Lebanese 'De Gaulle' Wages Political Battle

Ex-Gen. Michel Aoun, though revered by his mainly Christian supporters, is criticized by the traditional political elite as a dangerous populist.
Ex-Gen. Michel Aoun, though revered by his mainly Christian supporters, is criticized by the traditional political elite as a dangerous populist. (By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 4, 2005

BEIRUT -- When Michel Aoun returned in triumph to Lebanon after nearly 15 years in exile, the former soldier, Christian politician and would-be reformer greeted a noisy crowd at the airport with the words of someone used to being in charge.

"Shut up!" he snapped.

So marked the arrival of a man known to his admirers as "the general." He is a former commander of the Lebanese army who fought fellow Christians as well as Syrians in the 1975-90 civil war and waged a lonely battle from abroad against the Syrian presence in his country. Now, with the nation newly free of those troops, he insists he wants to overhaul Lebanon's precarious political system, which is built on a tangled web of clans, feudal-like lords, tycoons, bosses and enough patronage to somehow lash it all together.

It may be the last, most difficult campaign for the 70-year-old Aoun, whose military and political career has spanned Lebanon's most turbulent episodes. His supporters, especially young and idealistic Christians, compare him to a Charles de Gaulle, ready to remake Lebanon's politics. His adversaries, and there are many, cringe at his brusque, uncompromising, populist rhetoric. "Napolaoun," they call him.

Rarely smiling and slowed by age, Aoun insists principle is on his side, as is the future of a country that, at its best, stands as a model of tolerance in a region with little of it and, at its worst, is a tinderbox where loyalty to one of 18 religious sects comes before citizenship.

With his usual confidence, Aoun declared that the majority of Lebanese are with him.

"I think so," he said this week from his rented, three-story stucco villa that serves as the headquarters of his Free Patriotic Movement. "But I am fighting against very powerful adversaries. They have billions of dollars, and they are making coalitions against me, all of them."

More than the crusade of one man, Aoun's struggle rests at the intersection of a raucous debate over the destiny of a country only recently freed from 29 years of Syrian dominance. Far freer than most states in the Arab world, but encumbered by a political elite drawn in large part from aging chieftains who fought the civil war, Lebanon, by nearly everyone's account, is in transition. What kind of transition is another question: Everyone talks about reform, even if few agree on what shape it should take.

In that, the country is a microcosm of the broader currents gathering strength in the region, where there is a sense that political systems dominated for a generation by military strongmen, autocrats and monarchs are in flux. In each case, change will involve an intricate bargain over what society represents and how best to reshape it.

"I will give you the answer in two words," Aoun said, with his usual bluntness, when asked about his vision. "They are traditionalists and we are reformers, and you know the difference between the two words. They want to continue like we were, and we want to change."

A Dramatic Campaign

Aoun's return to the Lebanese scene was one of those events that hardly anyone could have predicted even six months ago. He came to prominence in the waning days of the country's civil war. The outgoing Lebanese president appointed Aoun prime minister in September 1988, while he was serving as army commander. The choice was contested, and rival Lebanese governments were formed in Christian East Beirut and predominantly Muslim West Beirut.

In 1989, Aoun declared war on Syrian troops in the country. The following year, he fought his onetime Christian allies. Together, the battles represented some of the bloodiest fighting in the 15-year conflict.

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