Aoun’s return a key moment

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Beirut

For 14 years, his supporters covered Beirut’s walls with graffiti reading: “Aoun will return”.

Now Michel Aoun, a former army commander-in-chief and one time prime minister is back in Beirut after years of exile in France. Members of his party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), worked relentlessly this week to plan a huge celebration on Martyrs’ Square, in the heart of the city.

Over the last few months, the square has seen hundreds of thousands of Lebanese demonstrate to demand the truth about the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, killed in a massive explosion on 14 February, and to ask for the departure of Syrian troops.

Many in Lebanon blamed the assassination on Syria, which denied the accusations. But the killing triggered a precipitate Syrian withdrawal which was completed 10 days ago, after a 29-year military presence.

The departure of the last Syrian soldier and the changes in Lebanon’s politics have made it possible for Mr Aoun, the most virulent anti-Syrian Christian opposition leader, to return home.

‘War of liberation’

Mr Aoun was forced to flee to France after Syrian troops put an end to his rebellion against Syria’s presence in Lebanon in 1990.

He had been appointed Lebanon’s interim prime minister in 1988 after the country’s parliament failed to elect a new president.

Instead of working on making the election happen, Mr Aoun launched into a “war of liberation” against the Syrians and put the country through some of the worst bloodletting since the start of the civil war in 1975.

His populist ways and promises to reunite the war-ravaged country did win him the support of the thousands of Lebanese, including non-Christians.

The failure of his rebellion meant the end of Lebanon’s civil war, but also the start of the Pax Syriania and Damascus’ pervasive and often oppressive control of Lebanon.

Mr Aoun has now said he believes he contributed to the Syrian withdrawal from his exile in France.

Some of his supporters have even compared his return to Lebanon to that of the French leader, General Charles de Gaulle, who returned to a liberated France in 1945.

Mr Aoun’s opponents disagree with the comparison and with Mr Aoun’s belief that he played a role in the Syrian withdrawal, but they acknowledge that current attempts towards national reconciliation, triggered by the assassination of Hariri, need to include all of Lebanon’s factions and leaders.

Agenda unknown

For the country’s Christians, there is hope that this marks the end of an era during which they say they felt politically repressed.

For the supporters of Mr Aoun, the huge celebration planned for his return, with the support of the army and the police who are providing tight security, is a welcome change from the days when they faced detentions and beatings by the police for openly expressing their political views.

For days, enthusiastic FPM members have been roaming the streets in cars plastered with pictures of Mr Aoun, loudspeakers blaring patriotic songs that were popular during the general’s time in power.

But in some circles, there is also apprehension about Mr Aoun’s return and the possibility it might again radicalise frustrated young Christians.

His real popularity after all these years in exile will soon become clear. But Mr Aoun’s political agenda is also still unknown, as are his plans for alliances during the country’s upcoming and crucial legislative elections this month, the first without a Syrian military presence in three decades.

Mr Aoun has said he brings with him a comprehensive plan to reform Lebanon and end sectarianism, but there are reports that he seeks the presidency, and depending on the tone he adopts, he might prove to be a divisive factor for the opposition.