(BEIRUT) — Thousands of Lebanese rallied at the presidential palace outside Beirut on Sunday in a show of support for Christian politician Michel Aoun, pressing their demand for him to fill the presidency vacant for over a year.
Waving the orange flag of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), they packed streets in the Baabda district that houses the headquarters of the presidency.
The presidency is set aside for a Maronite Christian but has been unoccupied due to a political crisis stoked by regional conflicts including the war in neighboring Syria.
“The president of the republic shouldn’t be just any person who fills the post, as some people want him to be,” Aoun told the crowd as his supporters shouted, “Aoun for president of the republic!”
“It should be someone who is like you, who reflects you and who rejects oppression and stands up for your rights,” he said.
The rally was called to mark events in October 1990, near the end of the Lebanese civil war, when the Syrian army captured Baabda and many Lebanese soldiers loyal to Aoun were killed.
Aoun – head of one of two rival administrations at the time – was forced out of the presidential palace and later into exile.
Aoun, an ally of the powerful Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim movement Hezbollah, has made clear he would like the presidency, but he lacks the backing of a rival alliance led by Sunni Muslim politician Saad al-Hariri.
That bloc includes prominent Christian rivals to Aoun, notably his civil war enemy Samir Geagea, who also seeks the presidency.
Aoun, who has argued that Christians are being politically marginalized in Lebanon, has said the president should be elected in a popular vote if parliament cannot agree.
Resolving the deadlock over the presidency has been complicated by regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia, which backs Hariri, and Iran, which supports Hezbollah.
Aoun has taken aim at the national unity government led by Prime Minister Tammam Salam, saying it has usurped the powers of the presidency. FPM ministers have not, however, quit the government.
Salam’s government, formed with Saudi-Iranian blessing, has spared Lebanon a complete vacuum in the executive arm but has been unable to take any major decisions due to a lack of consensus.
Lebanon’s political paralysis has fueled a broader wave of discontent that has touched off sometimes violent protests over failing public services in recent months. Anger came to a head this summer over a crisis over trash disposal that left piles of refuse mounting on Beirut’s streets.