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Acil Tabbara

Michel Aoun, Lebanon's president who 'never gives up'

Lebanese President Michel Aoun's term is due to end next week amid a lack of consensus over his successor. ©AFP

Beirut (AFP) - When Michel Aoun became president in 2016, putting an end to a two-year power vacuum due to political wrangling, he vowed to be the "strong" president Lebanon so desperately needed.

But as his mandate draws to a close next week, the country is reeling from an unprecedented economic crisis, with Beirut having been ravaged in 2019 by one of the world's biggest non-nuclear explosions.

The blast was preceded by a 2019 mass protest movement that demanded Aoun's departure, along with the rest of Lebanon's entrenched ruling class.

"The presidency was a disappointment, even for him," said his nephew, lawmaker Alain Aoun.

Yet the 88-year-old leader has repeatedly refused to step down or quit politics, even announcing that he would continue his political fight within his party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), upon leaving office.

The former army chief ran for the presidency on a platform of fighting corruption, vowing to become "everyone's father", a uniting leader in a country where power is divided among sects.

But he also ran on a sectarian agenda, promising to defend Christian "rights", after the community lost some of its political power at the end of the civil war.

In 2019, mass protests gripped the country as it plunged into a financial crisis dubbed one of the world's worst in recent history by the World Bank.

The Beirut port explosion of 2020 further compounded anger against Lebanese leaders blamed for their negligence after tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser caught fire and detonated, killing over 200 people and leaving large swathes of the capital destroyed.

"He was subjected to a financial and economic atomic bomb and the explosion in Beirut," his nephew said of Aoun.

"Even if he was not responsible for this, he found himself on the frontline."

'To hell'

A short, stocky man who presents himself as Lebanon's saviour, Aoun has often responded to popular discontent with detachment.

Amid the nationwide protests in 2019, he went as far as telling Lebanese they should emigrate if they are unhappy from the country he said was headed "to hell".

Those formerly in his close circle said he was stuck in denial, with one source painting a picture of a power-hungry leader whose "destructive ambition" meant he was "ready to do anything to become president".

When he fled Lebanon in 1990 for opposing Syria's dominance over political life in his home country, everyone thought his career was finished.

But in 2005, Syria's army withdrew from Lebanon and Aoun returned, with his FPM snatching 21 out of 128 seats in parliamentary elections.

"He is a tenacious leader who never gives up, who never despairs," said Alain Aoun.

Aoun is a controversial figure in Lebanon, at once loathed by his opponents and revered as an incorruptible leader by hardcore supporters.

A father of three daughters who enjoys reading Arabic poetry in his spare time, Aoun hails from a modest background and pursued a brilliant military career before entering politics.

He became army chief in 1984 and four years later was appointed as head of a military cabinet.He then refused to hand over power to his civilian successor, launching the unsuccessful "war of liberation" against the Syrian army, which had entered Lebanon in 1976.

He also fought the Christian Lebanese Forces militia, in clashes that proved disastrous to the community, which found itself divided between two leaders.

'Shadow president'

In 1990, Aoun was forced by Syrian troops that stormed the presidential palace to seek refuge at the French embassy before fleeing to Paris the following year, where he founded the staunchly anti-Syrian FPM.

But he made a dramatic about-face upon returning to Lebanon, aligning his movement with Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Prior to his election in 2016, his powerful allies had obstructed presidential polls for two and a half years, forcing their opponents to back Aoun's candidacy.

As his mandate comes to an end, detractors and former supporters slammed the man who vowed to fight corruption.They have accused him of nepotism, pointing to the ministerial posts held by his son-in-law, FPM chief Gebran Bassil, and to his repeated efforts to secure the nomination of another son-in-law as army chief.

Bassil, who is vying for the presidency, was sanctioned by the US in 2020 for corruption, and many refer to him as Lebanon's "shadow president".

Insults against Bassil became a catchcry of mass antigovernment protests in 2019, as he came to embody, for many Lebanese, the epitome of the ruling elite's corruption and nepotism.

One source formerly close to Aoun said that the president's biggest error was "using his mandate not to crown his career but to start a political dynasty".

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