Christian Lebanese military leader Michel Aoun (born 1935) served as interim prime minister of Lebanon for two years before being driven out of power by Syrian forces in October 1990.
Michel Aoun was born in 1935 in Harat Hurayk in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. He obtained his bachelor's degree from the Freres school in Jumayza in Beirut. In 1955 he entered the Military Academy in Beirut and graduated in 1959. He specialized in artillery in his military career. He studied at Challonssur-Marne in France and at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. From 1978 to 1980 he had training at the prestigious Ecole de Guerre in Paris.
In 1982 he became commander of the newly established 8th Brigade of the Lebanese Army and in August 1983 he was in charge of the Suk al-Gharb region, which witnessed fierce battles in defense of the Lebanese legitimate authorities against the incursions of Syrian-armed proxy militias. On June 23, 1984, Aoun, who became a brigadier general, was appointed commander of the Lebanese Army. He was still in that post when he was chosen, on September 22, 1988, as the prime minister of the six-member Interim Cabinet.
The decision by outgoing President Amine Gemayel, just before his term expired, to appoint an interim cabinet was due to the inability of the Lebanese Parliament to elect a new president. This failure was caused by Syrian President Hafiz Assad's insistence that only his candidate should be elected by the Lebanese Parliament and that the meeting for the election must be held in Syrian-occupied West Beirut.
When President Gemayel appointed Brigadier-General Michel Aoun he was following the precedent set by President Bishara al Khuri in 1952. Before he resigned he appointed as prime minister a Maronite Christian who happened also to be the commander of the Lebanese Army, Brigadier-General Fu'ad Shihab. Although the newly appointed Aoun Cabinet was the legitimate government in accordance with article 53 of the Lebanese constitution, pressure was exerted by Syria on the three Moslem members not to accept their cabinet posts. The Syrian authorities went further by claiming that the legitimate cabinet was that of outgoing Prime Minister Al-Huss. Thus from the outset the interim prime minister, Aoun, was faced with Syrian non-recognition and outright opposition. The more he was rebuffed by Syria the more he became adamant in his stand.
In an attempt to avert the resumption of fighting in Lebanon, the foreign ministers of the League of Arab States formed a committee on Lebanon, headed by the Kuwaiti foreign minister, in January 1989. This committee eventually met both Aoun and Al-Huss in Tunis on January 30, 1989. The Arab League Committee on Lebanon also met during the period February to April 1989 in Kuwait with the most prominent Lebanese leaders (both political and religious), but to no avail. These meetings were overshadowed by fighting which erupted between Aoun's Lebanese Army and the Christian Lebanese Forces on the one side and the Syrian Army in Lebanon and the Druze and Shi'a militias on the other side. The fighting was triggered by Aoun's decision, in February 1989, to close all illegal ports, which had adversely affected, among other things, the ports used by Druze and Shi'a militias, which prompted, in turn, the latter to bombard the Lebanese Ministry of Defence and Aoun's headquarters in Baabda in northeast Beirut. Aoun had realized that the conflict was inevitable because of the Syrian attitude toward his cabinet, so he defiantly declared on March 14, 1989, the war of liberation against Syria, hoping to get international support for his cause.
Aoun's appeal was met with the indifference of the West except for France, which supported him diplomatically and provided him with humanitarian assistance. The United States refused to get involved in the conflict between Aoun and Syria, especially as American hostages in Lebanon were being threatened by their pro-Syrian captors. Instead, the United States maintained that the League of Arab States ought to resolve the conflict. The Arab summit held in Casablanca in May 1989, in which Lebanon was not represented, failed to convince Syrian President Assad to withdraw his troops from Lebanon. The Casablanca Summit formed a tripartite committee of the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Algeria to mediate the conflict between Aoun and Syria. Although the first statement issued by this committee was critical of Syria, the latter did not budge, knowing that the tripartite committee would eventually accept the Syrian stand as its military power on the ground was superior to that of Aoun.
In the meantime Syria increased military pressure on Aoun by continued bombardment and by imposing a naval blockade on the areas that were under Aoun's rule. Eventually, in September 1989, the tripartite committee called for a cease-fire, which was accepted by both Aoun and Syria. It also called for the convening of the members of the Lebanese Parliament in Ta'if, Saudi Arabia. In fact, 62 deputies (31 Christians and 31 Muslims) of the total 73 surviving members of Parliament met and agreed upon a blueprint of reforms, known as the Ta'if Accord, which transformed the Lebanese polity from a presidential to a cabinet political system.
While Aoun was not enthusiastic about these internal reforms, he was adamantly opposed to the part of the Ta'if Accord that legitimized the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon. The accord stipulated that the Syrian troops would be redeployed after two years in the eastern regions of Lebanon but there was no mention of Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. The accord paved the way for the election of a new president, and Aoun tried to pre-empt the election by issuing a decree dissolving Parliament, but with no success.
Syria's aim in supporting the accord was to delegitimize Aoun, which was not difficult because the latter entangled himself in a violent and destructive conflict with the Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces, during the period January through May 1990. Aoun's popularity, which had been based on his anti-Syrian stand and his call for free elections, a return to the rule of law, and the end of the rule of corrupt politicians and militia leaders, began to erode. Syria, which joined the anti-Saddam (Iraqi) forces by sending troops to Saudi Arabia alongside the U.S. troops, exploited the Gulf crisis to launch a major attack against Aoun on October 13, 1990, and occupied the region which was under Aoun's rule. Aoun sought political asylum in the French Embassy, and the Syrian-dominated cabinet that was installed in December 1990 refused to allow him to leave for France. In August 1991 the Lebanese government granted him a special pardon and, on August 29, Aoun was whisked off to France by French officials, where he continues to live in exile. In a 1995 interview with Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Quarterly, Aoun expressed his views on the state of affairs in Lebanon and his hopes for its future: "My conception is a new Lebanon, a modern state, a state of law, all the while respecting public liberty; an honesty in the administration of the state, and very good relations with neighbors."
Although Aoun's five-year suspension of citizenship decreed by the Lebanese government ended in August 1996, Aoun stated that he did not plan to return to Lebanon. According to an interview given to Gary Gambill and Marie Michel El-Zir of Arab Studies Journal, Aoun was certain his life would be in danger if he did return because the government fears "that with my return the Lebanese will rally around the idea of independence. … They know how unpopular they are and how my popularity remains untouched."
It is true that although Aoun lost his bid for power, he remained popular among the Lebanese communities. Many of his Christian supporters refused to vote in the 1992 election and stayed loyal to Aoun and his ideas. In the United States, the Aounist movement has become a powerful opposition group in the Lebanese emigrant community. Due in part to the lobbying of the Council of Lebanese American Organizations, the U.S. Senate passed Resolution 24 in July 1994 that condemned the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.
For additional information on the rise and fall of Aoun together with background information on the tragedy of war-torn Lebanon, see Augustus Norton, Amal and the Shi'a Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon (1987), and Marius Deeb, "The External Dimensions of the Conflict in Lebanon: The Role of Syria," Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (Spring 1989), and "Lebanon in the Aftermath of the Abrogation of the Israeli-Lebanese accord," R.C. Freedman (editor), The Middle East from Iran-Contra to the Intifada (1991). See also Economist (August 31, 1991; June 17, 1995; September 7, 1996), Middle East Quarterly (December 1995), New York Times (August 18, 1991; August 30, 1991), Wall Street Journal (August 28, 1991), and Christianity Today (November 19, 1990). Also see the Web site for Americans for a Free Lebanon at http://www.aflnet.com.