Four years on, Lebanese president’s record is dismal
BIERUT--Four years ago, on October 31, 2016, Michel Aoun was sworn in as Lebanon’s new president following a political stalemate that kept the country’s top post vacant for more than two years.
In his inauguration speech, Aoun, founder of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), vowed to introduce badly-needed reforms in government institutions, improve economic and social conditions, resolve the Syrian refugee crisis, secure Lebanon’s neutrality vis-a-vis regional conflicts and rebuild the country’s relations with the Arab and international community.
But the fourth anniversary of Aoun’s so-called “strong rule” is blemished by Lebanon’s worst economic and financial crisis ever, unchecked corruption, a lack of reforms, deep political and confessional divisions and an unprecedented deterioration of Lebanon’s Arab relations and isolation from the international community.
“Aoun was in fact imposed as president by the force of (Hezbollah’s) arms. He did not reflect a consensual choice of the Lebanese. Since his tenure began the divisional problems in the country have surfaced and worsened,” said Middle East policy adviser and university professor Imad Salamey.
Lebanon was left without a head of state for 29 months before Aoun was elected under pressure from his Hezbollah ally and a concession made by Saad Hariri, head of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament.
“The way he came to power was a clear violation of the constitution and the Taif agreement. Both Aoun and Hezbullah are critical of the Taif agreement and have been trying hard to undermine it since,” Salamey said.
The Saudi-brokered Taif Agreement, which put an end to Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, vested more powers in the hands of the Sunni prime minister and the council of ministers while shrinking the powers of the Christian president. Under Lebanon’s confessional system, the president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the parliament speaker a Shia.
“Aoun has been trying to reverse the Taif agreement to re-institute presidential powers,” Salamey said.
“He primarily marginalised the Sunnis and undermined the national fabric of the country especially the confessional fabric by making one sect as an outcast leading to a serious imbalance of consensual political discourse. This resulted in moving the country from one crisis to another,” he added.
Salamey also accused Hezbollah-backed Aoun of seeking to turn Lebanon away from its Arab surroundings, “a move that cost Lebanon dearly economically and politically.”
Aoun was faced with the biggest challenge of his mandate a year ago when a cross-sectarian popular uprising swept across Lebanon demanding the president’s resignation and the departure of the political class regarded as corrupt and incompetent. Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil, a former foreign minister, was a main target of the protesters.
Since ascending to power, Aoun has introduced no clear programme or demonstrated a will to change or make reforms, according to political analyst and journalist Sateh Noureddine.
“His (Aoun’s) election was mostly a belated reward to a military person who played a big role in the country’s political life. He was backed by Hezbollah because his FPM stood by Hezbollah in the 2006 war against Israel and not because he had any program for change or reform,” Noureddine said.
Aoun, a former Army commander, led a war to drive the Syrian army out of Lebanon in 1989. During 15 years of self-exile in France afterwards, he campaigned with the international community to end Damascus’s hegemony. His action gained him a large following in Lebanese, especially among Christians.
“When Aoun was elected the FPM was still very popular among Christians and had an appealing agenda but all this just collapsed and vanished the minute he stepped into Baabda (presidential palace),” Noureddine said.
“His priority and main concern since then has been to groom his son-in-law to succeed him. Aoun even marginalised possible competitors to (Gebran) Bassil within his own party. That was the beginning of the descending of his rule and his party,” Noureddine added.
Analysts say Aoun’s mandate, which ends in two years, has consecrated a “modus operandi” based on confessionalism and the sharing of spoils between sectarian parties, a policy that further entrenched corruption, leading to the country’s present economic and financial breakdown.