Lahoud: Syria’s top man in Lebanon

File - Newly elected President Emile Lahoud, left, is sworn in by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri at the Parliament in Beirut Tuesday Nov. 24, 1998. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

Editor’s note: Ahead of the 2014 presidential election, this is the 11th 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 Emile Lahoud to the presidency in 1998 occurred at the behest of Damascus despite the reservation of several Lebanese leaders, marking the start of an extended term that would cover many significant and dramatic events in post-Civil War Lebanon.

During Lahoud’s tenure, Israel’s army would withdraw from south Lebanon, ending 22 years of occupation, and Syria would exit Lebanon too, after around 30 years of military presence in the country. His presidency would also see former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri assassinated in February 2005 and Israel’s summer 2006 war against the country.

An Army commander since 1989, Lahoud, who comes from the Metn village of Baabdat, was elected president on Oct. 15, 1998, at the request of Syria, which at that time was in total control of Lebanon. He was the second Army commander to become president after Fouad Chehab.

In his book, “Shock and Steadfastness: The Term of Emile Lahoud (1998-2007),” former Kataeb Party leader Karim Pakradouni wrote that 10 days prior to the presidential election in ’98, Syrian President Hafez Assad informed President Elias Hrawi, Lahoud’s predecessor, that he believed the Army commander was the best figure to succeed him.

“It has come to my attention that Lebanese newspapers have published polls indicating that the majority of the Lebanese want Emile Lahoud as president,” Assad reportedly told Hrawi during the latter’s visit to Damascus.

“It is our duty to respect the people’s will. ... We in Syria, under your patronage, will help and support this Lebanese consensus, even if this requires the amendment of Article 49 of the Constitution for this purpose,” Assad added.

The article referred to restricted Grade I employees, such as Army commanders, from running for president for several years after leaving their post.

Back in Lebanon, Hrawi called a Cabinet session on Oct. 8 to pass a draft law to amend Article 49 and allow such people to run for president just two years after leaving their job.

Parliament approved the amendment and elected Lahoud a week later on Oct.15. He was the only candidate and won 118 votes of Parliament’s 128 members.

The vote was opposed by Jumblatt and former Army Commander Michel Aoun, who was in exile.

The election of Lahoud led to the departure of Hariri, largely as a result of long-standing tense relations between the two.

To replace Hariri, Salim Hoss was nominated to the premiership and, after heading the government for six years, the head of the Future Movement joined the opposition.

It wouldn’t last long, however, and in 2000, Hariri became prime minister again after his landslide victory during parliamentary elections held that year.

In May of 2000, Israel withdrew from Lebanon, prompting calls for Syria to pull out its troops too.

The number of people seeking Syria’s withdrawal quickly grew to include the Council of Maronite Bishops, Jumblatt, Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces.

Lahoud, however, defended Syria’s military presence in Lebanon, saying it was necessary as long as Israel continued to occupy the disputed the Shebaa Farms and Syria’s Golan Heights, as well as refusing to recognize the right of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to return home.

In a bid to quell growing anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon, local security authorities resorted to oppressive practices that only served to increase grievances against Lahoud and his sponsor, Damascus.

But as Lahoud’s six-year term neared its end, international pressure on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon mounted.

On Sept. 2, 2004, the U.N. Security Council issued Resolution 1559. Drafted by the U.S. and France, the resolution called for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon, the disbanding of all illegitimate armed groups and free and transparent presidential elections.

Ignoring the resolution and growing Lebanese dissent, Syria forced through a three-year extension of Lahoud’s term. On Sept. 3, Parliament met, and 96 MPs passed the extension, which was opposed by 29 others including Jumblatt’s MPs and a number of Christian lawmakers. Three MPs did not attend the session.

Hariri resigned shortly after, rejoining the opposition and preparing for parliamentary elections scheduled for spring 2005, polls he would never live to see.

The Lebanese leader’s assassination on Feb. 14, 2005, and the events that followed weakened Lahoud.

The Valentine’s Day car bomb triggered anti-Syrian protests that culminated in a massive demonstration on March 14 where protesters accused Syria and the Lebanese security services of standing behind the assassination and called for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon.

The demonstration marked the birth of the March 14 coalition, which at the time comprised the Future Movement, Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, the LF, FPM and the Kataeb Party.

Succumbing to mounting local and international pressure, Syria – Lahoud’s main backer – withdrew its troops from Lebanon in April, ending 15 years of control over its neighbor.

A few months later, the March 14 alliance won a majority in Parliament and in the government.

In a further blow to Lahoud, officers Jamil al-Sayyed, Ali al-Hajj, Mustafa Hamdan and Raymond Azar – who headed the country’s security services and were close to Lahoud – were arrested in September 2005 over suspicions that they were involved in Hariri’s murder.

Regardless, with the extension already approved, Lahoud remained in power. In a bid to get rid of what it described as Syria’s “remnant” in Lebanon, the March 14 coalition launched a campaign in early 2006 to force Lahoud to step down early. Opposed by Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, the attempt failed.

Lahoud served the last years of his term under boycott by several local parties and many Western and Arab countries that backed the March 14 alliance.

He left the presidential palace at the end of his term in November 2007, without a successor due to a severe political division between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions.

Lahoud’s supporters argue that he was a key backer of the resistance against Israel and someone who confronted calls by the March 14 coalition for Hezbollah to give up its arms.

His opponents accuse him of obstructing efforts to free Lebanon from Syria’s tutelage and of cracking down on civil freedoms.

Lahoud remained unapologetic for his actions long after he had left Baabda Palace.

“If I go back in time, I will repeat all that I did because my convictions proved to be right,” he told Al-Jazeera years after his term ended.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 28, 2014, on page 2.




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