31 May 2008

* Michel Aoun

Michel Naim Aoun (Arabic: ميشال عون) (born 19 February 1935 in Haret Hreik, Lebanon) is a former Lebanese military commander and politician. From 22 September 1988 to 13 October 1990, he served as Prime Minister and acting President of one of two rival governments that contended for power. He was defeated by Syria in the war of liberation and forced into exile. He returned to Lebanon on May 7, 2005, eleven days after the withdrawal of Syrian troops. Known as "General," Aoun is currently a Parliament Member. He leads the "Free Patriotic Movement" party.

Background and early career

A Christian Maronite, Michel Aoun was born to a poor family in the mixed Christian and Shiite suburb of Haret Hreik, to the south of Beirut. Aoun had close friendships with many Muslims during his early years. "We never distinguished between Ali and Pierre, or between Hassan and Georges," he later said. He finished his secondary education at the College Des Frères in 1956 and enrolled in the Military Academy as a cadet officer. Three years later, he graduated as an artillery officer in the Lebanese Army. He later received additional training at Chalon-Sur-Marne, France (1958-1959), Fort Sill, Oklahoma in the U.S. (1966) and the École Supérieure de Guerre, France (1978-1980).

Israeli invasion and Civil war

During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Aoun mobilized an army battalion to defend the presidential palace in Baabda, lest it should be attacked. This was the only action of the Lebanese army in that war. During the Lebanese Civil War in September 1983, Aoun's multi-confessional 8th Mechanised Infantry Battalion fought Muslim, Druze and Palestinian forces at the battle of Souq el Gharb. In June 1984 Aoun was chosen to be commander of the Lebanese army.

Rival governments

On September 22, 1988, the outgoing President, Amine Gemayel, dismissed the civilian administration of Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss and appointed a six-member interim military government (as prescribed by the Lebanese Constitution should there be no election of a President as was the case at the time), composed of three Christians and three Muslims, though the Muslims refused to serve. Backed by Syria, Al-Hoss declared his dismissal invalid. Two governments emerged - one civilian and mainly Muslim in West Beirut, headed by Al-Hoss, the other, military and mainly Christian, in East Beirut, led by Michel Aoun acting as Prime Minister.[4] Gemayel's move was of questionable validity, as it violated the National Pact of 1943, which reserved the position of prime minister for a Sunni Muslim. Gemayel argued, however, that as the National Pact also reserved the presidency for a Maronite Christian, and as the Prime Minister assumes the powers and duties of the President in the event of a vacancy, it would be proper to fill that office temporarily with a Maronite. Gemayel referenced the historical precedent of 1952, when General Fouad Chehab, a Christian Maronite, was appointed as prime minister of a transition government following the resignation of President Beshara El-Khoury.

Aoun could rely on 60% of the Lebanese army, including nearly all tanks and artillery, the Lebanese Forces (LF) militia headed by Samir Geagea, Dany Chamoun and the National Liberal Party, as well as the support of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein. Aoun controlled parts of east Beirut and some neighbouring suburbs. In the Spring of 1989, the alliance with the Lebanese Forces fell apart when former ally Samir Geagea turned against Aoun. Geagea broke ranks with Aoun after he began to question Aoun insistence with continuing the losing war against the Syrians. When Aoun tried to dissolve the LF Geagea fought back violently. Then Michel Aoun used the army to wrest control of LF held ports, in order to collect customs revenues for his government.

War against Syria

On March 14, 1989, after a Syrian attack on the Baabda presidential palace and on the Lebanese Ministry of Defense in Yarze, Aoun declared war against the Syrian army which was better armed than the Lebanese forces. The Syrians were supported by the US government led by George H. Bush in exchange for their support against Saddam Hussein. Over the next few months Aoun's army and the Syrians exchanged artillery fire in Beirut until only 100,000 people remained from the original 1 million, the rest fled the area. During this period Aoun became critical of American support for Syria and moved closer to Iraq, accepting arms supplies from Saddam Hussein.

