Lebanese woke up on the morning of Saturday, November 24, 2007 to find that the long-dreaded “presidential vacuum” had finally arrived. But, oddly enough, it was not as bad as had been foreshadowed. In fact, many spent the night celebrating. Much of West Beirut resounded with firecrackers being set off and young men in the streets cheering former President Emile Lahoud’s long awaited departure.
The former president left the Presidential Palace in Baabda with little fanfare shortly before midnight on November 23. After bidding his staff farewell and saluting his honor guard one last time, Lahoud quit the presidential grounds, waving at journalists and presumably heading to his new residence in the nearby hills. This home, it is said, overlooks the presidential palace and is only minutes away from the Yarzeh Country Club where Lahoud is rumored to have spent much of his presidency swimming and sunbathing.
In the end, Lahoud’s departure was largely symbolic. After all, in his last year in office, Lahoud had refused to sign any decree coming from the cabinet, calling it unconstitutional in solidarity with the opposition. Faced with a frozen executive, most foreign diplomats thereafter snubbed the former president, instead working exclusively with Siniora.
On the occasion of the end of Lahoud’s term, NOW Lebanon takes a look at the former president’s numerous “accomplishments,” as laid out by Lahoud himself. Did he wage war against corruption as promised in his November 1998 inaugural address? As army commander and then president, did he singlehandedly rebuild Lebanon after 15 years of civil war? Was he the liberator of the South? All these things and more he claimed credit for in his farewell speech on November 21, on the eve of Independence Day.
But, he acknowledged with modesty, “This is not the time to make an inventory of what has been realized and what has not been realized over the past nine years.” “Today, you be a fair judge,” he told his audience, urging them to “study the last nine years with objectivity.”
From a young age, Lahoud knew that he was destined for politics. His father, General Jamil Lahoud, served as a deputy for the Metn district (1960-1964) and briefly as minister of labor and social affairs. Lahoud had been born into one of Lebanon’s elite political families, and by the time he joined the Lebanese Military Academy in 1956 shortly after his graduation from Brumana High School, he knew that he was destined for great things. Thirty years later, after defecting from the army led by then-Army Commander General Michel Aoun, he was named, with Syrian backing, commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces by Elias Hrawi on November 28, 1989 – just one week after the assassination of 17-day President René Moawad.
His first task as army commander was to lay siege to the “free zones” of West Beirut and drive out his onetime commanding officer General Aoun. However, unable to do so because his troops and officers had by and large opted to remain loyal to Aoun, Syrian troops in October 1990 assisted in the task – brutally crushing the army, driving Aoun into exile and executing many senior offices in a move that brought both Lahoud and Hrawi little popularity.
Lahoud, however, persevered and did not let mounting unpopularity keep him from coordinating more effectively with Syrian security and intelligence personnel. In 1991, for example, despite vociferous objections, he helped implement the Defense and Security Pact with Syria, which effectively put the Lebanese army wholly under Syrian control through the friendly and coordinated “exchange of information related to all security and strategic matters” and “the exchange of officers… to achieve the highest level of coordination.”
With Syrian assistance so effectively secured, Lahoud dramatically overhauled the institution of the army with the help of well-known military men like Brigadier General Jamil al-Sayyid, Brigadier General Mustafa Hamdan and Colonel Raymond Azar. Unfortunately for Lahoud, however, several of these close friends and allies have since been implicated in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The implementation of compulsory one-year military service (which has since been overturned, after it rapidly accelerated the brain drain from Lebanon among young men) more than tripled the size of the army between 1993 and 1995, and the purchase of a massive amount of US-manufactured military equipment transformed the army into a force to be reckoned with. Of course, after he became president, the Syrian half of his “strategic alliance” forbade him to deploy troops south to the Israeli border or east to the Syrian border. Nonetheless, as Lahoud pointed out in his farewell address, speaking of the May 2000 Israeli withdrawal, “The powerful arms of the Lebanese resistance men, backed by the national army, which I had the honor of commanding and reunifying, shook the ground under the feet of the enemy and pushed it toward defeat.”
