On Monday, October 31, 2016, the Lebanese parliament, in its 46th meeting and after a vacant presidency since May 2014, chose General Michel Aoun as president. He is a Maronite Christian, the son of Mary and Naim Aoun, the milkman from Haret Hreik, the mixed Shiite-Maronite neighborhood adjacent to the southern Beirut neighborhood of Dahiya.
Aoun will be Lebanon’s first president whose family originates from the southern part of the country (a village called Maknuniyah, 70 kilometers south of Beirut), the heartland of the Shiite community in Lebanon. Aoun is the 13th Lebanese president since its independence. He is the third oldest member of the Lebanese parliament and the oldest president – born February 18, 1935, in “Greater Lebanon,” nine years before Lebanon’s independence. He is also the Arab world’s oldest politician; King Salman of Saudi Arabia is almost 12 months younger, and the Algerian Abdelaziz Bouteflika is “only” 79!
He is also the fourth Lebanese commander of the Army to become President. Fouad Chehab, Emile Lahoud, and Michel Suleiman were his predecessors in the post.
Michel Aoun’s election was possible only after resolving the political deadlock created by Hizbullah in 2014 when the Shiite militia’s members and coalition in parliament refused to show up to the 45 previous sessions of parliament. By its abstention, Hizbullah did not allow the quorum needed to elect a president. Twenty-nine months of presidential vacancy thus comes to an end with a president identified as the ultimate ally of Hizbullah and, by projection, an ally of Iran.
Aoun Is Not from the Maronite Elite
Unlike most of his predecessors, Aoun comes from a very poor family and very far from the Maronite social elite. His way to Lebanon’s elite was made through his military career since he had no other way of climbing the Maronite echelons in Lebanon. Furthermore, his southern origin was always viewed with disdain by the “northern” elite who expressed arrogance towards those from the south “with their funny accent similar to the Shiites.” In a way, his Hizbullah-backed election is but a reflection of the deep changes in Lebanese society whereas the traditional “noble” families are pushed aside by field commanders as an alternative elite.
Aoun’s father married his cousin Mary who had American citizenship. Her parents had immigrated to the United States in 1904 and lived in New Hampshire. A few years later, the family came back to Lebanon, and in 1930 she met her cousin Naim and married him a few months later.
Naim then moved to Haret Hreik and lived there very modestly, mainly living from selling milk to the neighborhood. Six children were born from this union: three brothers and three sisters: Elias, Jeanette, Michel, Antoinette, Renee, and Robert. Out of the six brothers and sisters, three are still living today: Michel, Antoinette (who lives with her children in the United States), and the youngest Renee who lives in Lebanon.
Michel Aoun went to the “Frères” school in Beirut. Being poor, he could not afford to study engineering at the university. So at the age of 20, he entered the military academy (1955) and three years later graduated as an artillery officer. Three years later (1961) he was promoted to lieutenant; seven years later to captain, then major (1974), and finally brigadier general (1984), the year he was given the command of the Lebanese army.
Aoun was called by the Lebanese president in 1988 to fill the position of the interim prime minister because of a procedural impossibility to vote for a successor to Amin Gemayel. In 1990, he fled the presidential palace in Baabda, which was under attack by Syrian troops, and found refuge at the French embassy. He was whisked out of the country to France where he stayed until 2005 when the Syrian Army retreated from Lebanon. Aoun was welcomed back as a hero, and since then he had set his goal to be Lebanon’s next president after Michel Suleiman. In 2006, during the second Israeli campaign in Lebanon, Aoun forged an alliance with Hizbullah which he kept and nurtured until these very days.
At the age of 33 (1968), Michel Aoun married Nadia Salim el-Shami whose family comes from Zahleh (the Christian bastion of the Bekaa Valley). Three daughters were born to the couple: Mireille married to Roy el-Hachem, the chairman of OTV, a TV network which is the mouthpiece of Aoun political current; Claudine married to Shamel Roukoz, a brigadier general in the Lebanese Army; and Chantal is married to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jibran Basil.
It is too early to decipher the reasons that led to the election of Aoun as Lebanon’s 13th president and especially the reasons behind the change of heart of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was close to the royal house of Saud and leader of the opposition to the Hizbullah political alliance. Hariri left his candidate Sleiman Frangieh in the lurch by choosing Aoun, an alternative adamantly anti-Saudi, backed by Hizbullah (the very enemy of the Saudi regime), and the same organization that assassinated his father, Rafik. It is possible that Aoun promised Hariri the job of prime minister.
Political Motives in Lebanon Are Often a Mystery
But it is quite difficult to understand the current anti-Saudi stance adopted by Hariri whose fortune and destiny were so closely tied to the royal house of Saud. Rumors circulating in the Arab world report of a vindictive approach by Hariri after Saudi authorities penalized his companies in Saudi Arabia following a transcript of a telephone conversation in which Saad Hariri was heard bluntly criticizing the Saudi king. Apologies expressed afterwards did not mend the fences, and the Saudi authorities decided to take their revenge on Hariri’s economic empire in Saudi Arabia.
In a typical Lebanese manner, Michel Aoun has no dogmatic positions. His view is mainly influenced by the Maronite struggle for survival in the Middle East, by the tremors generated by the radical Islamic tsunami aimed at the destruction of Christian presence in the area.
When Aoun was commander of the 8th Brigade and especially when he was in exile in Paris, he had constant and numerous encounters with Israelis and discussed with them ways to ensure the presence of Christianity in the Middle East and ways of cooperation with Israel. After his return to Lebanon, Aoun understood that the future of the Christians in Lebanon could no more be ensured by the United States, France, or Israel. His understanding was that only through cooperation with Hizbullah and its Iranian patron could the Lebanese Christians guarantee their independent survival in the Middle East.
Aoun’s victory is by no means the defeat of the Christian, pro-Saudi, pro-Western camp. It is too early to claim victory for Hizbullah and Iran, especially in Lebanon where alliances change constantly. Aoun’s election has not solved Lebanon’s problems. It has just permitted the initiation of a dialogue between rivals with different goals and ambitions. Today, it seems that Hizbullah has won the round. It remains to be seen how the poor child from Haret Hreik will navigate between the different factions of the Lebanese labyrinth, how the system will react, and how the regional powers, first and foremost the losers (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) will find their way to assert their interests.