In October 1989 Lebanese National Assembly members met to draw up the Taif Accord in an attempt to settle the Lebanese conflict. Aoun refused to attend, denounced the politicians who did so as traitors and issued a decree dissolving the assembly. After it was signed, Aoun denounced the Accord for not appointing a real date for the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon. After they signed the Taif Accord, the assembly met to elect René Moawad as President in November. His presidency lasted just 17 days before he was assassinated. Elias Hrawi was elected in his place. After assuming office as president, Hrawi appointed General Émile Lahoud as commander of the army and ordered Aoun out of the Presidential Palace. Aoun rejected his dismissal, and started war against the Christian LF, that lasted from January to October 1990.

Defeat and exile

The end approached for Aoun when his Iraqi ally, Saddam Hussein, launched his invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990. Syria's President Hafez al-Assad sided with the United States. In return, the United States agreed to support Syria's interests in Lebanon. On October 13, with American permission, Syrian forces attacked the presidential palace in Baabda, where Aoun was holed up. Not very long after the attacks, Aoun was asked to leave Lebanon with the full support of the French Ambassador, there he surrendered to Syrians via a radio address, leaving his troops at the mercy of the Syrian forces. Ten months later Aoun went into exile in France, where he led a political party, the Free Patriotic Movement. In 2003, an avowed Aounist candidate, Hikmat Deeb, came surprisingly close to winning a key by-election in the Baabda-Aley constituency with the endorsement of such right-wing figures as Solange and Nadim Gemayel (the widow and son of former President-elect Bachir Gemayel, who was assassinated in 1982), as well as leftists like George Hawi of the Lebanese Communist Party, although most of the opposition (constituted mainly of Qornet Shehwan Gathering, whose most prominent faces were Nassib Lahoud, Boutros Harb, Nayla Mouawad, etc...) supported the government candidate, Henry Hélou. Aoun's ability to attract support from key figures of both the left and right revealed that he was a force to be reckoned with.

Return to Lebanon

Aoun ended 15 years of exile when he returned to Lebanon on May 7, 2005, 11 days after the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon. He held a short press conference at Beirut International Airport before heading with a convoy of loyalists and journalists to the "Grave of the Un-named Soldiers and Martyrs" who died in the cause of Lebanese nationalism. After praying and expressing his gratitude and blessing to the people, he went on to the grave site of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated on 14 February 2005 to pay his respects there. Then, he visited Samir Geagea who was still in jail for 11 years. His journey continued to Martyr's Square where he was greeted by substantial numbers of Lebanese supporters from all corners of Lebanon.

Since his arrival, Aoun has moved into a new home in Lebanon's Rabieh district, where he was visited on 8 May by a large delegation from the disbanded Lebanese Forces (LF), who were among Aoun's former enemies. Aoun and Sitrida Geagea, wife of the imprisoned LF leader Samir Geagea (since released), publicly reconciled. Aoun later visited Geagea in prison (he was the first of all opposition leaders to do so) and called for his release. Other prominent visitors that day and the next included National Liberal Party leader Dory Chamoun, Solange Gemayel , Nayla Moawad (widow of assassinated President René Moawad), and opposition MP Boutros Harb. Patriarch Nasrallah Cardinal Sfeir of the Maronite community sent a delegation to welcome him, and even the Shiite Muslim Hizbullah Party sent a delegation.

2005 Elections

In the parliamentary election at the end of May 2005, Aoun surprised many observers by entering into electoral alliances with a number of former opponents, including some pro-Syrian politicians including Michel Murr and Suleiman Frangieh, Jr. The 14 March coalition did the same however by forming the Quadruple alliance with Hezbollah and Amal, two of the biggest pro-Syrian parties in Lebanon. Some saw this as indicating a belief that pro- and anti-Syrian positions are no longer relevant, now that Syrian troops have left Lebanon. Aoun opposed the March 14 parliamentary coalition which included the Future Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party, the Lebanese Forces and some other parties. He argued that the key members of this coalition undertook an agreement with the Amal movement and Hezbollah to keep the electoral law of the year 2000. Critics argue that this law, implemented by Syrian intelligence chief Ghazi Kanaan, does not provide for a real popular representation and marginalizes many communities especially the Christian one throughout the country.

