When generals become presidents: A history of Lebanese military leaders

From Fouad Chehab to Michel Aoun, Al Majalla takes a look at what became a long run of leaders in Lebanon with an army background

In a tale of generals and presidents, Al Majalla illustrates how Lebanese politics overlapped with its army.
Andrei Cojocaru
In a tale of generals and presidents, Al Majalla illustrates how Lebanese politics overlapped with its army.

When generals become presidents: A history of Lebanese military leaders

In March 1976, the Lebanese people sat glued to their black-and-white television sets, watching a dramatic scene that although frequent in most Arab capitals, was completely new to Beirut.

A military coup had just been staged by 59-year-old Brigadier General Abdel Aziz al‐Ahdab, a native of Tripoli who occupied Lebanese Television in Tallet al-Khayyat, interrupting broadcast at 8:30 p.m. with a statement dubbed Communique # 1.

That’s how coups were traditionally announced in the Arab world — through a series of communiques broadcast on radio, always accompanied by military parade music — before television took over as the main medium in the 1960s.

Here, Al Majalla takes a look at what became a long run of leaders in Lebanon with an army background, highlighting their histories and telling the story of how the country’s politics overlapped with its army, in a tale of generals and presidents.

An untraditional general

We begin with the story of al-Ahdab and this first coup of the television age.

He was not a traditional army general, having studied English literature and history, first at Sheffield University in the UK and then at Cairo University, before completing his military studies.

But al-Ahdab now declared martial law and appointed himself military commander of Lebanon. This was just 11 months after start of the Lebanese civil war and came as the Lebanese army was beginning to disintegrate.

Dressed in full military attire with a gun placed clearly before him, al-Ahdab called on parliament to convene and choose a new president, demanding that the incumbent Suleiman Frangieh step down within 24 hours.

But Frangieh refused to budge, holding onto power in the name of “legality and legitimacy.” He added that there were three conditions for vacating the presidency: resignation, death, or dismissal by parliament.

“None of these exist,” he said.

Al-Ahdab insisted that he had no desire to become president — echoing a line spoken so often by many Arab generals, the most recent of which was Muammar Gaddafi who had seized power in Libya seven years prior.

The Lebanon coup fizzled out quickly, failing to trigger serious support within the armed forces. Al-Ahdab was neither executed, jailed, nor banished. He lived a long life, dying at the old age of 94 in 2011.

The al-Ahdab coup — had it succeeded — would have become a primer for Lebanon, like that of Bakr Sidqi in Iraq (1936), Husni al-Za'im in Syria (1949), and Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers in Cairo (1952).

Al-Ahdab must have drawn inspiration from these ambitious officers who staged successful putsches, toppling the often democratically-elected order, dissolving both parliament and the constitution, while setting up a military dictatorship centred around the cult of their own personalities.

While many saw the al-Ahdab coup as “un-Lebanese” a closer look shows that it might have been nothing but a natural outcome after the empowerment of Lebanese officers who strove to fill the presidential seat in Baabda Palace.

This trend began with army commander-turned president Fouad Chehab in the 1950s and it lasted until Michel Aoun came to power in 2016.

Al-Ahdab tried doing it through a fully-fledged coup, while his predecessor and successors all came to power through ballots, not bullets.

Fouad Chehab: Army Commander

Fouad Chehab was Lebanon’s first general-turned president, born into the powerful dynasty of Maronite Christians in 1902. He began his military career in the Lebanon-based Army of the Levant, which served the French Mandate over the country.

Early into Lebanon’s independence, Chehab was appointed commander of the Lebanese army in 1945. He was at his office at army headquarters when news reached him that his Syrian counterpart Husni al-Za’im had staged a coup in Damascus, toppling Syria’s democratically-elected president, Shukri al-Quwatli in March 1949.

That coup unleashed the ambition of many officers in the Arab neighbourhood, with Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser and his colleagues prime among them.

They staged a successful putsch just three years later, toppling the monarchy and its king, Farouk I. It was never known how Chehab reacted to the Syrian coup of 1949, and whether or not it triggered any of his own presidential ambitions.

Angry demonstrations were already a part of daily life in Lebanon, demanding the resignation of al-Quwatli’s friend, President Bechara El Khoury.

The Lebanese president was accused, among other things, of nepotism through his son Khalil and brother Salim, and of sending the Lebanese army into an uneven battle in Palestine — a fight that many Lebanese Christians felt did not concern them.

More importantly, El Khoury was accused of amending the constitution in May 1948, allowing for an extension of his presidential term.

Chehab refused to send the army to confront the anti-Khoury demonstrations, and yet, 24 hours before caving in and resigning, the president tasked him with forming a government on 18 September 1952.

Chehab held the dual posts of premier and minister of defence for a total of 14 days, stepping down on 1 October 1952 after the election of Camille Chamoun as president.

