Exit Syria, enter Aoun
Anti-Syrian Lebanese opposition figure Michel Aoun returns to Beirut after 14 years in exile, reports Serene Assir
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Supporters of anti-Syrian leader Michel Aoun, seen in giant poster, view a welcome rally for their leader on top of a fence in the Martyrs' Square in downtown Beirut, Saturday 7 May
In Lebanon, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Following 14 years of post-war Syrian occupation, the exile of Michel Aoun -- controversial former army commander, wartime prime minister and leader of the anti- Syrian "war of independence" -- came to an end on 7 May 2005. With United States and French backing, Aoun is indicating that he may run for the presidency.
Though the renewal factor is difficult to spot in that the Lebanese political class seems to be far more adept at recycling itself than at producing new trends, this time round Aoun, dubbed "the General", is keen to make a grandiose impact on peacetime politics in promising the creation of a new political era. His track record as a militia leader with a militaristic and extreme nationalist agenda makes it difficult to imagine just how he will achieve such a transformation, but then again Lebanon has managed to integrate warlords into its highest political echelons numerous times before.
Integration, however, doesn't come violence-free in Lebanon. Just one day before Aoun's return, a bomb exploded in Jounieh -- a majority Christian area east of Beirut -- as if to serve as a warning to the nationalist, former militia leader. Yet despite Aoun's long absence from Lebanon, his supporters remain fiercely loyal. As soon as he arrived in Beirut on Saturday afternoon he made his way to the downtown area, scene of popular anti-Syrian uprisings by the political opposition since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri on 14 February. Pausing at Lebanon's tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Aoun then led a rally before thousands of supporters in Martyrs' Square. In his classic populist and ornate phrasing: "I return as the sun of Liberty shines anew to rebuild, together, a new Lebanon."
While for many in Lebanon's opposition, Aoun's return is simply a step towards achieving true national reconciliation, others worry a precedent may be set that leads to the comprehensive absolution of the country's war criminals. Charges brought against Aoun in 1990 for assaulting state security, national unity and the constitution, on the one hand, and embezzling state funds on the other, were dropped just three days before his return to Lebanon. Although the charges were convenient for Syria, which at the time held power, the fact that they have now been forgotten means that the man who is widely reputed to have bombed West Beirut in 1989, killing over 1,000 civilians, will likely never face justice.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Aoun strongly denied that he ordered that bombing. By phone from Paris, Aoun placed responsibility with the Syrians, citing their failure to investigate the massacre as evidence. He added that he would use his return to Lebanon as an opportunity to "rewrite the flawed history of the Lebanese war". While he intends to propose the implementation of a "new programme" calling for the preservation of "national sovereignty" and political "change", whether or not he has changed remains to be seen. His own particular, millennial brand of Lebanese nationalism remains what it was when he first entered the political scene.
"Our programme is based on a movement for national liberation. Note that we now have a sovereign country for the first time in hundreds of years," Aoun told the Weekly. He also remains intent on being inclusive with Lebanon's sects, opining that "extreme sectarianism" prevented "true sovereignty" from blossoming. Aoun added that he is keen to see the creation of a "transparent" and accountable bureaucracy and administration and a "free and democratic state".
Perhaps the only major shift that appears to have taken place in Aoun's political outlook is on the question of the Taif Accords, spearheaded by Al-Hariri and now considered to be the political foundation for modern Lebanese politics and law. While in interviews with reporters through much of his period in exile he widely referred to the accords as the "Taif Diktat", for its stipulation of the maintenance of good relations with Damascus; he told the Weekly that "whoever says that I was against Taif is a liar. I made the Taif Accords possible in the first place. Had it not been for the war of independence there would never have been the opportunity for Taif." Seemingly, it was the principle of "Syria exerting influence in Lebanon" that he opposed. "And after 15 years of consensual occupation, the Lebanese finally turned against Syria too. After 15 years, they were all proved wrong and I right," he added.
On another level, as Lebanon overtly seeks to find ways of moving towards true national reconciliation, Aoun continues to insist that in no way was the Lebanese war a civil war. "It was a war with the Palestinians and the Syrians," he told the Weekly. "The Syrians decided to take over Lebanon and in order to achieve that they armed the Palestinians. I know because I was an officer in the army at the time." Asked what he felt about the Palestinian presence in Lebanon now, he replied: "The Palestinians? What have I got to do with them? I just told you how the war began. We do need to fulfill our national obligation to provide them with decent conditions to live in, and perhaps I would be interested in seeking to integrate them into the national security network, because the current security situation vis-ˆ-vis the Palestinian camps in unacceptable. Other than that, they are not a part of the Lebanese state."
And on how to guarantee Lebanese security from Israel, in Aoun's opinion, "there is no such thing as a guarantee from Israel. We must seek national unity, we must be responsible for each other and be able to depend both on the United Nations and the Lebanese army."
Asked whether he indeed plans to run for the presidency, Aoun states, "This is the last of my concerns at this point. But I am not against the idea."