- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2005

BEIRUT — He is a more divisive figure in Lebanon than a unifying one, but Michel Aoun, the army general who stood his ground against the Syrian army until the last moment before fleeing to France 15 years ago, is resolute.

Born in 1935 in the Shi’ite suburb of Harit Hrayk, Gen. Aoun had a political awakening when he emerged from the military academy in 1958, during what often is called Lebanon’s second civil war.

When the country dissolved into full-blown civil conflict in the 1970s, he remained loyal to the government. His rise continued with the splintering of the army along sectarian lines. In the early 1980s, he became head of the Defense Brigade of the national army, which was based on the Green Line separating east and west Beirut.

Now that he has returned to Lebanon, “the general” who leads the Free Patriotic Movement is adamant about ending the “confessional system” that has defined the country’s political and social landscape since it was part of the Ottoman Empire, which ended in 1920.

Apolitical faith

The Ottoman Turks were mainly Muslims, but of many sorts and sects: Sunni, Shi’ite, Sufi, Alawi and more. They ruled many other Middle Eastern populations — Jews; Christians, including Orthodox, Maronites and Catholics; and the Druze. To maintain harmony, these groups lived mainly in segregation and had local leaders of their own sort. Higher positions generally were reserved for specific ethnic and religious groups.

This “confessional” or faith-based allocation of government posts was continued by the French in the Middle East after the 1920s.

Gen. Aoun comes from a devout Christian Maronite family and said in an interview that his faith is important. He quoted from the Bible, but insisted that he is not a zealot.

“I am not a fanatic. Christianity is a religion of love. … Jesus gave one commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself and love your enemies. I make no distinction between people.

“All the Muslim people know I am a practicing Christian, and they all love me and believe me. My Christian faith is not political.”

Country first

There is certitude in the general’s voice when he speaks of loyalty to the nation and of fighting corruption and says Lebanon should not be “governed with a 19th-century mentality.”

He urged an end to what he called a “feudal” political system, and at one point urged Lebanese citizens not to vote in the current elections.

His aversion to “confessionalism” is also historical. Gen. Aoun was appointed prime minister of Lebanon in 1988 by President Amin Gemayel 15 minutes before the president’s term expired.

His appointment violated an unwritten 1943 agreement that restricted the position of prime minister to Sunni Muslims.

Gen. Aoun lives in a villa in the mountains of Rabieh that was given to him by a wealthy Lebanese businessman. Bodyguards with M-16s and an army big enough to defend a small airport protect him.

Gen. Aoun is surprisingly calm, soft-spoken and collected — altogether different from the angry and abrasive man who, upon his May 7 return to Beirut, yelled at reporters to be quiet.

It is his loyalty to the nation, rather than to religion, that led many Lebanese Christians to grow cynical and boycott the elections.

But disillusionment with 2000 election law and 15 years of puppet rulers, which many Christians think subjected them to the Syrian Ba’athist regime, has caused the younger generation of Lebanese to rally behind the general.

A new hope

An example is Maida Abou Jaoude, 31, a journalist, broadcaster and staunch supporter of Gen. Aoun, whom she introduced to thousands of supporters at Martyr’s Square on his return to Lebanon two months ago.

“For 15 years I didn’t believe in any change in the country. I didn’t believe in anyone in the country except him, and he was not here. I was fighting in my own way in my field, in the media,” she said.

For Miss Jaoude, Gen. Aoun is an untainted man.

“He is everything that is right, everything that is correct,” she added. “He isn’t corrupt, not a liar, he isn’t of the politics that we have seen in Lebanon all these years. He is direct, straightforward, and he never changed his views his entire life. What he said 15 years ago [about the Syrians], it became true. We paid the price for 15 years.”

Gen. Aoun’s boast that he has come to “clean house” in Lebanon also strikes a chord with young people, who worry about their future, finding jobs and more sectarian bloodshed.

“The fear these young people have is immense, and they see in him the potential for helping to avoid some of these catastrophes that may come to Lebanon,” said Michel Nehme, dean of Notre Dame University in Beirut and a professor of political science.

Making changes

But Gen. Aoun has plenty of critics.

“General Michel Aoun is a megalomaniac idiot who is splitting the Lebanese opposition and will go into history as a total loser,” said Ziad Abdelnour, president of the U.S. Committee for a Free Lebanon, a New York-based venture capitalist and financier.

“He is the last leader that Lebanon needs right now. … He should retire and stop playing into the hands of Syria and the Lahoud cronies. … This is not how he’s going to achieve the support of true Lebanese nationalists. … Lebanon doesn’t need more generals like Michel Aoun. We have already had it with the other idiot [President] Emile Lahoud,” Mr. Abdelnour said.

Criticism aside, what is apparent is Gen. Aoun’s unwavering desire to eradicate “confessionalism” and Syria’s influence from Lebanon, and this differentiates him from his rivals.

His allies, Gen. Aoun’s supporters say, have been only too eager to engage in horse trading and make election deals. The general acknowledges that his hard line on corruption has isolated him from the rest of the Lebanese opposition.

“We live in a confessional system today. We agreed to distribute the key positions among religious blocs. The presidency, the prime ministry, the speaker of the parliament, the number of ministers in the parliament … everything is agreed on in advance,” he said.

“What we should work on are political programs and economic initiatives, and these are not confessional … because an economic initiative will affect the entire Lebanese population, and political reform will involve all the Lebanese people, so there would be no reason for religious warfare.”

‘Secular culture’

Gen. Aoun also wants to change Lebanese laws to permit civil marriage, empower women, establish corporate governance and accountability, reduce the country’s debt by bringing in an outside auditing firm, amend citizenship laws and restructure the military.

The general says these are all areas his foes are unwilling to address because that would reduce their influence.

“We want to create a secular culture so people can make demands and confront religious authorities that refuse them,” he said.

He said that although he has no designs on the presidency of Lebanon, he does not rule it out if the position comes his way.

“I am not working with this aim. If I am nominated or am made emergency president, then, yes, I would accept it. But I am not seeking it. I am working for my program, which is an ambitious one. If my presidency helps my program, then yes,” the general declared.

Although some Lebanese see hope in Gen. Aoun’s return, others see a warmonger unwilling to let go of the past, incapable of shedding his army fatigues and unable to differentiate between soldiers and civilians.

It is his propensity for anger and his willingness to speak his mind that have turned off would-be supporters and scared away those who might have been allies.

Gen. Aoun has traveled this way before, making enemies in battles he could not win. An example is his decision as prime minister to declare war on Syria, which won him the support of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

That eventual defeat, which coincided with the 1991 Gulf War, ended with his seeking refuge at the French Embassy before being granted asylum.

“He is transparent. He takes pride in that. This is what scares other people, and this is what makes him at times fragile in his politics.

“He discloses, he opens up his intentions, which sometimes makes others scheme against him, because they can read him very clearly,” said Mr. Nehme, the university dean and political science professor.

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