Ex-general returns to Lebanon

By Hassan M. Fattah The New York Times

BEIRUT Michel Aoun, a former army general who inspires nationalist support in the street among many Christians and unease among some of the long-entrenched elite, has returned to this city after 15 years in exile, promising to remake Lebanon’s politics.

The return of the general, a Maronite Christian who opposed Syria’s dominance, closes the chapter on that country’s control of Lebanon and opens a new one as Lebanon faces the daunting challenges left by Syria’s withdrawal.

His arrival Saturday, just two weeks after Syrian forces left, was part victory march, part bittersweet homecoming. Posters in Christian parts of the city hailed him as a “resister” and a “liberator.”

“Today is a victory for sovereignty, and a return for a Lebanese,” Aoun said after he arrived on a flight from France.

From the airport, the general drove to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and on to the grave of a former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, before moving to Martyrs’ Square nearby, where thousands of his supporters, wearing the orange of their Free Patriotic Movement, gathered to hear his address.

“This is our march, our path,” said Bob Ghorayeb, 25, who with several friends was selling copies of Aoun’s biography at the rally. “He was a nationalist and he worked in the interest of the whole country. It’s time for a political change like that.”

Aoun rose to prominence in the late 1980s, heading the Christian-led Lebanese Army, which had stood aside from much of the violence, into attacks against the Christian militias. It was a six-month-long period of sieges and artillery duels in which 850 people died and 3,000 were wounded.

He headed a military government from March 1989 to October 1990 but lost his post in the complicated maneuvering surrounding the 1989 Taif agreement, in which he put his claim for the presidency against that of the Syrian appointee, Elias Hrawi. The Syrians then attacked Aoun and his army in one of the bloodiest battles of the 15-year civil war.

Overpowered, the general sought shelter at the French Embassy, and left Lebanon by sea for the south of France 10 months later.

He stayed away as long as Damascus remained in control, but worked to undermine the Syrian government from his new home in Europe. In recent years, he lobbied for the Syria Accountability Act passed by the U.S. Congress and for the passage of United Nations Resolution 1559, which called for Syria’s departure from Lebanon.

Rumors of Aoun’s intention to return began circulating shortly after Hariri was assassinated on Feb. 14, as Lebanese took to the streets demanding that Syria withdraw. On Wednesday, a Lebanese court dropped several outstanding charges against him, lifting the last impediment to his return.

Many people here fear the general may play a divisive role at a critical time. Perhaps as a message, a bomb exploded in a shopping area in a major Christian port city, Jounieh, on Friday night, killing at least one person.

“He considers himself the winner, but I don’t give him that much credit,” Chibli Mallat, a well-known Lebanese lawyer and opposition leader, said of Aoun. “The institution blockage he created and the crisis he put the country through don’t make him a unifying figure.”

With leadership of Lebanon’s numerous sects largely sewn up by existing players, Aoun may be pitted mostly against the country’s numerous Christian leaders, who are jostling for the few, but powerful, positions assigned to Christians. He said recently that he would be prepared to assume Lebanon’s presidency, traditionally a Christian role, “if the country would have me.”

He noted Saturday that he had entered Lebanon on an official passport granted to him when he was prime minister, a reminder of his position in the past, and he took numerous swipes at Lebanon’s leaders.

But the general has also vowed to tackle the country’s corruption and reform its institutions.

Paul Salem, a candidate for Parliament and the head of the Fares Foundation, a Lebanese human development group, said the general was not an entirely factional figure, but added that “he’s too powerful a personality for many people to swallow,” referring to his well-known temper and his aggressive manner. “Lebanon is still a place that needs a lot of diplomacy to operate.”