In these days of fear and distrust in Lebanon, there may be no man who inspires more venom than Gen. Michel Aoun.
Since returning from 15 years of exile to the joyful cheers of his followers last year, the Christian leader known simply as "the General" has frayed this fragile country's intricate network of allegiances. First he formed a surprising political alliance with Hezbollah. Then he sent his followers into the streets for massive antigovernment demonstrations.
With rising religious and political tensions threatening to pitch the country into fighting, plenty of his embittered fellow Lebanese hold Aoun squarely to blame.
But after decades of war and exile, Aoun is in no mood to apologize. Watching the country unravel from a fortified perch in Beirut's well-heeled Christian suburbs, he is calm and selfassured. He politely acknowledges his many, vociferous critics -- and describes himself as a misunderstood savior of Christians and Lebanon.
"A leader must be a leader. Sometimes he could make choices against the opinions of his followers because he has to go through a crisis and to save them. The vision is not for everybody," says Aoun, peering over his desk through round eyeglasses. "He has to make a choice, and maybe, after, the people will understand why he has done what he has done."
It's no secret that Aoun would like to emerge from Lebanon's political paralysis as president, a post reserved for a Christian under Lebanon's system of carving up the government according to religion. Many Lebanese believe that he made a Faustian bargain with Hezbollah in hopes of assuring his ascendance.
His rivals say he is so blinded by ambition that he's willing to destabilize the country -- and turn Christians against one another -- to get the power he wants. But Aoun insists that he is working to secure a better government for Lebanon, and that the presidency is an afterthought.
Whatever his motives, he has boosted Hezbollah's fortunes at a delicate time: As it pushes to topple the government, Hezbollah has minimized its image as an armed Islamist party of Shiite Muslims. Hezbollah now speaks of itself as a mainstream movement with a populist, cross-sectarian appeal.
Critics fear Aoun is being used by Hezbollah, and warn that his newfound allies will toss him aside when they no longer need him. They call him a traitor to Christians and a tool of Syria and Iran, Hezbollah's main backers.
"He's a destructive figure in recent Lebanese history," said Michael Young, opinion editor for Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper. "Lebanon has never been so divided, and the Christian community, since his return, has never been so divided. Like many a demagogue, he lives off division."
This slight, 71-year-old leader with an office full of history books and an evident interest in Charles de Gaulle has gambled his legacy on Hezbollah. He argues that time will prove the wisdom of his choices.
"Maybe it looks to somebody like a big gamble, but to me it's clear," he said. "The result will save this country.... The other choices we have right now threaten our own existence. What I am doing right now will preserve the existence of Christians in the Middle East."
But many of Lebanon's Christians are furious with Aoun. Tensions have led to scattered street fights among his followers and fellow Christians. Aoun shrugs off worries over the divisions, which he called predictable and unremarkable.
"They don't have enough judgment to appreciate what I'm doing for the Christian community and Lebanon," Aoun said. "Those people are educated on hatred.
"They are angry. They cannot conceive that a man from the people would become a leader," he said of his critics in government. "They are a factor of stagnation in our country. They won't accept any reform or change."
Born into a poor family, Aoun worked his way up through the ranks of the military. He dismisses much of Lebanon's political elite as "remainders of political feudalism" who inherited both power and fortunes.
Aoun's longtime, outspoken hatred of Syria has shaped an often isolated trek through war and politics. As the civil war wound down in 1990, the one-time prime minister was forced into exile in France. He pledged never to set foot in Lebanon until the Syrians relinquished their hold on the country.
During the hard, repressive years that followed, Aoun's backers in the Free Patriotic Movement staged illegal street demonstrations, enduring jail, interrogations and abuse.
Meanwhile, many of Lebanon's other leaders went along with the Syrian government in Damascus, including some of the most outspoken members of the self-proclaimed "anti-Syria" coalition that now controls the majority bloc in Lebanon's parliament.
Days after Syria was forced to withdraw its soldiers from Lebanon last year, the general charged triumphantly home to the delight of weeping, cheering fans. But his return proved bittersweet.
He found himself usurped: Sunni leader Saad Hariri led a coalition of newly minted "anti-Syria" politicians who seized control of the parliament through national elections.
When Aoun forged alliances with staunch allies of Syria, Lebanese began to whisper a startling rumor: Aoun had hammered out an understanding with Damascus before returning home.
Aoun insists that this is a lie. To this day, he says, he has carried out no negotiation, direct or indirect, with Syria.
"Hariri and his group were pro-Syrian. And they took advantage of that and made fortunes from the resources of the country," Aoun said. "So what's going on now is that these people collaborated so much with Syria that they have to show some hate, some extremism, in speaking of Syria."
Aoun, who believes the government has succumbed to nepotism and corruption, pushed for an extensive audit of the government to find out who had profited illegally during the years of Syrian control. He called for an overhaul of Lebanon's election laws, and decried the system of apportioning power along religious lines.
And then came the final stroke: This year, Aoun signed a document of common political strategy with Hezbollah, utterly confounding many Lebanese. The general brushed off criticism, insisting that Christians could not be secure in the Middle East unless they dealt pragmatically with the Muslim majority.
"They can't be different, like they're imported from another area," he said.
Aoun's pact raised eyebrows in Washington, which classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist group. He said his recent relations with Washington were "not good." But he insisted that it was unrealistic and counterproductive for the Bush administration to expect him to ignore Hezbollah.
"That's one-third of the Lebanese people," he said. "We cannot isolate them. We cannot kill them."
Many Christians simply cannot bring themselves to support an alliance with an armed Islamist organization they regard as a threat to their community's future. Others cheer Aoun as a visionary leader and praise his choice of Hezbollah over the pampered heirs and warlords they regard as corrupt.
"There's only one reason I'm standing by somebody who's an extremist: It's a trust balance against all the hypocrisy on the other side," said Roy Saab, 29, a Christian magazine editor who has demonstrated against the government along with Hezbollah followers. "I know they have weapons and missiles. But I trust what they say, as opposed to everyone else."
Saab acknowledged that his stance might seem bizarre. "No one can say the Middle East is not an absurd place to live," he said with a grin.
But it remains to be seen how far Aoun will go to remain loyal to his newfound political allies. He stopped short of calling for Hezbollah's disarmament, a defining issue in Lebanese politics.
"You cannot say to people, if you don't have another security system to defend them, 'OK, give up your weapons and go home,' " Aoun said. "Everybody will feel insecure and we'll have instability." That, he says, is where his project of Muslim-Christian alliance comes in.
"We have to disarm their minds. The weapons don't make a crime by themselves. They are manipulated by man," he said. "So the pacification of the country starts by pacifying spirits and minds."