The Lebanese parliament elected former army commander and Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun as president on Monday, ending a 29-month presidential vacuum as part of a political deal that is expected to make Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri prime minister.
Aoun, who is in his 80s, secured the presidency by winning the support of at least 65 MPs, or an absolute majority of the members of the 128-seat chamber, according to a Reuters tally of votes read out in a televised broadcast from parliament.
The Lebanese presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian in the country’s sectarian power-sharing system.
In 2006, Aoun signed a formal agreement of alliance between his Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah, and has consistently backed the Shi’ite group ever since.
In remarks made after the election aimed at Hezbollah backers, Aoun vowed to “release what is left of our lands from the Israeli occupation,” referring to contested territories along the border with the Jewish state.
Aoun added that Lebanon “will act against terror,” while pledging continued support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country’s five-year-long civil war. Hezbollah militants have fought on behalf of Assad for the better part of the war, which has seen over 400,000 people killed since its inception.
Aoun’s election is “a political victory for Hezbollah,” said Benedetta Berti, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies.
“Hezbollah has been very squarely backing Aoun for president and this was always the deal between Aoun’s party and Hezbollah. Hezbollah has upheld its end of the deal. With this election… you can see Hezbollah being consolidated in terms of its political allies as well as its position in Lebanon.”
The breakthrough for Aoun came when Saudi ally, Saad Hariri, the most powerful Sunni politician in Lebanon and the leader of what is known as the March 14 coalition, endorsed him after failing to gain support for another candidate, Suleiman Franjieh.
Aoun reportedly promised Hariri, a former prime minister, the premiership. Hariri is seen as particularly anxious to get back in office.
“Aoun’s election is a clear victory for the pro-Iranian axis in the Levant and another climb down for Saudi Arabia,” wrote Paul Salem, vice president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Tehran and Riyadh are engaged in a struggle for regional primacy that is a sectarian battle between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam as much as a political rivalry. This has pitted them on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, with Riyadh supporting Sunni rebels, and Iran and Hezbollah backing the minority Alawite regime of Bashar Assad.
Hariri’s failure in promoting his own candidate for the presidency and his agreement to Aoun reflects the absence of Saudi influence in Lebanon, which resulted from Riyadh’s disengagement from Beirut beginning in February. At that time, in response to Lebanon’s failure to condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran following the kingdom’s execution of a Shi’ite cleric, Saudi Arabia canceled a three billion dollar aid package for the Lebanese army.
It is thought that Lebanon did not join other Arab countries in condemning Iran because of the influence of Hezbollah and its allies.