Iran’s Man in Beirut

Lebanon’s new president has been a putschist, a neocon fellow traveler, and now an ally of Hezbollah.

Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

On the morning of 13 October, 1990, the Syrian Air Force launched fighter jet strikes on the Lebanese presidential palace in Baabda, southeast of Beirut. Their target was a General Michel Aoun, an army commander appointed two years previously by an outgoing president to lead a temporary cabinet until elections could be held, who instead went rogue, moving himself into Baabda Palace and effectively declaring himself ruler of the republic—and happy to fight anyone who said otherwise.

His reign, such as it was, saw thousands killed in quixotic military campaigns against rival warlords and the Syrian army then occupying Lebanon. By October 1990, the Syrians were determined to finish him off, and the United States – of whom he had also managed to make an enemy—was willing to let them, not least as a nod of gratitude for Damascus’ assistance in the liberation of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. “I am ready to die on the battlefield of honor rather than surrender—be sure I shall die fighting,” Aoun told a crowd of supporters on the 12th, when it was clear a final Syrian push was imminent. By noon the following day, Aoun had surrendered without firing a shot and fled to the French embassy, leaving scores of his men massacred in the ground and air onslaught, and the presidential palace in ruins. Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war was over.

Today, the same Michel Aoun—now 81 years old—was elected to return as president to the same Baabda Palace, ending Lebanon’s thirty-month leadership vacuum after spending over a quarter of a century between exile in France and Lebanon, tirelessly plotting his eventual comeback with near-Shakespearean ambition. “I can add colours to the chameleon,” boasts the rapacious Richard III in Henry VI; “Change shapes with Proteus for advantages/ And set the murd’rous Machiavel to school.” Aoun’s long life has seen him morph from a Fort Hill-trained commander in a US-backed army (once even photographed in Israeli company) to an anti-American proxy of the Iraqi Baath regime to a Bush-supporting neoconservative fellow traveler (speaking at the Hudson Institute in favor of the Iraq War on a 2003 tour of Washington, during which he also testified to Congress in support of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act) to, most recently, a stalwart comrade of the Iranian-Syrian “Axis of Resistance.” His election today came after he and his Hezbollah ally boycotted all electoral sessions for more than two years, bluntly refusing to attend unless and until his victory was guaranteed in advance. Earlier in the month, the last of his major remaining opponents—Saad al-Hariri of the Saudi Arabia-backed Future Movement—caved in, endorsing Aoun in what he called a “sacrifice […] for the nation, the state, and stability.”

Such bullheaded singleness of mind is a great part of what makes “The General,” as Aoun is known, so strongly adored—and detested. To fans, he’s a plucky, steel-willed Knight Templar who’ll restore the diminished Christian community—around a third of Lebanon’s population—to the preeminence it lost after the civil war. To foes, he’s a foul-tempered, megalomaniacal narcissist; an opportunist and bigot with a Napoleon complex and, possibly, the beginnings of dementia. Memes likening him to Donald Trump are already ubiquitous on Lebanese social media. The two certainly share an aversion to refugees; a soft spot for dictators; an inclination to the personality cult; and a pronounced contempt for the journalistic profession. “You’re not a journalist, you’re a provocateur,” is the sort of thing he says to journalists whose questions he doesn’t like. Others get banned from his press conferences. In one of those jokes-but-not-really of the sort to which Trump watchers have now become accustomed, he laughed in 2006 that if his party wanted to get back at one of their rivals “we’d have burned their television station down ages ago.”

Yet aside from a new ability to jail anyone who “disparages” him or “violates his dignity” —thanks to Draconian lèse-majesté laws courtesy of French colonialism—it’s unclear how much power President Aoun will really have to implement any sort of political platform. The presidency is a largely ceremonial post, watered down considerably (to the advantage of the prime minister and parliament speaker) in the constitutional amendments that followed the civil war. Aoun differs, however, from other postwar presidents in having a sizable popular base, reflected in the second-largest bloc in parliament, which he “will use to advance and intervene in politics,” according to Lebanese American University political science professor, Dr. Imad Salamey.

