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(photo credit: AP [file])
He's known as "The General," and his very public demands for Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora to resign have generated rapturous applause from the thousands of anti-government protesters camping outside government offices in downtown Beirut.
Michel Aoun, 71, is a former prime minister and commander of the Lebanese Army who was forced into exile for 15 years by Syrian and allied Lebanese forces. His return to Lebanon and subsequent alliances with a number of erstwhile opponents, including Hizbullah and some staunchly pro-Syrian politicians, has raised more than a few eyebrows.
Some in the Lebanese capital believe it shows that pro- and anti-Syrian positions are no longer relevant; others see it as a cynical move aimed at maximizing Aoun's chances of winning parliamentary seats - and ultimately the presidency.
Either way, with his popularity apparently increasing daily, some observers have dubbed Aoun as the man who possibly can tip the balance of power in what has become a very precarious political standoff.
SMS messages being circulated throughout the country are encouraging supporters to participate in the massive peaceful demonstration orchestrated by Hizbullah with Aoun's support. Numerous tents in downtown Beirut belong to Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). These Christian Maronite supporters are surprising partners with Hizbullah in their attempt to overthrow the government.
If Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah's decision to have Aoun deliver the keynote address at the start of the demonstration last Friday was aimed at presenting the anti-government opposition as a pan-sectarian movement, then he failed.
Demonstrators here are slow to criticize Hizbullah, but quick to point out they're backers of Aoun.
"I am not Hizbullah," said one supporter. "I'm here because I believe if we want to build and reunite our country, we need a bridge and Aoun has proved he can play this role. He can unite us, not on a Saudi, Iranian or American program, but on shared Lebanese ideas that transform into a national program for Lebanon."
But Aoun is also blamed by many Christians for dividing the community between those who support the government and those calling for its resignation.
Katia Debs, a student who has been at the protest from the start, said she used to support Aoun, but disagreed with his current direction.
"I want all of us Christians to be together," she said. "First of all, Christians must be strong. I'm concerned our community is splitting."
Aoun has rejected the "pro-Syrian" label, but like the blatantly pro-Syrian Lebanese president, he has slammed the Lebanese army "militia and gangs" for protecting Saniora and has ordered his supporters to disregard the government's orders.
"He didn't change his policies, the others changed," said Ibrahim Kanaan, a parliament member from Aoun's party. "We were the heart of the revolution for almost 15 years. The others joined only in September 2005 following a dispute with Syrian President Bashar Assad over the presidency of Emile Lahoud.
"They left the 14th of March principles and made another alliance with Hizbullah to form a political system with them, and even formed a government, so where were their principles? They have hijacked the dream of the Lebanese people for true sovereignty."
Sources from both sides confirmed that negotiations behind the scenes to end the stalemate had broken off with no sign of resumption. Saniora refuses to resign, and Hizbullah, Amal and Aoun's FPM remain insistent on a one-third veto vote.
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