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Layal Abou Rahal and Aya Iskandarani

Lebanon's Aoun leaves presidential palace as political crisis deepens

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun waves to his supporters outside the presidential palace in Baabda before delivering a speech to mark the end of his mandate. ©AFP

Baabda (Lebanon) (AFP) - Lebanon's outgoing head of state, Michel Aoun, vacated the presidential palace on Sunday, cheered on by thousands of his loyal supporters, a day before his mandate expires without a designated successor.

Aoun also said he had signed a decree formalising the resignation of Najib Mikati's caretaker government, deepening a political crisis in a country where the economy has all but collapsed.

Thousand of cheering well-wishers came to pay tribute to Aoun, a Maronite Christian, former army chief and head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), which is allied with the powerful pro-Iranian Shiite movement Hezbollah.

Aoun's six-year term was marred by mass protests, a painful economic downturn and the August 2020 mega-explosion of ammonium nitrate that killed hundreds and laid waste to swathes of Beirut.

"This morning, I sent a letter to parliament and signed a decree that considers the government resigned," Aoun, in his late 80s, told supporters before leaving the palace in the hills above Beirut.

Experts say the move will likely not impact the work of Mikati's government, which has remained in a caretaker role since legislative elections in the spring.

But it was part of ongoing political arm-wrestling between Aoun and the Sunni Muslim Mikati, who is also in charge of forming a new government.

Aoun told parliament in a letter that Mikati was "uninterested" in forming a new government to deal with Lebanon's myriad problems and called on him to resign.

Mikati retorted that Aoun's decision had "no constitutional basis" and that his cabinet will "continue to carry out all its constitutional duties, including its caretaker functions".

Constitutional expert Wissam Lahham said that "what Aoun is doing is unprecedented" since Lebanon adopted its constitution in 1926. 

Under Lebanese law, a resigned government continues in a caretaker role until a new one is formed, Lahham said, describing Aoun's decree as "meaningless".

'Continue the struggle'

Outside the presidential palace, Aoun's supporters, some brandishing portraits of the man widely referred to as the "general", cheered him on.Some had spent the night outside in tents.

"We have come to escort the president at the end of his mandate, to tell him that we are with him and that we will continue the struggle by his side," said one supporter, teacher Joumana Nahed.

Lebanese lawmakers have tried and failed four times in a month to agree on electing a successor after Aoun's six-year term ends Monday, stoking fears of a deepening political crisis and power vacuum.

Neither Hezbollah, the powerful armed movement which dominates political life in Lebanon, nor its opponents have the clear majority needed to impose a candidate to succeed him.

This comes at a time Lebanon, where the currency has all but collapsed, has yet to enact most reforms required for it to access billions  in loans from the International Monetary Fund.

The president's powers fall to the Council of Ministers if he leaves office without a successor. A cabinet in a caretaker role cannot, however, take important decisions that might impact the country's fate, Lahham said.

Some at the palace on Sunday recalled previous periods of turbulence in the country that was torn by a brutal 1975-1990 civil war and decades of military intervention by neighbour Syria.

Nabil Rahbani, 59, said he had camped outside the presidential palace once before, "between 1989 and 1990, before the Syrian air force dislodged the general from Baabda Palace". 

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