BEIRUT – Lebanon closed a chapter in its bloody civil war Saturday with the return of army general Michel Aoun from 14 years of forced exile in France.
The staunchly anti-Syrian Christian leader’s homecoming is expected to profoundly affect the country’s political scene, changing the configuration of alliances that arose following the assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri on Feb. 14.
A former commander-in-chief of the army, Aoun was propelled to political prominence in 1988 when former president Amine Gemayel nominated him to form a military government due to parliament’s inability to elect a new president for the country.
His anti-Syrian stance was dimly viewed by Damascus, however, which opposed his appointment, as did the Americans. Furthermore, Muslim army officers refused to join his cabinet, resulting in a rival government being set up by Selim al-Hoss, Gemayel’s Muslim former prime minister in West Beirut.
Aoun’s two years in power became one of the bloodiest periods of the Lebanese civil war, marked by his "war of liberation" against the Syrians in Lebanon, as well as his fighting against Christian militias opposed to him.
He rejected the Taif Accord, signed by Lebanese parliamentarians in the Saudi city of Taif in 1990, which paved the way for the end of the civil war and legalized Syrian presence in Lebanon.
His refusal to accept the election of Rene Mouawad as president, and subsequently Elias Hrawi after the former was assassinated, prompted the United States to give the Syrians carte blanche to remove him from power.
A Syrian air and ground offensive against the presidential palace where the renegade general had barricaded himself eventually forced Aoun to surrender and go into exile in France.
Throughout his years in exile, the 70-year-old Maronite Catholic maintained close contact with his support base, which has remained strong despite being banned.
Along with imprisoned former warlord Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces, he remains the most prominent leader among the minority Christian population, which emerged weakened and divided from the 15-year civil war.
With the Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon finalized April 26 following heavy international pressure, the gates have now opened for a return to the scene of both Aoun and Geagea.
On Wednesday and Thursday last week, the Lebanese judiciary dropped all criminal charges against Aoun. The general had stood accused of embezzlement of government funds, "conspiracy and usurpation of political and military power" relating to his refusal to hand over the reins to Hrawi, and of undermining relations between Syria and Lebanon, due to his testimony before U.S. Congress on the Syrian occupation of Lebanon in 2003.
"I am coming back as someone who has ended his struggle with the realization of a goal in which I believed and for which I fought: the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon," he told reporters this week.
His return however, has sent jitters through the political opposition movement, whose steady disintegration since the Syrian withdrawal the main factor uniting them could well speed up with Aoun entering the fray.
The one with most to lose is Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, who had successfully positioned himself as one of the main leaders of the opposition movement that emerged after Hariri’s assassination.
Jumblatt, who collaborated with Damascus for extended periods of time in the past, now finds himself challenged by a leader whose relentless anti-Syrian stance has earned him supporters among Christians and Muslims alike.
Aoun himself did not miss the opportunity last week to exude his "vision of the future of Lebanon, one that is much more precise than the view taken by those who participated in politics during the [Syrian] occupation."
Jumblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, has gradually been alienating himself from the opposition movement, due to his insistence on the resignation of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, his support for Hezbollah in the face of internal and external pressure to disarm, and his acceptance of the controversial electoral law adopted in 2000.
This law, devised under the Syrian occupation and with heavy meddling from Syrian intelligence services in Lebanon at the time, is based on large electoral districts the mohafazas. It is widely seen as favoring the non-Christian parties.
The main opposition groups, and some pro-Syrian factions, prefer an electoral law that lays smaller polling districts, qadas, which it is argued provides better representation for Lebanon’s myriad of sects.
Benefiting more from the 2000 law, Jumblatt broke ranks with the opposition and lent his support to it amid the ongoing political standoff, which has threatened to postpone the elections scheduled over late May and June.
Threatening to increase his isolation is the emerging alliance between Aoun, Hariri’s Future Movement, and the Hezbollah. The three agree on the need to go ahead with the elections on time and are bound by a common modus operandi, based on respect for state institutions and working within the system, in contrast with Jumblatt’s propensity to operate outside it. A formalizing of the alliance would ring the death toll of the opposition movement.
Snubbed by Jumblatt during the political turmoil that followed the Feb. 14 attack, Aoun, an uncompromising political figure, is also said to have entered negotiations with President Lahoud through a political intermediary. The negotiations could pave the way for an agreement between the two not to challenge each other’s list in specific voting districts and for Aoun not to insist on Lahoud’s resignation.
Faced with the threat of losing votes in favor of Aoun during the elections and to lose his title of main anti-Syrian opposition leader, Jumblatt has recently sought to return to the family fold by promoting the passing of an amnesty law to release Geagea from jail, and multiplying visits to Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir a highly influential figure over the Christian political parties and opposition leaders.
Yet Jumblatt is not the only opposition figure challenged by Aoun’s return. The general has hinted that he would be ready to run for president, much to the dismay of the Maronite political figures who have been trying to garner support for their own candidacy over the years.
Aoun announced that his return would amount to a political tsunami. It is uncertain who among the Lebanese political class will still be standing once the wave pulls back.