On Sept. 23, 1958, Fouad Chehab became the first military man to take the presidential oath in Lebanon’s history. Fifty-eight years later, Michel Aoun took office, becoming the fourth army official, and the third in a row, to hold this post.
The comparison between the two men might as well end there.
While Chehab endeavored to strengthen the state institutions, Aoun has done nothing but help undermine them.
Chehab was a statesman whose policy was aimed at developing the state’s prerogatives and defending its interests. Aoun is a fierce politician who has spent all his energy to serve a single ambition — becoming president — even when this meant going against his own convictions.
Chehab’s term was associated with state building; Aoun’s is synonymous with its collapse.
Neutrality vs. axis policy
Both men had their first experience in power through a transitional military government, Chehab in 1952 and Aoun in 1988.
President Bechara al-Khoury’s mandate ended in 1952 in a fairly chaotic atmosphere. Lebanon was embroiled in strikes and civil disobedience, which forced the president to step down after three days, in what was then called the “white revolution.”
Chehab stepped in and took the helm of a military government, with many calling on him to retain power. He refused and facilitated the transition process to instate then President-elect Camille Chamoun.
Three decades later, in September 1988, when then-President Amin Gemayel left power without a successor, he appointed then-army head Aoun to lead a military government tasked with ensuring the election of a new head of state.
Aoun, however, would cling to power, refusing to leave Baabda Palace until he fled the country on Oct. 13, 1990, escaping a Syrian offensive.
Before that, Aoun opposed the Taif Agreement and launched a so-called war of elimination against the Lebanese Forces and a “war of liberation” against the Syrian Army.
In 1958, army Gen. Chehab came to office after a chaotic period marked by strong internal divisions amid a regional standoff between Arab nationalists and pro-Western monarchies.
Tensions were running high to the point that a civil war broke out between the army and insurgent forces, who blamed Chamoun for his inclination toward the West.
On July 15, 1958, at the Lebanese government’s request, Washington ordered the United States Marines to land on the Khaldeh beach — the first American invasion of the Middle East.
Another crisis followed with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, which could be resolved only through a compromise between Washington and Cairo giving the presidency to Chehab, who then served as army commander.
Chehab took advantage of a period of relative calm in the region to promote his neutrality policy, which culminated in a meeting with Nasser that took place in a tent on the Lebanese-Syrian border in 1959. Chehab had refused to visit Egypt or Syria, which then formed the United Arab Republic.
During the meeting, Chehab asked Nasser to sit on the Syrian side of the border, while he sat on the Lebanese side, and a compromise was born.
Almost six decades later, in 2016, Aoun had finally managed to ensconce himself in the President Palace, after an 896-day presidential vacuum.
Thanks to Hezbollah’s support, the army general forced all the other local actors to support his candidacy, and above all, he managed to reach a compromise with then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
The so-called presidential compromise would eventually implode in 2019.
Far from maintaining a neutral stance of disassociation, the president aligned himself with Hezbollah’s Iranian policies, cutting Lebanon off from its Arab neighbors and questioning the geopolitical and cultural identity of the land of the cedars.
‘What is dictated in the book will be’
Chehab was marked by the crises that ended his two predecessors’ mandates and sought not to repeat the same mistakes.
Khoury, for instance, was the target of many popular movements because of his brother Salim el-Khoury, whom the Lebanese had at the time nicknamed “Sultan Salim,” likening him to the Ottoman governors. He was said to control the cogs of the state’s machinery and was accused of corruption.
Today, many politicians call Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil “Sultan Bassil,” in reference to “Sultan Salim.”
Conversely, Chehab was known for being an ascetic man with moral values.
According to one of his closest associates, retired Brig. Gen. Michel Fadlo Nassif, Chehab distanced himself from all his relatives and family, and requested that his brother, Chakib Chehab, be transferred from the consulate in Alexandria and given a marginal job at the Foreign Ministry.
He also banned his brothers and other relatives from going to the Presidential Palace.
Chehab was particularly keen on respecting the Constitution. “What is dictated in the book will be,” he used to say.
The president was never reluctant to present the cabinet with a copy of the Constitution, often requesting the cabinet’s secretary-general — usually a man of law — to read constitutional articles in order to abide by them.
With the support of the Maronite Church, led at the time by Patriarch Boulos Meoushi, Chehab forged an agreement with Muslim communities, who were still on the fringes of the state, in a bid to strengthen public institutions. In particular, he reorganized the Planning Ministry, whose mission was to develop preliminary plans for projects that other ministries wished to implement.
During Chehab’s term, many major institutions were established in the country: the Supreme Judicial Council, the National Social Security Fund, the Court of Accounts, the Tender Board, the Civil Service Council, and the Green Plan — the largest sustainable development project in Lebanon.
It was a real inverted image of Aoun’s term.
Today’s president wipes his feet on the Constitution when it does not serve his interests, as was the case with the presidential vacuum or the cabinet formation.
The Baabda tenant does not hide his desire to consign the Taif Agreement to oblivion, believing it was the reason Christians lost all their prerogatives.
The head of state had a front-row seat to the collapse of the country and its banking system, its schools, its hospitals and even its army.
“It is unfair to compare Chehab to Aoun,” a close source to Aoun says.
He argues, “Chehab came to power early in the establishment of the state and managed to put his stamp on it. Aoun had to fight against sectarianism, make compromises, following a period during which Christians had been marginalized.”
“I don’t want anyone to write about me or defend my mandate. I don’t want to justify anything. Only history will justify my actions. The people will not be convinced, especially Christians have not been convinced, by many of my actions,” Chehab once said, as mentioned in the Memoirs of Gen. Michel Nassif.
In fact, not all Christians appreciated Chehab, notably because of the army’s strong role in political life via the army intelligence, or the Deuxième Bureau (“Second Bureau”). It is in the name of the same Christian street that Aoun claims to fight today.
But while Chehab’s years were among the most prosperous for Lebanon, Aoun’s mandate appears to be among the worst in the country’s history.
This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Nasser and Chehab met in 1958. The meeting between them in fact took place in 1959.
While Chehab endeavored to strengthen the state institutions, Aoun has done nothing but help...