CAIRO, EGYPT - Former Lebanese Army Commander and long-time aspirant to the country’s presidency, Gen. Michel Aoun, was elected to fill the top post after a two and a half year political void. His election by parliament came after a consensus agreement among top political leaders.
Aoun secured 83 votes in the 128-seat chamber when MPs convened for their 46th attempt to choose a head of state.
In the first round of voting on Monday, Aoun failed to secure a two-thirds majority among the 127 MPs present.
Both a second and third round of voting - in which he required a simple majority to win - saw 128 ballots cast, forcing the election into a fourth round.
The country’s top Christian and Muslim political leaders, however, appeared to cast aside their differences in agreeing to Gen. Aoun’s election.
The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, said he continued to support long-time ally Gen. Aoun last month, and Christian rival Samir Geagea came out in favor of Aoun several months ago. The general’s final hurdle towards the presidency was reached several weeks ago when top Sunni leader and former Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri threw his support behind him.
Aoun addressed parliament briefly, following his election, and delivered a conciliatory speech, calling for unity among the country’s various religious and political groups:
He said that Lebanon is sitting between landmines and is surrounded by the fires raging all around it in the region and that it is his priority to prevent any sparks from those fires from spreading to it. Lebanon, he insisted, must stay out of regional conflicts, following an independent foreign policy in accordance with its interests.
In Washington, the State Department congratulated the people of Lebanon for the election. "This is a moment of opportunity, as Lebanon emerges from years of political impasse, to restore government functions and build a more stable and prosperous future for all Lebanese citizens," spokesman John Kirby said.
Gen. Aoun was Lebanon’s military commander during the mid to late 1980s, becoming the country’s interim prime minister after parliament was unable to elect a successor to former President Amine Gemayel September 1988. He led a bitter and bloody “War of Liberation” against neighboring Syria, which at the time had troops stationed across much of the country. His ouster by Syrian-led forces in 1991 led to a lengthy exile in France.
The newly-elected president returns to Lebanon’s presidential palace in Baabda, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, from which he was forced to depart close to 25 years ago. The palace, which he left in ruins, was rebuilt during the 1990s.
One-time Christian political rival, Samir Geagea, who was also a candidate for the presidency, before withdrawing earlier this year, told Arab media that he believed that both he and Aoun now see eye-to-eye on most of the major issues:
He said that at the end of the day, Gen. Aoun is a son of Lebanon and that he doubted there was be any major differences between himself and the general over essential issues of sovereignty or policy.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran, key power-brokers in Lebanon, appear to have agreed to the political arrangement leading to Aoun’s election in the days leading up to Monday’s parliament session. Both country’s, however, are backing rival sides in bloody civil wars in Syria and Yemen in addition to major friction in Iraq. It is not clear, yet, to what extent they are willing to cooperate in Lebanon.