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Michel Aoun: Lebanon's Popular Yet Divisive New President

Newly elected Lebanese President Michel Aoun (C) gives a speech next to the Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (R) as he takes an oath after he was elected at the Lebanese parliament in downtown Beirut, Oct. 31, 2016.
Newly elected Lebanese President Michel Aoun (C) gives a speech next to the Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (R) as he takes an oath after he was elected at the Lebanese parliament in downtown Beirut, Oct. 31, 2016.

Michel Aoun, Lebanon's strong-willed Christian leader, has waited more than three decades for the chance to become president.

On Monday, the 81-year-old politician finally fulfilled his ambition, becoming the country's 13th head of state after he was voted in by a majority in parliament.

A former army commander known affectionately by his many supporters as "the General,'' Aoun led his forces through some of the deadliest battles of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war and has repeatedly shifted alliances to survive the country's notoriously thorny politics — briefly rising to become prime minister in 1988.

In 1990, Syrian troops forced an embattled Aoun from Lebanon's Baabda palace and pushed him into exile in France, where he remained for 14 years. Now, he returns triumphantly to the presidential palace.

"I have come from a long history of struggle full of sacrifices, especially in the military establishment,'' Aoun said in a speech shortly after he was elected. "I hope that we will guarantee the stability that the Lebanese hope for.''

Thousands of Aoun supporters waved his party's orange flags in celebrations that erupted across Lebanon following Monday's vote. There was some hope, even among his many detractors, that his election would help end the country's long-running political crisis. His appointment fills a 29-month presidential vacuum that has paralyzed state institutions and brought the troubled Mideast country dangerously close to collapse.

Lebanon has been without a head of state since President Michel Suleiman stepped down at the end of his term in May 2014. Since then, the deeply fractured parliament has failed more than forty times to elect a new leader because of disagreements over who should hold the country's top post.

Aoun, who has been a fixture in Lebanese politics for the past four decades, is a divisive figure, often described as mercurial, temperamental and obsessed with becoming president. Yet he is also a pragmatist, who has shown a willingness to build bridges with former adversaries to expand his own power.

He was born in the southern Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik in 1935 and went to Catholic schools before joining Lebanon's military academy. He graduated as a first lieutenant in 1958 specialized in artillery.

After Lebanon's 15-year civil war broke out in 1975, Aoun remained in the army and took part in several major battles, including the so-called War of the Mountains waged in 1983 between the Lebanese army, supported by the main Christian militia, against Syrian-backed groups. During his command of the elite 8th Infantry Brigade, Aoun led the 1983 battles of Souk al-Gharb. The mountain resort was subjected to repeated attacks by Syrian-backed troops, who ultimately failed to penetrate it.

In June 1984, Aoun was named army commander. Four years later, the then-President Amin Gemayel appointed Aoun as interim prime minister before stepping down with no replacement. Gemayel also tried to appoint a government made up of military officers, but Muslim military leaders refused to take part and Aoun consequently headed up a government consisting of just two Christian senior officers.

In March 1989, Aoun launched the so-called "War of Liberation'' aimed at expelling Syrian troops stationed in Lebanon. The battle left thousands of people dead or wounded and caused widespread destruction and displacement, but ended just months later after Aoun failed to achieve his goal.

Later that year, Lebanese legislators traveled to the Saudi city of Taif where they reached an agreement to end the war — a pact that took away powers previously held by the Maronite Christian President. Aoun rejected the deal and dissolved the parliament, although the legislature ignored his decree and continued with business as usual.

In 1990, intense fighting broke out between Lebanese army troops loyal to Aoun and the Lebanese Forces Christian militia, leading to the deadliest Christian infighting since the war started.

During that time, thousands of Aoun supporters flocked every day to Baabda palace where he was holed up, cheering as the uniform-clad general addressed them from the palace balcony, promising not to budge.

But on Oct. 13, Syrian soldiers and Lebanese troops loyal to the new President Elias Hrawi, who was elected by parliament under the Taif peace agreement, stormed the palace, assisted by Syrian airstrikes. Aoun was forced to flee to the French Embassy, and eventually to exile in France.

The attack marked the end of the civil war, which had killed more than 100,000 people.

During his exile, Aoun campaigned against Syria and Hezbollah. He called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the disarming of the Shiite militant group. Aoun's supporters, many of them from Lebanon's educated youth population, were frequently beaten up at anti-Syrian demonstrations at home, persecuted and imprisoned.

Aoun returned from France in 2005, after Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon in the wake of former prime minister Rafik Hariri's assassination.

In February 2006, he signed a memorandum of understanding with his former rival, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, in a church south of Beirut, marking the beginning of a close alliance that has lasted until today.

Two years later, he visited Syria and was welcomed by President Bashar Assad, justifying the reconciliation on grounds that Syrian troops were no longer occupying Lebanon.

Aoun today heads the second-largest bloc in parliament and is considered by many as the country's strongest Christian leader. He enjoys wide support among Christians and Shi'ite Muslims, the country's largest sect.

He is married to Nadia al-Shami and they have three daughters, Mireille, Claudine and Chantal.