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President Aoun leaves office amid financial crisis in Lebanon

Michel Aoun, the 89-year-old Christian president who presided over Lebanon’s cataclysmic financial collapse and deadly Beirut port blast, leaves the presidential palace on Sunday, leaving a vacuum at the top of a failed state.

Parliament has so far been unable to agree on a successor to the post, who has the power to sign bills, appoint new prime ministers and greenlight government formations before they are passed by parliament.

As during more than half of Aoun’s tenure, Lebanon is currently governed by an interim cabinet as the prime minister-designate has been trying for six months to form a government.

Dozens of supporters gathered at Baabda Palace to bid farewell to Aoun, wearing the orange associated with his Free Patriotic Movement party and carrying portraits of him as president and decades ago when he served as commander of the army.

A 73-year-old man in military fatigues he wore when he served under Aoun in the civil war told Reuters he wished Aoun could have three more years in power.

Therese Younes, a 16-year-old who came with other teenagers, said she had supported Aoun since he was eight and was sad to see him go.

“If I was 18, I would have left the country. There is no more Lebanon after Michel Aoun,” Younes said.

Aoun is a deeply divisive figure, adored by many Christians who saw him as their defender in Lebanon’s sectarian system, but accused by critics of fostering corruption and helping the armed group Hezbollah gain influence.

Aoun won the presidency in 2016, endorsed by both Hezbollah and rival Maronite Christian politician Samir Geagea in a deal that brought Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri back as prime minister.

The six-year term that followed saw the Lebanese army fight Islamist militants on the Syrian border in 2017 with the help of Hezbollah, a new electoral law passed in 2018 and major energy companies began exploratory drilling in offshore blocks in 2020.

During his final week at the palace, he signed a US-brokered agreement delineating Lebanon’s southern maritime border with Israel.

His fans hailed the achievements, but his critics say these modest successes pale in comparison to the 2019 financial crisis, which plunged more than 80% of the population into poverty and sparked widespread anti-government protests.

Aoun’s tenure was also marked by the massive Beirut port explosion in 2020 that killed more than 220 people. Aoun later said he was aware of the chemicals stored there and referred the matter to other authorities for action. Families of the victims said he should have done more.

He told Reuters in an interview on Saturday that his presidential powers were not wide enough to deal with the economic crisis.

“He was by far the worst president in the history of Lebanon,” said Michel Meouchi, a lawyer and father. “I prefer him a vacuum in the presidency.”

Aoun’s path to the presidency began during the 1975-1990 civil war, during which he served as commander of the Lebanese army and head of one of two rival governments.

He returned to Beirut after 15 years in exile, once Syrian forces withdrew under international pressure following the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri.

In 2006, the FPM formed an alliance with Hezbollah, which provided significant Christian support for the armed group.

In his interview with Reuters, Aoun credited Hezbollah for its “useful” role in acting as a “deterrent” against any Israeli attack during the maritime border talks.

He said his departure on Sunday, a day before the official end of his term, was not the end of his political career.

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