Friday, May 06, 2005

The General Returns from Exile

Another bomb has gone off on the eve of General Michel Aoun’s return to Lebanon after almost 15 years of exile reports the Lebanon Daily Star:
A bomb exploded in a Christian port town north of the Lebanese capital on Friday, killing one Sri Lankan woman, wounding six people and damaging shops and houses, a security source said. The explosion, the fifth to target the country's Christian heartland in two months, came on the eve of the return of anti-Syrian opposition leader Michel Aoun to Lebanon from 15 years of exile.

Michel Aoun was a pivotal figure in both Lebanon’s civil war and the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, and despite the last 15 years of exile, he enjoys a wide spread of support as one of the few truly secular populists in Lebanon politics.

Aoun commanded the 84th Mechanized Infantry Battalion which fought Syrian, Druze and Palestinian forces at the battle of Souq el Gharb in 1983. He was chosen to command the Lebanese Army in June 1984. In 1988, the outgoing President Amine Gemayel appointed Aoun to be Prime Minister of Lebanon until new elections could be held despite the fact that Aoun as a Maronite Catholic was ineligible for the position. According to Lebanon’s confessional constitutional government the Prime Ministership was a position that could only be held by a Sunni Muslim. Because of this, Aoun could not rely on the full support of the Lebanese Army and was forced to form alliances with the Phalangist militia and their Israeli backers as well as France and Saddam Hussein.

Opposed to Aoun’s appointment was former Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss who was declared Prime Minister by the opposition and backed by Syrian forces. Two governments were formed with a civilian one under al-Hoss based in West Beirut and a military one under General Aoun in East Beirut. This state of flux was maintained until the spring when Aoun used his army to wrest control of ports held by Lebanese Forces Militia headed by Samir Geagea in order to raise custom revenues for his government. By attacking the predominately Christian LP forces Aoun established his bona fides as a Christian leader who put the welfare of all Lebanese before confessional divides and hence established his leadership claim along non-sectarian lines. Cynics have suggested that the attack’s ultimate aim was not revenues per say but a ruse to entice Lebanese Muslims to support Aoun’s goal of becoming Lebanon’s uncontested head of state.

The support of France and Iraq emboldened General Aoun to declare war on Syria in March 1989. The subsequent months of fighting between Aoun’s forces and Syria would see more than 900,000 people flee Beirut. During this period, Aoun became increasingly critical of American support for Syria and subsequently moved ever closer to the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.

By October 1989 the Lebanese National Assembly members met to draw up the Taif Accord with Syria in an attempt to end the Lebanese civil war. Aoun refused to participate and denounced all Christian leaders as traitors who choose to attend. He subsequently issued a decree dissolving the assembly. This action cost Aoun much of the support he had previously enjoyed from both Christian and Muslim leaders in Lebanon. Because of the Taif Accord, the elected assembly refused to dissolve and moved to elect Rene Moawadas as President in November. Moawadas was assassinated just 17 days after taking office. Elias Hrawi was duly elected to take Moawadas’ place. Hrawi appointed General Emile Lahoud as commander of the Lebanese Army and ordered Aoun out of the Presidential Palace. Aoun refused and moved to attack all his political and military rivals in the Lebanese forces until May 1990. Aoun failed to decisively defeat Samir Geagea’s LF and as a result of the fighting was left only in control of half of East Beirut.

The beginning of the end came for Aoun and his supporters when their main arms supplier and supporter, Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait in August 1990. In return for Syria’s support in Gulf War 1 America supported Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. The Syrian’s attacked the Presidential palace in October and Aoun fled to the French Ambassador’s residence. Ten months later Aoun agreed to go into exile in France where he remained steadfast in demanding an end to Syrian involvement in Lebanon.

Tomorrow General Aoun ends his exile by returning to Lebanon. The Lebanon Daily Star: reports on the preparations for the General's return:

Lebanon is preparing to welcome home exiled army commander and one-time Prime Minister Michel Aoun who is scheduled to arrive back in Lebanon later today after 15 years of exile in France. Thousands of Lebanese across the country were heading for Beirut's Martyrs' Square, where "Lebanon's liberator" as Aoun's supporters dub him, is scheduled to speak following his arrival at the capital's airport.
The exiled general will receive a hero's welcome from his supporters who compare his homecoming to General de Gaulle's historic return to Paris after the liberation from Nazi occupation.

In 1989 outgoing Lebanese President Amine Gemayel appointed the general as interim-prime minister towards the end of the country's 15 year civil war. But Aoun overstayed his term and following more bloodshed was ousted a few months later by Syrian and Lebanese troops led by then army commander, current President Emile Lahoud. But now, after having criminal charges against him dropped, Aoun is returning a hero and is expected to play a leading part with the opposition in elections which begin this month.

In Martyrs' Square, a huge stage has been erected for Aoun and his army subordinates who went into exile with him. In a bid to ensure the general's return is not seen as divisive to an increasingly fractured opposition, Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement spokesman Lucien Aoun warned supporters to greet Aoun with the Lebanese flag and not the party's flag.

Though not all Lebanese will welcome the General home from exile and see his return as nothing more than a real and credible threat to their own sphere of influence in Lebanese affairs. And who are those who feel threatened by the General’s return? Hezbollah.

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