General's return casts doubt on Lebanon's future

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The Independent Online

This small town in the north Lebanese mountains should be the fiefdom of Nayla Mouawad, widow of president Rene Mouawad who was assassinated in 1989, the wellspring of the Lebanese opposition. But yesterday, in her family home - a 19th century house of dressed stone - Mrs Mouawad was relying on the "shock" of ex-General Aoun's victory in last week's round of Lebanese elections to give the opponents of Syria the 21 extra seats it needs to dominate parliament. It did not look good .

This small town in the north Lebanese mountains should be the fiefdom of Nayla Mouawad, widow of president Rene Mouawad who was assassinated in 1989, the wellspring of the Lebanese opposition. But yesterday, in her family home - a 19th century house of dressed stone - Mrs Mouawad was relying on the "shock" of ex-General Aoun's victory in last week's round of Lebanese elections to give the opponents of Syria the 21 extra seats it needs to dominate parliament. It did not look good .

General Aoun's messianic message - reform, no more corruption, don't trust the politicians who opposed Syria but stayed on under Syrian rule - was being vigorously promoted by thousands of students in Beirut whose hero spent 15 years of tortured exile in the hellish confines of Paris and who compares himself to Alexander the Great.

It was General Aoun's gold banners that dominated the town of Zghorta. "I would have spent 15 years of exile in Paris if I could have my husband back," Mrs Mouawad, who like General Aoun is a Christian, said softly. "The Christians felt they were victims and the intelligence services did their best to foster this idea."

The received wisdom in Lebanon is that the country's pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, cemented into power for at least another two years, allowed General Aoun to return from exile in order to divide the opposition - and that he was successful. The ex-general, whose failed "war of independence" against the Syrians in 1990 cost 3,500 lives, won 13 seats with six more for his allies in last week's election; "Aoun's tsunami", they are insensitively calling it here, but you can see the point.

Down in Tripoli, where the ancient Crusader castle of Saint Gilles still glowers over the city, General Aoun's new and elderly ally, the pro-Syrian former prime minister Omar Karami, sits in his palace with a new-born self-confidence. General Aoun, the anti-Syrian warrior, please note, is now allied to Karami, one of Syria's closest friends. "I am trusting Mr Aoun because of his principles - not for other things," the brother of ex-prime minister, Rashid (also murdered) insisted. "What he is saying is exactly what we have been demanding for 20 years: an end to corruption, reforms in all the state and we are against religious extremism - and extremism is something which will lead Lebanon to disaster."

And Syria, I ask? What about Syria's interests in Lebanon? And Mr Karami, remember, popped across to Damascus only two months ago for a private briefing with President Bachar Assad on the future reform of the Syrian Baath party. "Syria is a neighbour for us. We here in Lebanon are relatives of the Syrians - our families are the same and you cannot divide two peoples who are the same ... Look in the streets of Tripoli, at the names above the shops and they are the same names as in any Syrian city. I am not optimistic, however, because Saad Hariri [son of the murder ex-prime minister Rafiq] is continuing what his father did - he is declaring the same policy as Walid Jumblatt [the Druze leader] who is responsible for what happened here over the past 12 years. We have a public debt of $40bn (£20bn) and the income of the state was $60bn. What happened to it?"

Saad Hariri's reminder to the largely Sunni Muslim city of Tripoli to vote for his friends was regarded as a call for sectarian assistance. They need two-thirds of north Lebanon's 28 seats. Yesterday, they didn't look set to win them. So whither Lebanon? And whither its big sister Syria?

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