Hezbollah ally set to become president of Lebanon
BEIRUT (AP) — Barring any surprises, a former Lebanese general and a strong ally of the militant Hezbollah group is poised to be elected Lebanon's president next week, formally ending a two-year vacuum in the country's top post and a political crisis that has paralyzed the troubled Mideast nation.
Michel Aoun, an 81-year-old veteran Christian leader, will likely be chosen by Parliament on Monday as part of a deal that's expected to give not just a boost for Hezbollah but also to the Shiite group's ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The strong-willed Maronite Catholic general notoriously led a "war of liberation" against the Syrian army in Lebanon in 1989-90, but reconciled with the Syrian leadership in 2005 after Syria pulled out of Lebanon. He has been a strong supporter of Hezbollah's involvement on the side of Assad in the neighboring country's civil war, now in its sixth year.
Analysts believe Aoun's pick will also affect regional politics beyond Lebanon and Syria and have implications for the rivalry between the Sunni power Saudi Arabia and the mostly Shiite Iran.
"Aoun's election is a clear victory for the pro-Iranian axis in the Levant and another climb down for Saudi Arabia," wrote Paul Salem, vice president for policy and research at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
Lebanon has been without a head of state since President Michel Suleiman stepped down at the end of his term in May 2014, without an agreement on a replacement.
Aoun has been a running candidate from the beginning, and has refused to stand down in favor of other candidates. Parliament has met more than 40 times since then, each time failing to elect a president because of a lack of quorum as Aoun's block and allied Hezbollah lawmakers boycotted the sessions because his election was not guaranteed.
In the end, it took an about-face by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Lebanon's Saudi-backed main Sunni leader, who formally endorsed Aoun for president last week — reportedly in exchange for Aoun promising him the position of prime minister.
Hariri, whose business in Saudi Arabia is seriously struggling, apparently had a change of heart after his endorsements of other candidates, including pro-Syrian politician Suleiman Frangieh, produced no results. The kingdom, Hariri's main backer, is embroiled in other regional crises and appears to have retreated from Lebanese politics.
With Hariri and Hezbollah's votes assured, a quorum of two-thirds majority of the 128-parliament has been secured to convene a parliament session early next week at which Aoun is expected to garner enough votes to become president.
On Friday night, Aoun received the support of Lebanon's leading Druse politician, Walid Jumblatt, boosting his chances even further for a vast majority in Monday's vote.
His election will mark a return for Aoun, who served as interim prime minister at the end of the 1975-90 civil war, to Beirut's Baabda Palace, almost exactly 26 years after he left it under the bombs of Syrian warplanes, forcing him to flee to the French Embassy and eventually to France. He returned in 2005 from a 14 years' exile in France, after Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon in the wake of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination in a massive suicide bombing along a main road on the Corniche in Beirut.
Once Lebanon gets a president, it is hoped, it would reactivate the country's political institutions which have been paralyzed by the crisis. The crisis has forced the parliament to extend its own term twice, with the current one running until May 2017.
But Aoun, known for being obstinate and temperamental, is also a deeply divisive figure in Lebanon. He has declared the current parliament, of which he is part, to be illegitimate but will still be a sitting lawmaker during Monday's vote. He has accused Saad Hariri of corruption and of being a sectarian leader, but now is within reach of a presidency based on co-existence with his rival.
A joke circulating on Whatsapp tells the Lebanese that even though the clocks will fall back just one hour this weekend as the country goes off daylight saving time, "on Monday, Lebanon will be brought back 27 years."
It is also unclear how comfortable Hezbollah is with an Aoun presidency, given he was an opponent of Syria and Hezbollah in the past.
Aoun's endorsement by Hariri has angered many Lebanese Sunnis, including some within Hariri's own Future Party. Aoun also faces stiff resistance from parliament's powerful speaker, Nabih Berri and there are concerns spoilers could stir up trouble on the streets to obstruct Monday's vote.
It's also unclear whether Hariri, once asked by Aoun to appoint a new government, will succeed in the effort and whether politicians can agree on a new election law in time for parliament elections in March.