In the third round of voting, Aoun's party, the Free Patriotic Movement, made a strong showing, winning 21 of the 58 seats contested in that round, including almost all of the seats in the Christian heartland of Mount Lebanon. Aoun himself was elected to the National Assembly. In the fourth and final round, however, the FPM failed to win any seats in Northern Lebanon, thus falling short of its objective of holding the balance of power between the main "anti-Syrian" opposition coalition (formerly known to be Syria's strong allies) led by Sa'ad Hariri (which won an absolute majority) and the Shiite-dominated Amal-Hezbollah alliance.

Political strategy

In an unprecedented move, Aoun signed a Memorandum Of Understanding with Hezbollah on February 6, 2006. Aoun further stated that the motive for his agreement was to take a first step towards resolving the main differences between Lebanon's political parties.

He rationalized his move as the mechanism by which UN resolution 1559 -- he claims to have grandfathered through his testimony to the US Congress in 2003 -- which discusses Hezbollah's disarmement could be applied (considering that the US administration refused the draft resolution until his testimony in congress). This historical document allowed bridging the gap between the majority of the christians and Hezbollah, and their electorates, according to electoral returns from the 2005 elections 70% and 80% of the Christian and Shiite electorates respectively. The Memorendum Of Understanding calls for the disarmement of Hezbollah, but it defined it under a national defense strategy. Aoun stated that the MOU was the peaceful unifying way to apply resolution 1559.

Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement party, along with Hezbollah (which later joined in after leaving the government), form the core of the opposition against the government dominated by the March 14th coalition.[citation needed] He argued that this government did not have a unified vision for the country, and would lead to political and economical crises in the future.

Aoun claims that his platform is a liberal, secular one. He repeatedly stated: "We want to create a secular culture with the people so that the population begins to demand it and be able to confront religious authorities that refuse it."

General Aoun has put himself forward as a candidate for the presidency of the Republic, as a successor of Émile Lahoud whose term expired in November 2007. He enjoys Amal and Hizbollah's endorsement and some Sunni support. He claims to fight the corruption of the parlimental majority. Most presidential polls, even ones done by newspapers loyal to his foes give him the first position with a margin of at least 10-20 % from the runner-up , which is not that useful to him, since the Lebanese parliement is the body that elects the President.[citation needed] Aoun argues that the parliament of 2005 is not representative since the districts were gerrymandered by Ghazi Kanaan (Syria) for Syria's ex-allies, current foes, Hariri, Jumblatt and Hezbollah & Amal at the expense of Christian voters, Aoun's main support group. One fact which Supports Aoun's argument is that out of the 68 members of the current parliementary majority, three did not lose the 'christian vote' in their districts : Botros Harb, Strida Geagea and Elie Kayrouz.


In the latest parliementary election of 2005, Aoun's slates enjoyed the support of more than 55-70% of the Lebanese Christians. In 2007, Aoun Fielded an unknown party activist, Camil Khoury, who defeated the former President and current Phalange President Amin Gemayel in a pivotal election for the vacant Maronite Christian seat in the predominantly Christian district of Metn by a narrow win of 51%. Opponents argue that this resembles a decrease in Aoun's popularity, others see it as great success in an "impossible battle" against a former president, and one of March 14th major figures, in his home district, reclaiming his assassinated son's seat, and allied to all other Christian forces such as the Lebanese Forces, presidential candidate Nassib Lahoud (who lost to Aoun's candidates in 2005) and a debated impartiality of Gemayel-Allied Hariri controlled ministry of interior(which conducts the elections).

On Wednesday 9 March 2008, Michel Murr former Prime Minister deputy, current deputy, and father of the Lebanese Deputy Prime Minister and the Defence Minister Elias Murr, broke away from the Change and Reform coalition and its ubuesque leader, leaving it with 22 MPs instead of 23 and "returned to the people" according to Murr.

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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

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Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.