But Lahoud will go down in history as the president under whose mandate Lebanon was liberated from not just one, but two, occupations. Not only did he “drive out” the Israelis in 2000; but in 2005, his presidency helped facilitate the long-awaited eviction of Syrian troops and the withdrawal of Syrian intelligence personnel. After all, it was the Syrian-imposed extension of his term that led to the coalescence of the disparate opposition groups that would later form the March 14 coalition, and which set off a chain of events culminating in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. It is, perhaps, modesty that kept Lahoud from laying claim to the greatest achievement of his presidential career in his farewell speech – the Cedar Revolution in the Spring of ’05. On March 14, 2005, over a million Lebanese gathered on his watch to call for the resignation of his Prime Minister Omar Karami and to shout “Syria, Out!” And of course, there was no shortage of slogans against the president himself on that day, either. Lahoud’s role as a key source of inspiration for the protests should not be underestimated.
Lahoud, however, despite popular cries for him to do so, demurred from relinquishing his post and joining the revolution. Perhaps it is his earnest desire for Beirut to resume healthy diplomatic relations with Damascus that keeps him from tooting his own horn in this regard. He does, after all, continue to remind the country that Lebanon “is shielded by its relations with sisterly and friendly states and its brotherly and distinctive relations with sisterly Syria based on the sovereignty, dignity, freedom, and decision-making of each of the two sisterly countries.” He, furthermore, hopes that these “brotherly and distinctive relations” improve in the near future.
At the helm, war after war
Lahoud had apparently done so much in his nine years to improve the lot of the army and the workings of government that there was apparently little for him to do during the July War, other than go for the occasional dip. After all, it was Prime Minister Fouad Siniora – not he – who struggled to convince the international community to push for a ceasefire. It was Siniora who had to work so hard to organize the Paris III donor conference and rebuild the country. It is more proper, Lahoud proved, for the president to spend the aftermath of such a war lauding the merits of a brave paramilitary group like Hezbollah, which not only started the war but continues to undermine the state, than actually trying to help the nation recover.
Then again, in 2007, Lahoud was there in office ready to defend the country during yet another summer war, this time against a ratty group of jihadists who made their way over from Syria to put up a fight in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared. Lahoud coordinated so well with his army commander, Michel Sleiman, and his minister of defense and son-in-law, Michel al-Murr, that it only took three months, well over a hundred troop casualties, the displacement of some 30,000 refugees and the absolute destruction of the camp to defeat the threat of Fatah al-Islam.
Words of wisdom
There are “crimes” taking place in Lebanon, Lahoud warned on November 21: “It has become clear that the aim of these crimes has been to strike at our national unity and weaken our resolve in preparation for the implementation of plots, the most serious of which is the plot to settle the Palestinian people in Lebanon.”
Many government officials might consider other contenders for the title of “most serious plot” like: (1) the three-year spate of assassinations killing leaders like Rafik Hariri, Gebran Tueni, Pierre Gemayel, Walid Eido, Antoine Ghanem and others, (2) the continued infiltration of jihadists into Lebanon through organizations like Al-Qaeda and Ahmed Jibril’s PFLP-GC, (3) the threat of Shakir al-Abssi and other Fatah al-Islam fighters still on the loose, (4) the paramilitary activities of Hezbollah, (5) the unending political deadlock and threat of civil war, (6) continued Syrian and Iranian intervention, and (7) the possibility of another Israeli war on Lebanon.
These seven items may seem like serious threats to Lebanon’s future, but apparently, Lahoud’s many years of presidential experience have given him ability to discern what the real threat is. Though there is certainly no plan on any ministerial table to grant Palestinians living in the country Lebanese citizenship – a point which the government has reiterated again and again, in no uncertain terms – Lahoud and his allies have regularly brought up this specter to charge politicians like Saad Hariri, and his father before him, with an inimical plan to “Sunni-ize” Lebanon. Never mind terror and assassination!
With that advice and these frank, heartfelt words, Lahoud embarks upon a new life of retirement: “I have understood my responsibility to be a service and not an opportunity to profit and impose oppression. My only aim has been to protect your homeland from weakness and from being an easy target. I have worked to make your Lebanon a sovereign, free, independent and unified homeland, in which its sons live in dignity, masters on their land with deep roots and with their heads held high in the air like the cedar of Lebanon.”
Godspeed, Mr. President. Today, a presidential void might seem better to us than your nine years in office, but we will certainly never forget you nor the events that transpired in Lebanon under your watch.