Lebanon Chooses New President

BEIRUT (Reuters)–After nine years under a low-profile president–Lebanon is placing high expectations on General Emile Lahoud–the widely respected head of the army who was elected by parliament on Thursday to take over the office for the next six years.

Lahoud received the approval of all 118 deputies attending the session–but his victory had been assured earlier this month when Syrian President Hafez al-Assad ended weeks of speculation and gave his crucial backing to the 62-year-old career officer.

Lahoud has ridden to office on a wave of public enthusiasm in which he is portrayed as disciplined–hardworking and honest–traits the public hopes will reform a Lebanese government still struggling with a civil war legacy of corruption and a bloated public service.

"If President Lahoud needs a slogan–then ‘reform or bust’ would be suitable," the English-language Daily Star wrote. "The need for change is acute; the consequence of not changing are stark."

A crucial aspect will be his relationship with billionaire Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri–who has dominated politics during the term of President Elias Hrawi and led the drive to rebuild from the 1975-90 civil war.

The debate over the past year on Lahoud’s prospects had often centered on whether Damascus wanted Hariri to face a president as strong as Lahoud is expected to be.

In a country still riven by divisions from the bloody 1975-90 civil war–Lahoud is seen as personifying the building of a unified state. The army–which disintegrated during the civil war–has grown under his leadership since 1989 from a dispirited body of 19,000 men to a non-sectarian force of some 65,000.

Just as important for his new role–Lahoud brings good relations with both Syria–the prime foreign power in Lebanon–and the United States–which still provides an economic model for a country driven by a tradition of free enterprise.

Lahoud–who was a rear admiral in Lebanon’s tiny navy before becoming head of the army–demonstrated good political judgment in the last stage of the civil war as he distanced himself from previous army commander General Michel Aoun’s revolt against Syrian domination.

But–after Syrian crushed the revolt by the Christian Maronite leader–Lahoud was credited with personally gaining the release of pro-Aoun officers taken as prisoners to Damascus and has secured a steady supply of US military equipment to rebuild the army.

"The army is the arm of the nation and legality," Lahoud said on the army’s anniversary in 1995. "It is not the army of sects–anarchy or favoritism. The army’s strength makes Lebanon strong.

"The army is committed to obey the political authority to serve Lebanon’s higher national interests–aware of who is the enemy and who is the friend–entrenching itself with the brotherly Syrian army to confront threats that face the two neighboring countries."

Lahoud is reported by political sources to have met Bashir al-Assad–powerful son of the Syrian president–several times in the weeks before his endorsement by Damascus.

But Lahoud’s links with Damascus go back to his father–another Lebanese career officer who was involved in helping the Syrian army and also owned property in Syria. His links to the west include military studies in both Britain and the United States.

The new president–who will officially be sworn in on November 24–was born in the mountain village of Baabdat northeast of Beirut on January 10–1936. He has two sons and a daughter–and speaks fluent Arabic–French–English and Armenian learned from his mother.

He is described as an austere figure who swims a mile a day–takes icy showers through the winter and has shunned the social life that preoccupies most Lebanese politicians. Typical of his style–Lahoud declined to give any interviews–or even release an official biography–before his formal election.

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