“President Aoun will have a solid parliamentary bloc, strong support coming from Hezbollah and Iran, and quite a lot of leverage over the military situation in the country,” Salamey told The Daily Beast. “He won’t be a bystander or a weak figure.”

Certainly, those in the Aounist camp are unperturbed about the constitutional limits on his powers. “Even if he doesn’t have many prerogatives, the personality of the president – with his wisdom, his conviction, and his persuasive projects—means no one will be able to tell him no,” The Daily Beast was told by Habib Younes, spokesperson for Aoun’s political movement. By Younes’ account, Aoun has a plethora of ideas for improving the country – set out in his 2007 book, My Vision for Lebanon – touching on everything from education to the oil and gas sector to military reforms to man’s relationship with God. “We have an opportunity now,” said Younes, “to save Lebanon.”

Well, even critics of Aoun concede there will be some upside to his election, as there would be no matter who put an end to thirty months of sovereign vacuum. The mere fact of having a president will begin to resuscitate vital state institutions such as parliament, which is constitutionally forbidden from passing any laws in the absence of a head of state (and has consequently been effectively shut down since May 2014). This in turn ought to breathe a modicum of life back into the stagnant economy (the Beirut Stock Exchange is up 7% on last month at the time of writing) and restore at least a minimum of state functionality on such fronts as garbage collection, which, staggeringly, is still in crisis more than a year on from last summer’s mass protests.

Beyond that, however, Lebanon will remain hostage to malevolent forces beyond Aoun’s control, as well as quite a few to which he has actively contributed. To the extent that the Syrian war, Hezbollah’s participation therein, and the consequent refugee influx and Gulf Arab boycott of the country are the causes of Lebanon’s present political and socioeconomic woes, a case could be made that Aoun’s vocal support for the Assad regime (“the closest to democracy” in the Middle East) and Hezbollah’s intervention (“necessary”) places a degree of moral responsibility on his shoulders. To the endemic corruption and nepotism that rot state institutions, he has been no stranger, or so at least many Lebanese concluded from the revelation his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, a middle-class engineering graduate before he married Aoun’s daughter, has been able to purchase $22 million worth of real estate since Aoun’s return from exile in 2005. When Bassil announced in July he’d reached an agreement with the parliament speaker’s party on the extraction of Lebanon’s untapped offshore natural gas reserves, the joke in Beirut was it would be better to keep the gas in the sea.

Lebanon, in other words, will remain Lebanon. Which isn’t to say Aoun’s election hasn’t reshuffled the political deck domestically, and even regionally. With Hezbollah’s two former greatest foes—the mainly Sunni Muslim Future Movement led by Hariri, now tipped to be the new prime minister, and the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) —suddenly allied to Hezbollah’s president and joining their cabinet, the split that defined the last eleven years of Lebanese politics between the Hezbollah-led March 8 movement and Future-led March 14 has been wordlessly discarded as though it (and the people who died for it) never existed. A cynic might presume so precarious a house of cards could only ever be one car bomb away from ruin, but the Aounist-LF alliance, at any rate, seems sincere. And with Hariri’s finances being what they are – that is, billions of dollars in the red—he seems to have calculated that the “risk,” as he called it, of making nice with Hezbollah was necessary to stay politically alive.

Small wonder, then, that the general consensus is Iran “wins” this bout of its regional rumble with Saudi Arabia. The arrival in Beirut Thursday of the most senior Saudi official to visit Lebanon in over eight years was an interesting sign the Kingdom would grudgingly acquiesce in the new order and even, in the minister’s words, “try to revitalize relations” with Lebanon that have been on ice since January. Riyadh may engage once again with Beirut, though it knows it can’t hope to mount a victorious confrontation against Tehran here in the prevailing circumstances.

Also interesting has been the apparent lack of any meaningful Syrian role in Aoun’s election—a conspicuous lacuna considering it wasn’t long ago Lebanese presidents were appointed by phone from Damascus. Iran’s coup is thus two-fold; against Saudi and, more subtly, against Syria.

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How curious that the man who lost Baabda Palace in 1990 fighting to rid Lebanon of a foreign power should finally return to his coveted throne straddling the saddle of that same foreign power’s successor.