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.
In October 1990, with a U.S. blessing, Syria attacked Aoun's headquarters at the presidential palace, and the general fled to the French ambassador's residence. Ten months later, he went into exile in France, from where he kept up his campaign against the Syrian presence.
In the end, the turning point came with the assassination on Feb. 14 of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, an act many blamed on Syria. The killing unleashed protests by hundreds of thousands in Beirut's Martyrs' Square and mobilized U.S. and French pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad, who completed the withdrawal of his troops in April.
With the Syrians gone, Aoun returned on May 7, welcomed by thousands in Martyrs' Square. Since then, he has insisted it was he who freed Lebanon -- not the opposition inside the country that turned decisively against Syria after Hariri's death.
"I created the movement that opposed the Syrian occupation since 1990, since my eviction in 1990," he said. "Those people joined us in 2005, after the assassination of Hariri." At times, the often abrasive Aoun has called them collaborators -- "all of them."
"Sitting in Paris is nice," answered Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's small Druze community and a longtime power broker whose alliance with Hariri's son, Saad, is expected to dominate the next parliament.
For weeks, Jumblatt and his allies negotiated with Aoun on forming a unified coalition that would agree on candidates for the elections, which end June 19. The talks failed, splitting the anti-Syrian opposition.
Aoun's followers are now targeting one key district near the capital with a mixed population. In others, he has called for a boycott of the election, claiming credit for the especially tepid turnout in Christian areas of Beirut during Sunday's vote. That boycott was denounced even by some of Aoun's sympathizers, who feared it would exacerbate the country's religious divide.
In an election with little suspense, Aoun's campaign has offered the most drama -- not least the personal fireworks between Aoun and Jumblatt, who is notorious for changing his political stance.
"Every day," Aoun said of Jumblatt's shifting views. "Sometimes, every six hours."
Aoun has upset Hariri's son, as well, by pointing out in interviews and at news conferences that the elder Hariri cooperated -- in Aoun's word, collaborated -- for years with the Syrians. He has accused the family of exploiting Hariri's death for political gain.
"We have to respect him, but not to use him as propaganda for elections," Aoun said.
The general reminds some in Lebanon of an elderly grandfather, flustered at times by persistent questioning, irritated when he has to repeat answers. He keeps a military bearing and often uses a soldier's terms to describe his politics. "I know what martyrdom means and how to respect martyrs," he said.
For his part, Saad Hariri says he shares Aoun's desire for reform, but not his public statements.
"He shouldn't say these things," Hariri said in an interview. "Even if he believes them, he shouldn't say these things -- out of respect."
'A True Democracy'
Aoun holds court from his villa in the neighborhood of Rabia, built into the coastal mountains with a breathtaking vista of the Mediterranean Sea. By the standards of Lebanon's political elite, the compound, rented two weeks before his arrival, is modest. His office is bare except for a desk and a Lebanese flag. Propped against the wall in his reception room is a picture of one of this spring's mass protests, printed with his trademark salutation: "Oh, great people of Lebanon."
Much of his business is conducted in a brick courtyard with white plastic chairs, shaded by cedars and flowering trees and bordered by roses and a terraced garden of tomatoes, onions and squash.
When he enters, with a measured gait that still has a military stamp, people stand.
"We want a true democracy," he declared in the interview. "We want an uncorrupted system."
Aoun enjoys support that does sometimes cross Lebanon's rigid sectarian lines. His appeal is populist: He denounces corruption and calls for the reform of ministries, the security apparatus, the education system and election laws. He wants an audit of Lebanon's financial system covering the past 15 years. He has vowed to set up a shadow parliament and cabinet as a platform for reform, and he has surrounded himself with young, intelligent lieutenants who sometimes enjoy more respect than he does.
He acknowledges that change will come slowly to Lebanon's explicitly sectarian political system, where leadership posts are reserved for communities and parliament is split in half between Christians and Muslims, despite what many believe is a Muslim majority in the country. (The last official census was in 1932.) But he envisions a secular future and, like many in the country, denounces the political arrangement that shaped Lebanon, helped wreck it in civil war and has been resurrected with measurable success.
He peppers his speech with words that have become stock phrases here -- reform, secularism, a new Lebanon -- even if he is vague on the mechanisms. Nearly all of the country's traditional political forces are lined up against him, a position he seems to relish.
An aide, with a hint of melodrama, compared it to feuding Mafia families uniting when an investigating judge comes from Italy. "Automatically, they will make a coalition to fight the judge. This is the case of General Aoun," said Michel de Chadarevian, a member of Aoun's political committee. "They have a priority -- the interest of their pocket instead of the interests of the country."
The image of a national savior is familiar to Aoun's supporters and a source of criticism from his detractors, who resent what they see as an air of grandeur and a populism they deem dangerous, particularly in the hands of a military man. For many, reform in Lebanon will come through consensus -- gradual, protracted, with inevitable compromises -- rather than by way of a bull in a china shop. They see in Aoun's language a secular veneer to what remains a mainly Christian group. Only one Muslim sits on his movement's 15-member executive political committee. Of the rest, half are Maronite Christians, the sect to which Aoun belongs.
"Most of the time, he has a sort of wishful thinking, and in the back of his mind is his personal interest and his lust for power," said Sarkis Naoum, a columnist for Lebanon's leading An Nahar daily.
Sitting on his patio, Aoun recalled a phrase he delivered to his supporters before his exile in France. The country's politicians were crafting an agreement in 1989 to end the civil war. Aoun rejected the deal, insisting it did not guarantee a Syrian withdrawal. To his supporters, gathered at his palace, he declared, "The world can crush me, but it will never take my signature."
Aoun seems somewhat content with losing a fight he deems good. He dismissed the idea that compromise would have secured him more seats in parliament and a greater platform to pursue his agenda. He would owe his allies a debt, he and his aides said. As he talked, nostalgic and subdued, he seemed to view it as one long campaign, a war of attrition without victory.
"This is not the last battle," he insisted.