minister, and especially until what point this unofficial exchange which took place between Aoun and Hariri may allow real governability of the country avoiding that it falls again into a deadlock due to the clash of two different realpolitiks. The second paradox concerns the strange 8th March coalition and the turning point of 2006.

The new President passed gradually from extremely anti-Syrian positions to a position which, although cannot be said exactly pro-Syrian, is definitely less radical than in the past decades. Aoun, allying with Hezbollah within the 8th March coalition, is indirectly one of Assad's allies. However, the concrete effects of this paradox must be analyzed carefully in the coming months of Aoun presidency: in fact, the same endurance of the Aoun-Hezbollah coalition will be put to the test, now more than ever, exactly from Aoun presidency. An early divergence could already be read in the inaugural speech of the new President in which the reference to a Lebanon that must not and will not be dragged into the war in Syria, emerges clearly: "Le Liban est épargné jusqu'à présent par les incendies qui consumant la région et notre priorité est d’empêcher qu'une étincelle atteigne [le Liban]. Il est donc nécessaire d'éloigner le Liban des conflits régionaux"[13]. Aoun seeks to distance Lebanon from regional conflicts: how much this position will appeal to Hezbollah and how much this program will not go against the interests of Hezbollah and of the Damascene ally will be verified in the coming months. Another key point that has already highlighted what could become a further fracture is the lacking support from Hezbollah to Hariri’s designation as Prime Minister. Finally, the will of the new President to strengthen the Lebanese army[14] could create further tensions with the Hezbollah militia, currently the largest and best trained military force in the region. The evaluations and ambitions of Aoun and Hezbollah are not perfectly coincident; therefore, future scenarios do not necessarily turn in a stability of this alliance.

After only twenty-five years from the end of the civil war, the institutional vacuum that has lengthened for more than two years, the difficult economic situation and the disorder in the regional context make Lebanon, once again, an easy grip of the sectarianism that has already led the country to collapse in the past. The new Aoun’s presidency and the new executive branch guided by Hariri will have the difficult task in a very thorny time like the present one, to lead the country on the road of stability and community living. What is at stake, not only for Lebanon but for the whole Middle East region, it is the survival of the Lebanese cultural mosaic, tortuous and perpetually unstable but able to bring together different identities in a region so delicate. Especially the Syrian crisis and the emergence of the Islamic State have shown more than ever the crucial importance of this unique coexistence model for the Middle East.


[1] The Article 49 of Lebanese Constitution regards the election of the President of Republic. The text of the Constitution is available online at http://mjp.univ-perp.fr/constit/lb1926.htm#III (last accessed on December 7th, 2016)

[2] Lebanon’s public debt is currently equal to 128.7% of GDP. All economic data concerned the Lebanon are available on the Foreign Ministry website in the section concerning foreign markets http://www.infomercatiesteri.it/quadro_macroeconomico.php?id_paesi=108 (last accessed on December 7th, 2016). More information can be found on the website or the World Bank http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/lebanon (last accessed on December 7th, 2016)

[3] The Article 62 of the Lebanese Constitution states that in the event of vacuum of the Presidency of the Republic, is the Government to exercise the powers of the president. Every decisions has to take unanimously by all members and each decree need the agreement and the signed by all ministers

[4] Following the entry of Syrian troops in Beirut in October 1990, in the last stages of the Lebanese civil war, General Aoun, Prime Minister at the time, was forced to take refuge at the French Embassy. His fifteen years of exile in France start from this date. They will end in May 2005.

[5] In particular, the Democratic Party Druze, Sunni Majd Movement, the social-nationalist party and the Syrian Baath Arab Socialist Party for the Lebanese region of secular setting and minor Maronite Solidarity party are all even part of the coalition of March 8.

[6] For a precise analysis of the Lebanese political parties, their development and their nature see Rosita di Peri, Il Libano contemporaneo. Storia, politica, società, Carocci, Roma, 2009

[7] Hariri’s words are so report in an article by Agency Press NENA available online on http://nenanews.it/libano-svolta-di-hariri-ora-sostiene-aoun-presidente/ (October 27th, 2016)

[8] Saad Hariri was officially appointed Prime Minister by the new President Aoun on November 3, just three days after the presidential election

[9] The data concerning the municipal election in May 2016 are available on http://www.localiban.org/article5940.html (May 21st, 2016)

[10] Many observers and analysts have used the historical-dialectical reference to the “cold war” to describe the ongoing confrontation between Tehran and Riyadh; see for example http://www.tpi.it/mondo/africa-e-medio-oriente/arabia-saudita-iranguerra-cosa-succede (January 8th, 2016)

[11] The Riyadh’s decision is dated February 2016

[12] Current Syrian migration data in Lebanon may be found on the site of UNHCR http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=122 (last accessed on December 7th, 2016)

[13] Aoun words are so reported in an article by Ouest France http://www.ouest-france.fr/monde/liban/libanfin-de-la-vacance-politique-michel-aoun-bientot-elu-president-4587189 (October 31st, 2016)

[14] This is clear starting from the inaugural speech of the new President. The speech is available on the website of the Lebanese Ministry of Information http://nna-leb.gov.lb/fr/show-news/69942/Aoun-Pour-une-politique-trang-re-quise-distancie-des-incendies-gionaux (October 31st, 2016)

versione inglese dell'articolo pubblicato in Tetide. Rivista di Studi Mediterranei n.4/2016.


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