Lebanese parliament elects Michel Aoun as new president, ending years-long vacuum
Aoun is a divisive figure in Lebanon for his role in the 1975-1990 civil war
Lebanon's parliament on Monday elected Michel Aoun, an 81-year-old former army commander and strong ally of the militant group Hezbollah, as the country's president, ending a more than two-year vacuum in the top post and a political crisis that brought state institutions perilously close to collapse.
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Aoun secured a simple majority of votes in the house after a chaotic session that saw several rounds of voting because extra ballots appeared in the ballot box each time. He garnered 83 votes out of 127 lawmakers present at the session.
He had been widely expected to achieve a two thirds majority in the first round, but failed by two votes.
Members of parliament broke out in thunderous applause after Aoun finally was declared president by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. His supporters across the country erupted in cheers as they watched the proceedings on huge screens set up in the streets. Brief celebratory gunfire could also be heard in the capital.
"We've got a president today who will take care of all the Lebanese, all of Lebanon, not just one faction," said Khalil Shukr, a 21-year-old Aoun supporter wearing a yellow T-shirt, the colour of the Hezbollah flag.
"I'm with Hezbollah, and my hand is with Hezbollah, and we are with Aoun," added Shukr, standing among a crowd gathered at the Mar Yousef church in Aoun's childhood town, Haret Hreik, now a crowded Beirut suburb dominated by Hezbollah.
Victory for Assad allies
Aoun's election is seen by many as a clear victory for the pro-Iranian axis in the Middle East, giving a boost to Hezbollah and the Shia Lebanese group's ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The election came at a time of great regional upheaval, especially in neighbouring Syria, where the civil war has repeatedly spilled over into Lebanon.
"Lebanon is passing through minefields and has been safe from the raging regional fires, and we will prevent any spark from reaching it," Aoun said in a speech shortly after he was elected.
A rival candidate and strong supporter of Assad, Suleiman Franjieh, told reporters after the session: "Our alliance has won whether it is with me or with the general."
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby congratulated the people of Lebanon, describing Aoun's election as a "moment of opportunity" to restore government institutions as Lebanon emerges from years of political impasse.
The EU's Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini said the election is "crucial for the future of the country" and called for constructive dialogue among political parties to address Lebanon's numerous challenges.
Aoun has a wide support base, mostly among Lebanon's educated youth, but is a divisive figure in Lebanon for his role in the 1975-1990 civil war. Still, there is cautious hope that his election would breathe some life into state institutions that have been paralyzed for too long.
No leader in country for 29 months
Lebanon has been without a head of state for 29 months after President Michel Suleiman stepped down at the end of his term in May 2014. Since then, 45 sessions to elect a new leader have failed due to political infighting that led to of a lack of quorum as Aoun's block and allied Hezbollah lawmakers boycotted the sessions because his election was not guaranteed.
In the end, it took an about-face by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Lebanon's Saudi-backed main Sunni leader, who formally endorsed Aoun for president last week — reportedly in exchange for Aoun promising him the position of prime minister.
"This is a very important day for Lebanon ... today is the beginning of the end for the risks that threatened us," Hariri said after the vote.
Aoun was quickly sworn in as Lebanon's 13th president, pledging political and economic reform and urging a "real partnership" among notoriously divided Lebanese political factions.
Following the parliament session, Aoun is expected to drive to the presidential palace in the southeastern Beirut suburb of Baabda, returning exactly 26 years after he was forced out of it as army commander and interim premier by Syrian forces and Lebanese troops loyal to a rival commander.
Ahead of the vote, army helicopters flew over the city and cars were banned from entering most of central Beirut. Metal detectors were set up in the streets around Parliament.