Lebanese politicians began cementing alliances under a new government as Muslim Prime Minister Salim Hoss, head of one of two rival regimes, traveled to Syrian-controlled territory in the north to hand over his resignation to Rene Mouawad, a Maronite Christian elected and inaugurated Sunday as Lebanon’s ninth president.
Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s tenacious military strongman and leader of a Christian government opposed to that of Hoss, continued Monday to denounce the Parliament’s election of Mouawad. Although both Aoun and Mouawad are Christian, Mouawad is Syrian-supported, and the general has vowed to drive all Syrian troops from Lebanon.
Mouawad paid a call on the Maronite Christian Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, who had been terrorized earlier in the day by rabid followers of Aoun because of Sfeir’s support for the new president. The two met at the patriarch’s summer residence in the north, where Sfeir fled after his headquarters in the Christian enclave was stormed.
As Lebanese awaited Mouawad’s appointment of a new prime minister and cabinet, Aoun, surrounded by loyal troops of the national army he commands, stood his ground at his presidential palace at Baabda, outside Beirut.
“He’s a brave man,” a Nicosia-based diplomat said, “but he tried to do what was politically and militarily impossible"--drive a Syrian army of 40,000 out of Lebanon.
After 14 years of civil strife and a devastating six-month Christian-Muslim artillery war this year, Lebanese politicians finally gave in to outside pressure and agreed to a package of political reforms designed to dismantle Christian privileges.
Equally important to other Mideast nations, which forced a truce on Lebanon through the Arab League, the fighting had threatened any hope of stability in the region, most recently as Iraq and Iran carried on their own conflict by proxy in Lebanon.
But the 54-year-old Aoun--who had said he was willing “to give peace a chance” when Lebanon’s aged parliamentary deputies were summoned last month to Taif, Saudi Arabia, to work out accords--is not satisfied.
“We are not at confrontation with an elected president but will continue our campaign against the Syrian occupation,” the general declared after Mouawad was elected Sunday by the Parliament at an abandoned military airfield under Syrian control on the north coast of Lebanon. “We are determined to thwart the conspiracy which is being hatched to eliminate what is left of Lebanon’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Syrian troops entered Lebanon in 1976 under an Arab League mandate and at the request of Christian President Suleiman Franjieh. The civil war was more than a year old, and Christian forces were hard-pressed by Palestinian fighters. Now the Syrians and their Muslim militia allies control 70% of the country.
The Taif accord dealt primarily with political reform. A separate document pledges the Arab League to work for Syrian withdrawal, but not on a timetable tied to reform, as Aoun had demanded.
On Monday, even Israel, which over the years has supported Lebanon’s army in its struggle against the Syrians, joined the international chorus of support for Mouawad’s election and the prospect of reform.
“We can only hope that this election will bring more relaxation, stability and a new Lebanese framework based on today’s reality and not on the dreams of the past,” Uri Lubrani, Israel’s coordinator for Lebanese policy, said in Jerusalem. “I hope this action will reduce the Syrian presence in Lebanon.”
Aoun called on his die-hard supporters to protest the developments, which he called constitutionally invalid, in “a civil manner,” but hot-headed young Christians ran wild in the hours after Mouawad’s election.
Shortly after midnight, according to police accounts reported in the Lebanese press, about 100 protesters stormed the compound of the 68-year-old Patriarch Sfeir at Bkirki north of Beirut.
“The rioters broke into the patriarch’s bedroom, dragged him out of bed, forced him to kneel with two senior aides who rushed to help him and forced all of them to kiss posters of Aoun,” a police spokesman said. ". . .They were hysterical.”
According to another account, portraits of Sfeir and Pope John Paul II were removed from the walls of the residence and replaced with pictures of the general. Other Aoun supporters reportedly broke into at least six other churches in the hours after midnight. They fired automatic rifles in the air, burned vehicle tires and rang the church bells, the police reported.
Monday morning, caravans of youths cruised the streets of Christian East Beirut firing their rifles into the air.
“There is no leader but Aoun!” they shouted. “Mouawad is a Syrian lackey!”
A general strike shut down schools and commerce.
The new president, speaking Sunday after his election, made it clear that he supports close relations between Lebanon and Syria, which he said are based on common interests and historical ties.
The Maronites are the leading Christian sect in Lebanon. They claim 1 million adherents there, plus more in Syria, Israel, the United States (where many emigrated) and elsewhere. Their leader is Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, 68, of Lebanon. The sect traces its origins to St. Maron, a monk who lived in northern Syria in the 5th Century. Centuries later, seeking to escape persecution by Muslim caliphs, sect members fled to the mountains of Lebanon, where many remain today. They allied themselves with the Crusaders and later formed ties with France. A massacre of Maronites by Druze Muslims in 1860 led to France’s first intervention in Lebanon. The Maronite Church is allied with Rome but uses Eastern Antiochene rites.