Lebanon News

Peacetime president who salvaged the state

File - Elias Hrawi delivers his Inaugural speech, Nov. 24, 1989. (The Daily Star/Elias Hraoui Website, HO)

Editor’s note: Ahead of the 2014 presidential election, this is the 10th in a series of articles examining the circumstances and conditions that shaped the elections of Lebanon’s 12 presidents since 1943.

BEIRUT: The election of Elias Hrawi to presidency marked the end of Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War and the fall of complete Syrian tutelage over the country.

Elected in Nov. 24, 1989, two days after the assassination of President Rene Mouawad, Hrawi was the second head of state after independence whose term was extended.

It was during Hrawi’s time that Lebanon began implementing the Taif Agreement. The deal, brokered by Syria, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to put an end to the 1975-90 Civil War, was inked by Lebanese MPs on Oct. 22, 1989.

In his book “Lebanon’s Presidents: How They Made It,” Ahmad Zeineddine wrote that shortly after Mouawad’s assassination, MP Albert Mansour proposed the nomination of MP Pierre Helou for the presidency to Speaker Hussein Husseini, describing him as moderate, trustful, competent and a friend to Mouawad.

Husseini agreed, and asked Mansour to discuss the issue with Helou, promising to convince the Syrians to back his election.

Mansour met Helou, who agreed to run for the top Christian post in the country. Husseini then traveled to Damascus to discuss the issue with the Syrians.

“Our Syrian brothers were partners in the Taif Agreement and committed to implementing it and helping Lebanese legitimate institutions control the state again,” Mansour was quoted by Zeineddine as saying.

But although Damascus approved Helou’s election, the latter then announced that he was no longer a candidate.

Mansour argued that Helou’s surprising decision might have been motivated by his fear of the repercussions of a potential Syrian military operation, a scenario that was expected to happen during his term against Army Commander Gen. Michel Aoun, who was still residing in Baabda Palace and opposed the Taif Agreement.

“Others say that the assassination of Rene Mouawad ... terrified Helou and thus he decided to refrain,” Mansour was quoted as saying.

Mansour said that Husseini informed the Syrians about Helou’s decision. In light of this development, the Syrians asked Jean Obeid, another potential candidate, to visit Damascus. He arrived on the evening of Nov. 23. That same night, MP Hrawi, who hails from Zahle, arrived in Damascus along with MP Michel Murr, Mansour said. Hrawi had run against Mouawad, but garnered only five votes.

The Syrians asked Obeid whether he would accept the deployment of Syrian troops throughout Lebanon after his election. Obeid hesitated to give a clear answer and asked for a period of time to think it over, a request that would ruin his chances of being elected president and boost those of Hrawi.

In his memoirs, Hrawi narrates a different story, saying that in a meeting involving Syrian President Hafez Assad and Husseini, the Syrian president said he preferred the election of Hrawi over Helou.

On Nov. 24, Hrawi held a lengthy meeting with Husseini and many MPs, and he was elected the same day in the Bekaa Valley town of Chtaura, where Parliament convened to elect a president. Hrawi, who had no contester, won in the second round, garnering the votes of 47 MPs.

In his inaugural address, Hrawi promised to put an end to the chaotic security situation in the country, to gradually expand the authority of the state across Lebanon, dissolve militias, help those who were displaced during the bloody Civil War to return home, and to liberate the south from Israeli occupation.

The government of Salim Hoss, the first to be formed during Hrawi’s term, appointed Emile Lahoud as Army commander.

On Oct. 13, 1990, Syrian troops, assisted by Army units under Lahoud, stormed Baabda Palace and the Defense Ministry in Yarzeh, clashing with Lebanese troops loyal to Aoun and forcing the general to seek shelter at the French Embassy. Months later, Aoun fled to France, where he remained in exile for around 15 years.

The military operation signaled the end of Lebanon’s Civil War and peace returned to the country. Except for Amal and Hezbollah, all armed groups were dissolved and reconstruction efforts kicked off, particularly with the appointment of late billionaire tycoon Rafik Hariri as prime minister in 1992.

For the next six years, Hrawi, Speaker Nabih Berri and Hariri ruled Lebanon as a troika.

While the violence of the Civil War was over, Israel’s aggression against southern parts of the country continued, as the Jewish state still occupied a strip of territory there.

As Hrawi’s term was nearing its end, Hariri announced that he backed the extension of the president’s term.

Hariri favored the extension as a means to postpone the election of Lahoud, a scenario that was likely to happen at the end of Hrawi’s term. Hariri maintained a rocky relationship with Lahoud.

Syria backed the proposal and Parliament met in October 1995 and amended the Constitution, extending Hrawi’s term for three years. The move was approved by 110 MP votes. Eleven MPs opposed the step and seven did not attend the session.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 25, 2014, on page 3.




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