Lebanon's new ruler vows to end corruption

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MILITARY OFFICERS have a habit of running the Middle East. General Hosni Mubarak was an air force officer; Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was an army cadet; General Hafez el-Assad, who graduated as a pilot officer in 1955, became President of Syria; General Liamine Zeroual is president of Algeria (until February); not to mention General Ariel Sharon, who is today foreign minister of Israel. And from next month, we shall have General Emile Lahoud, president of Lebanon.

Given the fact that the last general who thought he was president of Lebanon - Michel Aoun -- went completely off his rocker and opened a "war of independence" against Syria (total dead: 2,000, mostly civilians), Syria's support for General Lahoud was an act of great confidence in the Maronite army chief of staff, whose mother and wife are Armenian, whose training was American and British (Royal Naval College Dartmouth) and whose Christian family goes back to 2nd-century Yemen.

He is, needless to say, incorruptible - or so the Lebanese press tell us.

And perhaps that is the point. Not only is General Lahoud an honest man; he is - as Sir Richard Rich would say of another statesman in A Man For All Seasons - "known to be honest". Which may be why General Lahoud was elected by all 118 of the Lebanese MPs gathered in the Beirut parliament. Only the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and his parliamentary colleagues - who have long regarded the 60,000-strong Lebanese Army as far too large for a tiny country - stayed away from the chamber. As one of the few Lebanese untainted by corruption, the general-president, who leaveshis post as army commander when he takes office, is also feared by government officials.

Already, he has let it be known that he does not want any more bribes taken in ministries; he will, so the Beirut rumours go, be taking a close look at the departments of oil and electricity. As usual with army men, the public relations boys are putting out the usual spin: Lahoud is a "no-nonsense man", a "soldier's soldier" who will put Lebanon's interests - as opposed to the interests of Lebanon's most powerful families - first.

But to what does he owe his position? When General Aoun opened hostilities against Syria's 22,000-strong army in Lebanon in 1989, Lahoud took the side of the Syrian-backed rival government of Selim el-Hoss. And throughout the long years since, his intelligence officers have given every assistance to the Syrian Army's military police in Lebanon. Only a few days ago, Syrian and Lebanese army cadets held a joint graduation ceremony in Lebanon. Sister Syria - as the Damascus regime likes to be called here - has smiled upon General Lahoud.

He has, in the meanwhile, integrated the notoriously sectarian army battalions into a single fighting force; today in Lebanon, at lonely checkpoints far up in the mountains, Druze and Maronite and Sunni and Shia Muslim soldiers patrol together. The Christian community, deeply cynical of the Syrian-dominated government of prime minister Rafiq Hariri, may be persuaded to give itssupport to a military officer.

Under Lebanon's unwritten constitution, in which the president must always be a Christian Maronite, only one other general has successfully led the country - Fouad Chehab, who also led Lebanon on an uncorrupt path away from civil war in 1960.

General Lahoud will be trusted to oppose Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon - not a difficult task since the resistance movement is almost entirely made up of Hizbollah guerrillas - and Turkey's threats against Syria, again not difficult since the Lebanese have long memories of the brutal Ottoman rule, which ended in 1918.

Lahoud's officers imprisoned the old pro-Israeli Phalangist leader Samir Geagea - who murdered several of Lahoud's own officers - years ago. But there are dangers.

The revamped Lebanese army, like Cromwell's New Model Army, is passionately loyal to Lahoud. It is rejoicing in his election.

Lahoud, it seems, is Lebanon. But what if Lebanon's comparatively free press - the word "comparative" must be carefully defined here - chooses to criticise the general?

Will this be seen as an attack on the country? Or on the army? And what Middle East army tolerates criticism?