JEDDAH: Lebanese lawmakers ended a two-year political vacuum Monday by electing as president ex-army chief Michel Aoun, who promised to protect the country from spillover from the war in neighboring Syria.
The deeply divided Parliament took four rounds of voting to elect 81-year-old Aoun, whose supporters flooded streets across the country waving his party’s orange flag.
“Lebanon is still treading through a minefield, but it has been spared the fires burning across the region,” Aoun said after taking the presidential oath.
“It remains a priority to prevent any sparks from reaching Lebanon,” the Maronite Christian leader said.
Syria’s five-year war has been a major fault line for Lebanon’s political class, and analysts have warned Aoun’s election will not be a “magic wand” to end divisions.
The next challenge will be forming a government and that is expected to take months of wrangling.
Presidential media office chief Rafik Chlala said consultations to name a prime minister would begin Wednesday morning, with an announcement expected at noon Thursday.
It remains unclear if Lebanon’s perpetually ineffectual political class can solve key problems, including a trash crisis that has seen rubbish pile up in open dumps.
The Parliament that elected Aoun has twice extended its own mandate, avoiding elections because of disagreements over a new electoral law.
Aoun had long eyed the presidency, and his candidacy was staunchly backed by Iran-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah, his ally since a surprise rapprochement in 2006.
But the key to clinching the post was the shock support of two of his key rivals: Christian Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Sunni former premier Saad Hariri.
Hariri, expected to be appointed premier, said his endorsement was necessary to “protect Lebanon, protect the (political) system, protect the state and protect the Lebanese people.”
Hariri and Geagea both oppose Syria’s President Bashar Assad, while Hezbollah supports Damascus and has dispatched fighters to bolster its forces.
That feud left MPs repeatedly unable to reach consensus on the presidency, a post reserved for a Maronite Christian.
After taking the oath, Aoun rode in a convoy of black cars to the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, where his wife and three daughters were waiting to congratulate him.
In Beirut’s majority-Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh, revellers lit fireworks and fired volleys of celebratory gunfire.
The atmosphere in Jdeideh outside Beirut was one of untrammeled joy, with thousands honking car horns and popping bottles of champagne.
“I’m so happy. After 25 years our dream has come true,” said 33-year-old accountant Giselle Tammam.
Assad congratulated Aoun on being elected, hoping it would contribute to “reinforcing stability” in Lebanon, Syria’s state news agency SANA said.
Syria’s Al-Watan daily, which is close to the government, said the election represents “the triumph of the resistance, of Syria and its allies.”
President Francois Hollande spoke of France’s “determination” to continue supporting Lebanon “to preserve its integrity and security,” his office said.
Syria’s President Bashar Assad congratulated his new Lebanese counterpart, hoping it would contribute to “reinforcing stability” in Lebanon, state news agency SANA said.
Iran welcomed the election of Aoun as a victory for the Shiite group Hezbollah, Tehran’s ally in Lebanon.
A message from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said: “We are certain that with your election, the resistance movement will be strengthened.”
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah also congratulated Aoun in a phone call.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby described Aoun’s election as a “moment of opportunity” to restore government institutions as Lebanon emerges from years of political impasse.
However, Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid, who has topped recent Israeli polls, said Israel should worry when Lebanon elects a president who has the backing of Hezbollah, adding that the militant movement is bound to turn its aggression toward Israel once the war in Syria comes to an end.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini both saw in the election a step that could pave the way for Lebanese politicians to close ranks in the national interest.