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How Michel Aoun Failed in Lebanon

More and more protesters say the general-turned-president has broken too many promises and must go.

Supporters of Lebanese President Michel Aoun hold posters of him as they gather near the presidential palace in Baabda on Nov. 3.
Supporters of Lebanese President Michel Aoun hold posters of him as they gather near the presidential palace in Baabda on Nov. 3. Sam Tarling/Getty Images

Even before Lebanese President Michel Aoun finished his much-criticized televised interview this week, protesters were blocking the main roads in Beirut, chanting, again, for him to leave office. But in truth there is little the 84-year-old general-turned-politician could have said that would have satisfied the demonstrators. 

And what Aoun did say inflamed them further: telling the protesters to stay home or risk a national catastrophe. “I am placing this choice in front of you,” he said. 

A few hours later, thousands more demonstrators were out across the country, blocking roads and burning tires. “He’s telling us, ‘Go home. Let the government work,’” said Samer Kammoun, standing in the middle of the road with a group of friends. “You’ve been president for three years. What have you done?”

Many protesters say Aoun is still ruling like the general he was in Lebanon’s civil war—uncompromising and dismissive of the protesters’ demands—rather than like an elected representative. And even among those that supported him for decades, there is now resentment about his political shape-shifting and lack of achievements as president. Aoun, who commanded troops in Lebanon’s divided army during the civil war, participating in some of the worst fighting of the conflict, invokes his military service as a positive. “Let them review my history,” Aoun said in the interview Tuesday.

Protesters have been doing just that. “He started a war with Syria, and he ran away,” said Kammoun, who accused Aoun of stealing money from the Lebanese people to fund his 14-year exile in France. “Where did you get the money from? Were you working in Paris making croissants? No.”

Aoun’s supporters say he was defending the country from Syria’s brutal occupation and protecting his people from rival groups. As the sectarian lines of Lebanon’s civil war deepened, Aoun commanded an army brigade that included both Muslims and Christians and was promoted to commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces in 1984, seen by some as an effort to reconcile warring factions. It didn’t work.

Aoun was smuggled out of Lebanon by the French in 1991 but continued railing against the Syrian presence and positioned himself as above the corruption and sectarianism that continue to plague Lebanese politics. He criticized the agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war because it didn’t guarantee the withdrawal of Syrian troops. 

He returned just days after the last Syrian tanks left the country in 2005, amid massive anti-Syrian protests spurred by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Tens of thousands of supporters flooded the streets, giving Aoun a hero’s welcome to a freshly liberated Lebanon. He stood in front of a sea of Lebanese flags in Beirut’s central Martyrs’ Square.

“I return to you today, and Lebanon has regained its freedom, sovereignty, and independence,” he told the crowd from behind a sheet of bulletproof glass. Aoun had narrowly escaped several attempts on his life before his exile in France.

Hind Rmeily, a 45-year-old teacher, was among those who welcomed him back.

“We thought, finally someone could translate our hopes into reality,” Rmeily said.

The 2005 Cedar Revolution brought a wave of optimism to Lebanon, particularly among Aoun’s almost exclusively Christian support base. These recent demonstrations are the largest since then—possibly larger.

In elections just weeks after he returned, Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) became the largest Christian party in Lebanon’s National Assembly, pledging economic and political reforms and advocating secular civil nationalism. 

“I built hopes on the wrong person,” said Rmeily, standing in that same Martyrs’ Square this week, protesting against Aoun and the entire Lebanese political class.

Less than a year after his return, Aoun signed a pact with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, officially aligning himself with the pro-Syrian, Iranian-supported group.

“We felt betrayed,” said Paul Dagher, a contractor and real estate agent. “Aoun used to say, ‘We want only the Lebanese Army in the south. We don’t want any militias. We only want the army to have weapons.’ Everything he said before, he did the opposite.”

Aoun spent decades rallying against Syrian occupation and foreign interference in Lebanon—founding the Free Patriotic Movement, whose very name implies a new era of independence—only to turn around and form a government with Hezbollah.

“Hezbollah cannot flex their muscle here without this Christian cover,” Dagher said. “He gave them whatever they wanted, and they gave him whatever he wanted … and we got screwed.” Some protesters say it’s a product of Lebanon’s principle-less politics, where alliances are marriages of convenience or plays for power rather than being based on ideological alignments or shared political positions. Wartime foes become allies, and everyone takes turns cozying up to, and then rejecting, Damascus.

But Aoun’s supporters say this alliance saved the country, breaking through tough sectarian divisions—between Maronite Christians and Shiite Muslims—and creating bridges over deep war wounds. Thousands of people gathered outside the presidential palace this month hoisting the orange flag of Aoun’s FPM alongside the Lebanese flag and chanting for “freedom and independence.” One held a photo of Aoun as a young general—“You are our dignity,” it read.

Aoun addressed the crowd. “I tell you that I am with you, and through you I see all the people of Lebanon. I tell you that I love you all, and all of you means all of you,” he said, playing on the popular chant of the protesters that “all of them means all of them,” a call for the whole Lebanese political class to leave.

When the office of president opened up in 2014, Aoun pushed for the post. Lebanon went without a government for more than two years while the political elite haggled and negotiated. In 2016, Aoun became president. 

“When Aoun became president, we said, ‘OK, your lifelong dream is fulfilled. Let’s see what you’re going to do,’” Dagher said, “and he did shit.”

Protesters say it’s not just the ideological flip-flopping at issue; it’s the broken promise of a better life for Lebanese citizens. “He promised a cleaner country, rules, electricity,” Rmeily said. “The pollution is worse, the garbage is worse, the politicians are worse, the corruption rampant.”

When he spoke this week, after almost a month of anti-government demonstrations, Aoun told the protesters: “If people aren’t satisfied with any of the decent leaders, let them emigrate.”

The next morning, thousands of protesters headed toward his presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut. Some protesters posted newspaper articles from Aoun’s time as a general. “The Butcher of Yarze Burns Lebanon,” read a front-page headline on a decades-old newspaper. Below, a photo showed plumes of dark smoke rising above a residential neighborhood.

“So we are emigrating to the presidential palace,” said Elias Faouz, standing among hundreds of people on the highway leading to Baabda, which was blocked by police barricades. 

It’s a touchy subject in a country that has just 4.5 million people inside and at least double that many outside, after more than a century of emigration fueled by wars and poor economic conditions. 

“We are still waiting for them to form a new government, but they are just arguing and negotiating with each other while the population is in the streets,” Faouz said. “Like we don’t exist.”

Many protesters say Aoun seems more interested in ensuring that his son-in-law Gebran Bassil remains foreign minister in a new cabinet than putting in place a government that could save the country from the looming economic collapse that helped spark these protests. And this is despite Aoun saying that Lebanon needed to end the dynasticism that has dictated many of the country’s political successions.

It’s not just the ex-general who is out of touch with the new reality, Faouz said. It’s all the country’s political leaders, most of whom led fighters during the civil war. 

“They still think they are ruling the old way, like a bunch of militia guys on the head of [religious] confessions,” Faouz said. “But the street has changed, and they should know that.” 

Mainly, people are annoyed that Aoun has blamed the lack of progress on restrictive politics and, basically, everyone else. “You have the biggest number of MPs in the parliament,” Kammoun said of Aoun. “If you can’t do something, who’s going to do something?”

Rebecca Collard is a broadcast journalist and writer covering the Middle East.

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