Pro-Syrian general routs Lebanese opposition

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The Independent Online

President Emile Lahoud appears to have won Lebanon's first free elections in 30 years. A pro-Syrian, Mr Lahoud, wasn't standing, of course - he's safe, for almost another three years.

President Emile Lahoud appears to have won Lebanon's first free elections in 30 years. A pro-Syrian, Mr Lahoud, wasn't standing, of course - he's safe, for almost another three years.

But his decision to let the rebel anti-Syrian, General Michael Aoun ,return to the country after 15 years of exile to participate in the third round of Lebanon's election has - as those close to Mr Lahoud say he predicted - torn the anti-Syrian opposition apart.

Genera Aoun, who has compared himself to Napoleon, Charles de Gaulle and Alexander the Great -his Maronite supporters always like messianic figures - gained 21 of the 58 seats contested on Sunday, giving him a decisive vote in the next parliament.

Woe upon those who thought that the outrage generated by ex-premier Rafik Hariri's murder would produce a united opposition, safeguarded by the dead man's son Saad and the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, who was a civil war enemy of General Aoun.

Hariri Jnr swept up the seats in Beirut just over two weeks ago - just as Syria's Shia Hizbollah allies did a week later in the south of the country - but Sunday's poll brought disaster to those who believed a strong opposition majority could legislate President Lahoud out of office and turn Lebanon into a free country.

"Haram," as they say in the Arab world - "pity" - for those who thought the Lebanese "spring" would flourish. General Aoun fought a hopeless 18-month "war of independence" against the Syrian army in 1989 and 1990, eventually being ousted from the presidential palace by an American-approved Syrian air strike - those were the days when Syria was Washington's friend in the "coalition" against Saddam's occupation of Kuwait. General Aoun fled to the French ambassador's residence in his pyjamas, leaving his soldiers to their dismal - and bloody - fate.

But he returned to Lebanon, courtesy of his nemesis President Lahoud, to claim he - not Rafik Hariri's murder and Walid Jumblatt's condemnation of the Syrians - forced the Syrian army to withdraw.

Hariri's son and Jumblatt, he claimed outrageously, were worse than the former Syrian intelligence commander in Lebanon. But it worked. His supporters voted for him, thanks partly to his extraordinary decision to share his political list with pro-Syrian politicians. Even a popular opposition Christian candidate who might have become Mr Lahoud's replacement, Nasib Lahoud (no relation), was defeated.

Yes, it was a democratic election but General Aoun's presence, in effect, destroyed any opposition hope of gaining 85 seats in the 128-seat parliament - which would have allowed them to change the constitution and boot out President Lahoud. They have 46 seats - Aoun has 21 - and need 65 even to form a majority in the assembly. Next weekend's final elections in northern Lebanon will decide their fate. General Aoun's pragmatism - some might say cynicism - has allowed him to ally himself with one of Syria's closest allies in Lebanon, the former interior minister Sulieman Franjieh, for the next round.

General Aoun, it is clear, had far greater Christian support than his own Maronite opponents realised.

His 15-year exile in the comfort of Paris has been portrayed as a Christ-like suffering, a martyrdom endured for the future freedom and democratic power of Lebanon, by his adoring supporters who cannot understand the opposition claims that he might be more interested in the future of his own power rather than Lebanon's.

When he ruled east Beirut in 1989, he banned newspapers, locked up opponents and fought battles with his Christian rivals.

But few are without blood on their hands in Lebanon - Jumblatt has lots, too - and this country is probably doomed to revisit the betrayals of the civil war in its next parliament. Twenty-eight seats are on offer in the elections next Sunday. The opposition needs 19 of them to control parliament. Don't hold your breath.