Under Chamoun, Chehab returned to the barracks, continuing his job as army commander. Lebanon’s new president did not hide his pro-Western views, hosting an Arab summit in Beirut in 1956 to convince Arab leaders not to sever ties with Great Britain and France, in light of the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt, launched after Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal.

Chamoun only insisted on the withdrawal of the Israelis from Egypt, prompting his pro-Nasser premier, Abdallah El-Yafi , and State Minister Saeb Salam to submit their resignations and join the opposition. Chamoun tasked Sami El Solh with forming a government on 18 November 1956, appointing none other than Chehab as Minister of Defence.

A revolt broke out against Chamoun in 1958, supported by Nasser’s intelligence service, with the aim of toppling him before he sought another term. The president had already received US arms since 1953 and had given the US air force rights to use Lebanese airspace.

While Chamoun didn’t officially join the anti-communist Baghdad Pact, he did not hide his support for it. As such, he refused to join the Egyptian-Saudi-Syrian military pact of September 1955.

On 27 March 1958, the opposition, led by ex-prime minister Abdallah El-Yafi and Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt announced that Chamoun’s re-election would be unconstitutional, calling for a nationwide campaign to bring him down. Chamoun responded by asking for military assistance from the Americans.

On 15 July 1958, American marines began landing on the shores of Khaldeh, south of Beirut, while US tanks headed towards the Lebanese capital. Over the next four days, 15,000 American troops reached Lebanon on 70 warships — not with the goal of keeping Chamoun in his post but securing the election of a successor.

American commandos land in Beirut in July 1958, following the first Lebanese civil war between the mainly-Muslim left-wing and the Christian right-wing.

Lebanon was too strategically important to be allowed to slip into chaos, reasoned the Americans, due to its role in combating both Nasserism and Communism.

Chamoun was convinced to not seek re-election and on 31 July 1958, parliament met and elected Chehab as successor, making him Lebanon’s third post-mandate president and the first in a line of military leaders.

President Fouad Chehab

President Chehab was a powerful, hard-edged president. However, he began his tenure by appeasing the rebels of 1958. Their leader in Tripoli, Rashid Karami, was charged with forming a new government.

Chehab adopted a policy of neutrality toward Arab conflicts, but was clearly allied to President Nasser, whom he chose as his first Arab interlocutor, meeting him on the Lebanese-Syrian borders in March 1959.

On 22 November 1960, speaking on the anniversary of Lebanon’s Independence Day, Chehab announced a policy that has since been dubbed “Chehabism” focused on comprehensive social reform.

Picture dated 06 May 1959 shows the late Lebanese president Fouad Chehab (R) and prime minister, Rashid Karami (L), inspecting an honor guard in Beirut.

Its main pillars were creating a new elite for the country, strengthening the armed forces and bureaucracy, which was expanding with 10,000 civil servants, mostly technocrats with no political affiliation.

He also strove to empower the executive branch at the expense of the legislative one, while strengthening the rule of the central government.

More government jobs were given to Lebanese Muslims who had formed the backbone of the opposition to Camille Chamoun, who also happened to be pro-Egypt.

Chehab tried to balance and manage sectarianism, rather than do away with it completely.

On the last day of 1961, a failed coup was staged by officers from the pro-Chamoun, anti-Nasser Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). They took over the Ministry of Defence but were over-powered by Chehab’s army.

The coup attempt was a blessing-in-disguise for the officer-turned-president, who used it as a pretext to expand the role of his security services, known as the Deuxieme Bureau.

On the last day of 1961, a failed coup was staged by officers from the pro-Chamoun, anti-Nasser Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). The coup attempt was a blessing-in-disguise for Chehab, who used it as a pretext to expand the role of his security services, known as the Deuxieme Bureau. 

In the manhunt that ensued, 12,000 people were arrested and 300 were put on trial. From this point forward, opponents accused him of setting up a police state and on 23 June 1963, MP Raymond Edde lashed out against the president in parliament, accusing him of becoming a dictator. 

Chehab loyalists tried talking him into seeking a second presidential term, which prompted 79 MPs to sign a petition, threatening a "1958 in Reverse." 

The original revolt was staged by a coalition of Muslim leaders opposing Chamoun's bid for re-election. This revolt would be triggered by Christian leaders opposing Chehab's re-election.

On 17 August 1964, Chehab said that he would not seek another term, and the civilian intellectual, Charles Helou, was chosen as a compromise replacement. 

Émile Lahoud's presidency

Thirty-four years after the end of the Chehab era, in 1998, Lebanon got its second military president, General Émile Lahoud. 

Lahoud was elected to succeed Elias Hrawi, with the endorsement of the Syrians who were fully in control of Lebanon by then after their army entered the country under Suleiman Frangieh's presidency. 

