| 14 April 2024, Sunday |

Lebanon ‘tackles’ presidential vacuum…with army generals

As Lebanon’s political blocs have failed to elect a new president for the country, all attention turns, as usual, to the military institution, which enjoys the people’s trust as the most cohesive authority within the Lebanese state.


In addition to MP Michel Moawad, two candidates share the electoral stage; but no party has endorsed their candidacy. Those are former MP Sleiman Franjieh, and Army Commander General Joseph Aoun. The latter’s chances are rising with the faltering elections, especially since he also enjoys international confidence that was expressed on more than one occasion.


The Army tends to ignore talks about the candidacy of its commander and refrains from making public statements about it.


A security source told Asharq Al-Awsat that the commander’s directives were firm in this regard.


“His main concern today is to spare the institution the catastrophic repercussions of the crises that afflict the country; he is not envisaging political work,” the source remarked.


Asharq Al-Awsat presents an extensive investigation, based on the experience of four Army generals – Fouad Chehab, Emile Lahoud, Michel Sleiman, and Michel Aoun – who assumed the Lebanese presidency.


All of the four generals were elected as a result of consensus and the inability of politicians to propose solutions to the crises that afflict the country. Paradoxically, the tenure of each of them witnessed a change in the international and regional balance of power that further scattered the country’s torn papers.


Fouad Chehab: The era of institutions… and intelligence services


General Fouad Chehab played two pivotal roles in the two biggest crises that afflicted Lebanon. The first was the resignation of President Bechara El-Khoury in 1952 under the pressure of massive demonstrations against his internal policies, and apparently, his endeavor to renew his mandate after amending the constitution.


The second crisis was represented in the events of the so-called 1958 revolution at the end of the term of President Camille Chamoun, who sided with the policies of the West in contrast to the policies of Egyptian President Abdel Nasser, who was overwhelmingly popular among Muslims in Lebanon.


In the first crisis, Chehab was appointed head of a transitional government for three days, which oversaw the transfer of power between the resignation of Khoury and the election of Chamoun. In the second, the army stood neutral between the two parties to the conflict and prevented supporters of the opposition and the government alike from occupying strategic sites such as airports, radio stations, and government buildings.


Although Fouad Chehab rejected the temptation to run for the presidency in 1952, he accepted that in 1958.


His tenure was known as “the era of institutions,” but was also marked by the strong involvement of the Army Intelligence – known at the time as the Second Bureau – in political life, as well as in administrations and civil societies.


Renowned Author Emile Khoury described Chehab’s rule as the “era of stability and reforms.”


Emile Lahoud… A failed reproduction of Chehab’s Experience


With the end of President Elias Hrawi’s term in 1995, Army Commander General Emile Lahoud was the preferred candidate for Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who at that time had the last say in the appointment of senior positions in the country.


However, external pressure and wishes made Assad postpone this election, and accept the extension of Hrawi’s term for an additional three years, after which Lahoud would be elected as president in 1998 after amending the constitution for this purpose.


Lahoud’s tenure saw a decline in the power of the Syrian regime in Lebanon. Moreover, Assad’s support for amending the constitution to extend Lahoud’s term for an additional three years resulted in the latter’s international isolation, especially since it occurred before the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the great upheaval that followed.


Former Minister Karim Pakradouni, who was a supporter of Lahoud’s election, says: “There is a rule in Lebanon: every time politicians fail to agree on a candidate’s name, they resort to the army. This is what happened in 1958 when differences prevailed between political and sectarian forces… This also happened when they elected General Emile Lahoud as president…”


Pakradouni continued: “In this context, President Lahoud summed up the policies of his era with ‘liberation, alliance with Syria, and reform’. Lahoud succeeded in achieving liberation, as the land was liberated from the Israelis in 2000, and he was able to ally with Syria, but he did not succeed in the issue of reform, knowing that much was expected of him in reforms…”


The Era of Michel Sleiman… The Golden Trio turns into Intense Rivalry


President Michel Sleiman assumed the presidency following a compromise between the parties to the conflict at the end of Lahoud’s term, and after a presidential vacuum that lasted for nearly six months. Sleiman was a consensual president produced by agreements in Doha in the aftermath of a military operation carried out by Hezbollah against its political opponents in Beirut and the Mountains in May 2008.


Alike his military predecessors, he faced changes in the international equation, with the outbreak of the Arab Spring uprisings and their arrival in Syria with the direct involvement of Hezbollah.


The “honeymoon” with the party did not last long, and talk of the “Army, People and Resistance,” which was adopted in the ministerial statement during his tenure, turned into intense rivalry with Sleiman, to the extent that his supporters described this slogan as the “wooden trio”, ridiculing Hezbollah’s description of it as the “golden trio.”


Former Minister Nazim al-Khoury, who was close to Sleiman, considers him “a national figure who succeeded in playing the role of arbitrator between the political parties. His election came as a realistic solution to a crisis that almost brought the country back to civil war.”


Khoury noted that Sleiman’s main accomplishments included his success in managing the national dialogue and achieving consensus on the famous Baabda Declaration, which was considered a complement to the Taif Document and the Doha Agreement, and later became an official document approved by the United Nations and the League of Arab States.


Sleiman wanted the declaration to be a pre-emptive Lebanese agreement that would fortify it internally. Unfortunately, Iran entered the war line in Syria, which made Hezbollah retract its support for the Baabda Declaration and directly engage in the Syrian conflict.


Michel Aoun… The Era of Crises


Michel Sleiman’s term ended in a new presidential vacuum. The March 14 team had the necessary parliamentary majority to elect the president (about 70 deputies). However, the opposite team disrupted parliament sessions and prevented voting for two years and five months, after which a settlement was reached to elect General Michel Aoun, provided that MP Saad Hariri assumes the premiership.


This experiment has drastically failed. Lebanon suffered a relapse in the middle of the mandate, with a new international and regional change, accompanied this time by a financial and economic collapse, the greatest in the country’s history.


Aoun could not rule. Hezbollah, which closed Parliament to secure the election of its ally, “did not help him succeed,” says a senior official in the pro-Aoun movement.


MP Alain Aoun, the former president’s nephew and a member of his parliamentary bloc, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “President Aoun’s experience was not up to his ambitions or the aspirations of his supporters because of the financial collapse that occurred during his tenure…”


“This setback, despite its magnitude, cannot abolish the positive accomplishments during the era of President Aoun, in terms of the return of security and political stability in the first half of his tenure, thanks to the understandings that existed at the time, and the electoral reform that saw the adoption of the proportional system for the first time in the history of Lebanon, and finally and most importantly, the agreement on the maritime border demarcation with Israel,” the deputy said.

  • Asharq Al-Awsat