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Just how much can Lebanon change under Aoun?

Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s plans for economic and political reform will face numerous challenges including endemic corruption and his own limited powers.
Christian politician and FPM founder Michel Aoun (L) talks during a news conference next to Lebanon's former prime minister Saad al-Hariri after he said he will back Aoun to become president in Beirut, Lebanon October 20, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir - RTX2PR3I

Following the election of Gen. Michel Aoun as president of the Lebanese Republic on Oct. 31 and the appointment of Saad Hariri as prime minister on Nov. 3, the two men will face numerous challenges, starting with forming a national government. Hariri is seeking to form his government before Independence Day on Nov. 22, but he is currently unable to meet the demands of some parliamentary blocs that seek key portfolios or service ministries.

On Nov. 8, Aoun’s Change and Reform parliamentary bloc called on politicians to facilitate the formation of a new government. Hariri's Future Movement parliamentary bloc urged political parties to keep their demands for ministries realistic to help Hariri form a new government.

Aoun and Hariri will have to address many serious socio-economic and political problems, especially the deteriorating economic situation and rising unemployment rate. They will need to maintain security and stability, combat terrorist networks and meet the needs of more than a million Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon.

Aoun acknowledged the difficulty of this mission in his inaugural speech, describing himself as a “president who took office in difficult times and a president highly expected to overcome difficulties and secure stability.” He pointed out that political stability can only be achieved by respecting the National Pact, the constitution and the law through national partnership. He also stressed the need to fully implement the National Pact and the Taif Agreement without “any kind of selectiveness or discretion and develop it as needed through a national consensus.”

Aoun’s recent recognition of the Taif Agreement, which he had rejected in 1989 for limiting the president’s powers, indicates that he has adopted a realistic policy of compromise, especially in light of the Future Movement's rejection of any amendment to the agreement.

As for economic and social stability, Aoun said he would adopt “a transformational approach that starts with economic reform based on planning and coordination between the ministries. … We cannot advance without a comprehensive economic plan,” he said. “This socio-economic reform can only succeed with the consecration of a system of transparency and a legal system that helps prevent corruption. This can be done by appointing an anti-corruption committee and engaging the monitoring bodies and enabling them to carry out all their duties.”

In his Baabda Palace speech Nov. 6 in front of a crowd that came to celebrate his presidential victory, Aoun stressed that his goal is to build a strong state based on a constitution respected by all politicians. He said that no politician shall breach the constitution, and corruption will be uprooted. Aoun added that the Lebanese people need projects to provide water, electricity and roads, and he will seek to start them as soon as possible.

Political analyst Amin Qamouriyeh told Al-Monitor that Aoun was “looking forward to marking his reign with social, political and development reforms and uprooting anti-corruption, but the current [limited] powers of the president of the republic do not allow him to repeat the experience of former reformist President Fouad Chehab. Chehab, who ruled the country from 1959 to 1962, fought corruption and worked toward the institutionalization of the state.”

Qamouriyeh added, “The current financial situation does not allow [Aoun] to carry out development projects and bring about reform at the level of the semi-dysfunctional institutions. It should be noted that corruption is deeply rooted and difficult to combat, even with the convergence between him and the prime minister.”

Lebanese researcher Michel Abu Najm told Al-Monitor that Aoun "will put the building of the state on track and countering corruption will be his priority, despite the fact that the Taif Agreement limited the powers of the president. However, the agreement still granted the president the positions of guarantor of national unity and protector of the constitution, and this is more than enough for the president to launch his works in cooperation with other constitutional institutions.”

For his part, Lebanese analyst Toufiq Shuman told Al-Monitor that Aoun has “built his popularity on reform and anti-corruption slogans, and therefore [has always] criticized the economic project of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri that has been in place since the early 1990s. However, the question today is whether Aoun will be able to deliver on his slogans and promises, as corruption in Lebanon has become the general culture with sectarian, political and partisan protection and based on the quota system — which in turn produced interest lobbies inside and outside the state.”

Shuman added that the limits of presidential powers raise questions about Aoun's ability to implement his program and vision, especially since the prime minister is “responsible for executing the general policy that is set by the Council of Ministers,” according to the Lebanese Constitution.

Aoun stressed the need for “effective parity” among Muslims and Christians. He said, “The first obligations of such a parity is to adopt an electoral law that ensures fair representation prior to the date of the next election.”

This comment shows that Aoun is in favor of proportional law and against the current majoritarian electoral law, which allows Muslim leaders to choose some Christian parliamentarians in Muslim-majority provinces. The electoral law is likely to stir controversy between Aoun and his allies Hezbollah and the March 8 coalition, and Hariri and his allies the March 14 coalition. Based on the current law of 1960, Hariri and the March 14 coalition enjoy the majority in parliament.

Abu Najm said, "The election law will be subject to consultations between President Aoun and other political components, but he will work on changing the current law of 1960 and reach a law that enjoys popularity."

According to Aoun, the first pillar of security is national unity and protecting Lebanon from the flames raging in the region. He called for “the need to stay away from foreign conflicts, all the while respecting the Charter of the League of Arab States, and Article 8 in particular, and the need to adopt an independent foreign policy based on the supreme interests of Lebanon and international law.”

Article 8 states that each member state “shall respect the systems of government established in the other member states and regard them as exclusive concerns of those states. Each shall pledge to abstain from any action calculated to change established systems of government.”

It seems that Aoun was trying to balance Hezbollah’s stance, which supports the Syrian government, and the March 14 stance, which supports the Syrian opposition, by reaffirming respect for the current Arab regimes and Lebanon's obligation not to interfere in their internal affairs.

As for the conflict with Israel, Aoun said in his inaugural speech, “We will spare no effort and no resistance to liberate the remaining occupied Lebanese territories and protect our country from an enemy that still covets our land, water and natural resources.”

A source close to Hezbollah told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “President Aoun’s statement about the need for the resistance to liberate the Lebanese territories occupied by Israel confirms the legitimacy of the resistance and its backbone, Hezbollah.”

The source added that Aoun also mentioned protecting Lebanon from Israel, which implies a role for weapons as a deterrent to Israeli interference.

“We shall prevent, deter, counter and even eliminate terrorism,” Aoun said.

According to the Hezbollah source, “This is a clear understanding of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, which is aimed at deterring terrorism and fighting it proactively … through both the security forces and Hezbollah inside Lebanon.”

Qamouriyeh concluded that the self-distancing policy is impossible and that moving forward, Aoun will try to avoid the issue of Hezbollah and its role in Syria.

Although the president's powers are limited and the actual powers are in the hands of the Cabinet, a strong president like Aoun, who enjoys a strong parliamentary bloc and a large number of ministers and influential allies, can still bring about some change and achieve some reforms in this troubled system.

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