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thedrifter
05-08-05, 04:52 PM
Exiled General Back in Beirut, Promising a New Era
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By HASSAN M. FATTAH
The New York Times

BEIRUT, Lebanon, May 7 - Gen. Michel Aoun, a onetime nationalist Lebanese army commander who inspires support in the street among many Christians and unease among some of the long-entrenched elite, arrived in Beirut on Saturday after 15 years in exile, promising to remake the country's politics.

The return of the general, a Maronite Christian who opposed Syria's dominance, closes the chapter on that country's control of Lebanon - and opens a new one as Lebanon faces the daunting challenges left by Syria's withdrawal.

General Aoun's arrival just two weeks after Syrian forces left Lebanon was part victory march, part bittersweet homecoming. Posters in Christian parts of Beirut hailed him as a "resister" and a "liberator."

"Today is a victory for sovereignty, and a return for a Lebanese," General Aoun said after he arrived on a flight from France.

From the airport, the general drove to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and on to the grave of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri before moving to Martyrs Square nearby, where thousands of his supporters, wearing the orange of their Free Patriotic Movement, had gathered. Hundreds of supporters flew into Lebanon in recent days to express their backing, his aides said.

"This is our march, our path," said Bob Ghorayeb, 25, who with several friends was selling copies of General Aoun's biography at the rally. "He was a nationalist and he worked in the interest of the whole country. It's time for a political change like that."

General Aoun rose to prominence in the late 1980's, taking the Christian-led Lebanese Army, which had stood aside from much of the violence, into attacks against Christian militias. In six months of sieges and artillery duels, 850 people died.

He headed a military government from March 1989 to October 1990 but lost his post in maneuvering.

The Syrians attacked the Lebanese Army in one of the bloodiest battles of the 15-year civil war. Overpowered, the general sought shelter at the French Embassy in Beirut, and left the country by sea for the south of France 10 months later. He stayed away as long as the Syrians remained in control of Lebanon. In recent years, he lobbied for the Syria Accountability Act passed by the United States Congress and was instrumental in the passage of United Nations Resolution 1559, which called for Syria's departure from Lebanon.

Rumors of General Aoun's intention to return began circulating shortly after Mr. Hariri was assassinated Feb. 14, as Lebanese took to the streets demanding that Syria withdraw. On Wednesday, a Lebanese court dropped several outstanding charges against him, lifting the last impediment to his return.

"General Aoun stands as a figure of unity today and his popularity spreads far past his religion," said Alain Aoun, the general's nephew and a spokesman for the Free Patriotic Movement.

Many fear the general may play a divisive role at a critical time. Perhaps as a message, a bomb exploded in a shopping area in the major Christian port city, Jounieh, on Friday night, killing at least one person.

"He considers himself as the winner, but I don't give him that much credit," said Chibli Mallat, a well-known Lebanese lawyer and opposition leader. "The institution blockage he created and the crisis he put the country through don't make him a unifying figure."

With leadership of Lebanon's numerous sects largely sewn up by existing players, General Aoun may be pitted mostly against the country's numerous Christian leaders, who are jostling for the few, but powerful, positions assigned to Christians. He said recently that he would be prepared to assume Lebanon's presidency, traditionally a Christian role, "if the country would have me."

He noted Saturday that he had entered Lebanon on an official passport granted to him when he was prime minister, a reminder of his position in the past, and he took numerous swipes at Lebanon's leaders.

But the general has also vowed to tackle the country's corruption and reform its institutions.

Paul Salem, a candidate for Parliament and the head of the Fares Foundation, a Lebanese human development group, said the general was not an entirely factional figure, but added that "he's too powerful a personality for many people to swallow," referring to his well-known temper and his aggressive manner. "Lebanon is still a place that needs a lot of diplomacy to operate."

In arguably his most ambitious move, General Aoun has responded to a growing public mood of conciliation and promised to try to end the sectarian foundation of the country's political institutions.

Sectarianism has been a central theme in Lebanon from its early days. The country, with discrete populations of Sunnis, Shiites, Druse, Maronites and other Christians and other sects, has enshrined sectarian roles in almost every seat of government. The president is traditionally Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of Parliament a Shiite, the head of the army a Maronite. Such divisions helped cultivate personalities and warlords who led the country's 15-year civil war.

"Ask people if they are willing to give up sectarianism, and maybe 10 percent will say yes today," said Youssef al-Zein, a founder of the Urban Movement, which is seeking to secularize government and scrap the sectarian system. "But what's significant is that it's now possible to ask the question."

Others are seeking to eliminate outright sectarianism or confessionalism, as it is called here, while maintaining some form of proportional representation. General Aoun's proposal is to make Lebanon a secular state altogether, a profoundly challenging proposal.

Several Muslim women and men at Saturday's rally said they had come to back General Aoun's call for an end to sectarianism.

"We came to share our hope and emphasize that we are not sectarian," said Khawla Krimba, 21, who came from a village near Baalbek. "We want to build a nation like America and Europe where sectarianism doesn't rule over everything."

Ellie