Editor’s note: Ahead of the 2014 presidential election, this is the ninth in a series of articles examining the circumstances and conditions that shaped the elections of Lebanon’s 12 presidents since 1943.
BEIRUT: After a yearlong presidential power vacuum Rene Mouawad was elected on Nov. 5, 1989, amid a fleeting flurry of optimism in the wake of the Taif Accord, which ended nearly 15 years of bloody civil war.
The conciliatory atmosphere, however, would be shattered just 17 days later when a massive bomb ripped through Mouawad’s convoy as it traveled through war-weary West Beirut.
When the term of his predecessor, Amine Gemayel, ended on Sept. 22, 1988, Parliament failed to elect a president during the two-month constitutional period. Just 15 minutes before his term expired, Gemayel replaced Muslim Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss with Maronite Army commander General Michel Aoun heading up a military transitional government tasked with holding presidential elections.
Many Christians rallied behind Aoun’s Cabinet, while Muslims overwhelmingly supported Hoss, who was also backed by Syria. Both sides claimed to have executive power. Aoun ensconced himself in Baabda Palace, while Hoss issued orders from his offices in West Beirut.
In March 1989, Aoun launched a “War of Liberation” against Syrian forces in the country, but the operation proved highly destructive, ineffective, and ultimately served to undermine his authority.
Meanwhile, Lebanese figures backed by Saudi Arabia, Syria and the United States were working behind the scenes to broker a national reconciliation strategy that would end the Civil War and see a new president elected.
Mouawad, a committed moderate, was among those working to draft the peace deal and held extensive meetings with Speaker Hussein Husseini, according to Ahmad Zeineddine in his book “Lebanon’s Presidents: How they made it.”
Quoting Albert Mansour, an MP at the time, Zeineddine argued that the agreement to elect Mouawad as president was reached during crisis negotiations between Husseini and Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir in the midst of the “War of Liberation.”
A Chehabist, Mouawad hailed from the northern town of Zghorta and served as an MP and a minister. He earned a law degree from Universite Saint Joseph.
“The final agreement to select him [Mouawad] was reached after he met President [Hafez] Assad in June 1989,” Mansour is quoted as saying.
At the same time, in late September, 62 of the 73 surviving members of Parliament convened in Taif, Saudi Arabia, in order to deliberate over a peace accord.
The talks were the result of a committee formed during a special Arab summit that convened in May 1989 to try to end Lebanon’s Civil War.
The deal, signed on Oct. 22, 1989, introduced major amendments to the Lebanese Constitution, including increasing the number of MPs from 99 to 128 with the seats to be divided equally between Christians and Muslims.
It also called for an immediate presidential election.
Aoun harshly criticized the Taif Accord, claiming that it was drafted by foreign powers – Syria in particular – seeking to Arabize Lebanon and persecute its Christian population.
As a result, many MPs involved in the accord were uneasy in the days following the signing of the agreement, with those who lived in areas controlled by Aoun fleeing from Taif to Paris for fear of attacks or persecution. Husseini was even forced to travel to France to convince the MPs to return to Beirut and vote in the election, wrote Zeineddine.
The Taif Agreement was ratified by Parliament on Nov. 5, 1989, officially ending the Civil War that left some 150,000 people dead. After two rounds of voting, Mouawad was elected president the same day.
In the first round, Kataeb Party official George Saade and MP Elias Hrawi were also candidates. Mouawad got 35 votes, Saade 16 and Hrawi 5. In the second round, Saade and Hrawi withdrew from the race and Mouawad won with 62 votes. There were six blank votes.
But Aoun refused to recognize the new head of state and remained ensconced in Baabda Palace.
Others, however, were hopeful that Mouawad could help mend the deep fissures that had developed in Lebanon during the previous decade and a half.
On Nov. 20, he moved from his home in North Lebanon to West Beirut to prepare to mark Independence Day two days later.
“You have known me through my life and conduct as a man of reconciliation and compromise,” Mouawad told a crowd on the eve of the celebrations. “I consider today’s task of achieving reconciliation among Lebanese from all political factions and inclinations as the sum of my public life and principles. National reconciliation won’t exclude anyone.”
“I will not rest until what was destroyed is rebuilt,” he added. “My appeal to you is a question from heart to heart. ‘Do you love this country?’ I know the answer! Let us therefore face the difficulties hand and hand [and] rebuild this country together.”
The following day, Nov. 22, Mouawad received greetings at the government’s headquarters along with Husseini and Hoss, then-prime minister-designate.
Shortly after leaving, Mouawad was assassinated by an explosion that ripped through his convoy.