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Lebanese Push for New President


The leaders of the anti-Syrian alliance that holds the most seats in Lebanon's parliament are calling on President Emile Lahoud to resign by March 14, and they say they will impeach him if he refuses. Mr. Lahoud, a close ally of Damascus, has said he has no intention of leaving office before his term expires in 2007. VOA's Challiss McDonough has interviewed two men who are contenders to replace him and has this report from Beirut.

Anti-Syrian forces in Lebanon see President Lahoud as the last remaining vestige of Syrian control over their country. Syria engineered the extension of his term in office in 2004, and his critics say that was illegal.

The anti-Syrian bloc in parliament is led by slain former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri's son Saad, along with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Christian militia leader Samir Geagea. They are pushing ahead with their drive to topple President Lahoud without any real consensus on who should replace him.

In Lebanon's complex and unique political system, the president is always a Maronite Christian, chosen by parliament rather than directly elected. Amid the push for Mr. Lahoud's ouster, several major Christian leaders have thrown their hats in the ring.

Christian popular support seems to be divided between Geagea and General Michel Aoun, a former armed forces commander and longtime foe of Syria who returned from exile in France last year after Syria's withdrawal. General Aoun recently spoke to VOA and other reporters in the basement office of his heavily fortified home on the cliffs overlooking Beirut.

"We have an independent country, but we don't have independent Lebanese people," he said.

Like many others in Beirut, General Aoun believes that Lebanon's democratic reforms cannot be completed with President Lahoud in office.

The general calls himself the "father" of the March 15 movement that ousted Syrian troops from the country. His forces battled Syrian troops before he was evicted from Lebanon in 1990.

But in the parliamentary election after his return, the veteran anti-Syria fighter allied himself with pro-Syrian groups. He was frozen out by the Hariri camp, and relations between the two groups have only grown frostier.

Citing security concerns, General Aoun did not attend the rally to mark the one-year anniversary of Mr. Hariri's killing. He sent deputies to represent him, but did not encourage his followers to go. Many of the demonstrators were dismayed at his decision to shun what they had hoped would be a show of national unity. A Christian man named Hani said he had hoped for better.

"I think General Aoun, he disappointed the Lebanese people," he said. "We worked hard to bring him back to Lebanon, but when he came back, everything is changed, because he stood with the Syrian politicians and with Hezbollah, who is connected to Syria. I don't know, maybe his people, the fans of General Aoun, I think they are reducing every day because of his choices he is making."

During the election, General Aoun's support at the polls was better than anyone expected. He won a significant bloc of seats in parliament.

Earlier this month, he signed an agreement with the Syrian-backed militant group Hezbollah, changing Lebanon's political calculus even more. Hezbollah is one of the two dominant groups in the Shiite community. A recent editorial in Beirut's Daily Star newspaper said the only way to get rid of Mr. Lahoud is with a candidate that could earn the support of Hezbollah.

Given Lebanon's ethnic and religious diversity, General Aoun says it is imperative for the different groups to work together.

"Since 1989 I am shouting," he said. "I am saying loudly what we have to meet around a round table and discuss our problems. I was evicted after that by the Syrian army. And for 15 years I was preaching to people that dialogue is the road to salvation."

The general rejects allegations that he is working with a Syrian-backed terrorist group. He says he is trying to pull Hezbollah further into the mainstream, and away from Syrian influence, and working toward Hezbollah's disarmament or integration into Lebanese security forces.

"If the United States considers that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, we have to take out from their minds the terrorists, not from their hands," Aoun said. "You are not terrorists because you have weapons. You are terrorists because you think of terrorism. Therefore disarming a terrorist, that is taking terrorism from his mind and not from his hands."

His critics see the general's alliance with Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian groups as a power play, aimed only at securing the presidency for himself.

And, General Aoun is far from being the only voice calling for the ouster of Mr. Lahoud. Another contender for the presidency is respected human rights lawyer Chibli Mallat.

"The fact that he remains in power suggests that a very important dimension of our revolution has not succeeded, and that is the democratic revolution that we started last year," he said. "So we need a new president in order to start achieving that democratic revolution and develop a new stand of economic political and constitutional reforms that this country needs."

Mallat is a former law professor who was involved in the so-called "Cedar Revolution" protest movement that drove the Syrians from the country. He believes his track record of legal advocacy for Shiite and Palestinian victims of human rights violations will help him gain support from those groups. He presents himself as a compromise candidate of sorts, one from a younger generation and a tradition of non-violence. Unlike some of the other contenders with military backgrounds, Mallat does not come with bloody baggage from Lebanon's civil war.

"Look, I feel that we are going down two parallel lines of immense intensity," he said. "One which is tragic, and which can bring us back to the civil war, or forms of the civil war, or collapse of the state.... And there's another vision, which is the vision of a new presidency, that rekindles hope and puts the country onto the right track domestically and internationally. So it's not a question of being optimistic or pessimistic. One sees those two possibilities very clearly, and both are real. What is needed is a plan and an action that makes Lebanon live, not Lebanon die.

In other countries, it might seem strange that people would announce themselves contenders for the presidency while there is no election on the horizon.

But the anti-Syrian forces in parliament believe they have the momentum to oust President Lahoud soon, and they hope that the next month will be decisive.