Lebanon elects Aoun as president, ending two-year stalemate
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After a two-and-a-half year vacancy, the position of Lebanese head of state was finally filled Monday when veteran politician and former general Michel Aoun was elected president by parliament.
With his election, Aoun becomes the 13th president of the tiny, Middle Eastern country riddled with internal sectarian divides that have plunged it into war in the past and that holds together at peacetime with a fragile mix of power sharing and realpolitik.
Aoun’s election came as security was tightened across the capital Beirut, with cars blocked from accessing the parliament area and Martyrs Square, where supporters of Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), dressed in their trademark orange, have been gathering for days.
Lebanon was without a president for over two years following the end of former president Michel Sleiman’s term in office. Lawmakers however failed to arrive at a presidential candidate acceptable to the various parliamentary blocs, and 45 attempts at electing a president ended in failure.
The 46th attempt on Monday turned into a nail-biter after Aoun secured 84 votes in the first round, two short of the 86 needed to win. Under the rules, the veteran politician -- who was present at the special parliamentary session – had to merely secure an absolute majority of votes from the 127 lawmakers present in the chamber. But the second round saw 128 ballots cast -- one more than the number of lawmakers present.
As the nation watched the crucial parliamentary session on live TV, senior Lebanese lawmakers huddled around the dais trying to resolve the last-minute hiccups. When Aoun was finally declared the winner of the historic vote, a cheer went up inside the chamber and among Aoun supporters gathered around TV sets across the nation.
Shock support from two old foes
Hopes for ending the political stalemate resurfaced in January 2016, when Aoun’s old rival, Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces, withdrew his candidacy.
Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, had the backing of the powerful Shiite group since his surprise rapprochement with the Syria-backed group in 2006.
The last hurdle of garnering Sunni support was overcome when former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri -- weakened by disputes with his powerful backer, Saudi Arabia – announced his shock support for his bitter foe, Aoun.
Hariri described his endorsement of Aoun as necessary to "protect Lebanon, protect the (political) system, protect the state and protect the Lebanese people".
The streets of the capital were emptier than usual ahead of the vote, with most schools and universities closed.
But Aoun's supporters were eager to celebrate the leader who is being hailed in banners strung up around the country as "the strong president" who can "work miracles".
His election is widely viewed as a victory for the pro-Iranian axis in the Middle East, giving a boost to Hezbollah and the Shiite Lebanese group's ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Aoun's detractors have ramped up criticism of him on social media ahead of the vote, accusing him of being a highly strung egomaniac who has allied himself with rivals to get what he wants.
In footage posted by an opponent, Aoun is heard railing against the same parliament set to elect him on Monday as an "illegitimate" body because it has twice extended its own mandate.
While Aoun's election will end a vacuum seen as damaging for the country, experts say it is unlikely to resolve the underlying disagreements that kept the post empty for so long.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)