Born in 1936, Lahoud hailed from a prominent Maronite family; his father had been an officer while his uncle was a former foreign minister and his brother a prominent judge. He studied at the Lebanese Military Academy and the Dartmouth Naval College in the UK, in addition to the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. 

Lahoud entered the Lebanese army and rose to the rank of lieutenant in 1969. In 1989, he was promoted to major lieutenant general and army commander, with the support of Syria. 

Picture dated 1993 shows Lebanon's newly elected President, General Emile Lahoud (R) during a three-hour meeting with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in Damascus.

He was tasked with confiscating arms and unifying the armed forces after the Taif Accords and remained in his post until 1998, when he was chosen to replace Elias Hrawi. 

That was only after the post-Taif constitution was amended to allow the army commander to run for office immediately after leaving his military job. With Syrian backing, he received 118 out of 128 votes in parliament. 

As president, Lahoud allied himself with Hezbollah and chose Selim Hoss to replace Rafik Hariri as premier, creating permanent tension between him and Hariri. Hariri staged a comeback during the parliamentary elections of 2000, forcing Lahoud to reappoint him premier, very unwillingly. 

In August 2001, he modified the limits on the executive authority of the presidency stipulated in the Taif Accords, ordering a mass crackdown on dissidents. When his six-year term ended in 2004, Syria pushed for an extension of his term by three-years, with full support from Hezbollah. 

That triggered a final break between him and Hariri, who vigorously opposed extending Lahoud's term until November 2007. Only 29 MPs opposed the extension, however, fewer than the number required constitutionally to block it in parliament, prompting four cabinet ministers to resign in protest on 7 September 2004. 

Lahoud hung onto power for the next three years and was witness to the 14 February 2005 assassination of Hariri, which was blamed on a handful of his top generals who were arrested, then freed after being declared innocent of the charges. 

It was also under Lahoud's tenure that Lebanon went to war with Israel in 2006. 

When his term ended, Lahoud left Baabda Palace, leaving behind a presidential vacuum for six months, which was only filled with the 25 May 2008 election of Army Commander Michel Suleiman — the third in the line of officers-turned-president. 

The presidency of Michel Suleiman 

Compared with his two officer predecessors, Suleiman was the least to show signs of militarism during his years as president. 

He had served as army commander from 1998 to 2008, succeeding General Lahoud. Born into a Maronite family in the town of Amsheet in 1948, he joined the Lebanese army in 1967, having studied politics and administrative science at the state-run Lebanese University. 

He received advanced military training in Belgium, France, and the US, progressing from an infantry platoon leader to a battalion commander. 

Briefly, between December 1990 and August 1991, Suleiman served as chief of the intelligence branch of Mount Lebanon. In January 1996, he was appointed as commander of the 6th Infantry Brigade and remained in this post until 21 December 1998, when he was appointed army commander by Lahoud, shortly after taking over from Elias Hrawi. 

Lebanese army commander general Michel Sleiman (R) arrives to attend a government meeting in Beirut 12 August 2006.

As army general, Suleiman had won hearts and minds following his May 2007 confrontation with a terrorist organisation called Fateh al-Islam, based in the refugee camp Nahr al-Bared in northern Lebanon.

For four months, Suleiman fought them fearlessly, managing to re-take the camp and cleanse it from terrorists by September 2007. 

Suleiman's name emerged as a possible contender to the presidency when a mini-civil war broke out on the streets of Beirut on 7 May 2008. It was in response to then-Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora trying to dismantle Hezbollah's telecommunications network at Rafik Hariri International Airport. 

Hezbollah fighters took to the streets, raising arms that they had previously promised would only be used in their battles with Israel. 

The street battles lasted until 14 May 2008, with Suleiman talking Siniora into backing down on his positions, refusing to send his army to the streets, probably taking his cue from Chehab's performance, both in 1952 and 1958.

Like him, he tried to position himself as a go-between among rival political parties. That confrontation took place while the presidential seat at Baabda Palace was still vacant since Lahoud's departure back in November 2007. 

The Hezbollah-backed March 8 Coalition put forth a series of names for president, which were vetoed by the Hariri-led March 14 Coalition.

Suleiman was the one names that both sides seemed to agree upon, having proven his merit during the confrontation with Fateh al-Islam, and his neutrality during the May 2008 battles. 

The Hezbollah-backed March 8 Coalition put forth a series of names for president, which were vetoed by the Hariri-led March 14 Coalition. Suleiman was the one name that both sides seemed to agree upon, having proven his merit during the confrontation with Fateh al-Islam, and his neutrality during the May 2008 battles. 

Lebanon's political elite flew to Qatar for intense negotiations that May, and it was in Doha that they agreed to make Suleiman president. 

Back in Beirut, parliament met to elect him with 118 out of 127 votes. He reappointed Siniora as premier, given that his bloc still controlled the lion's share of parliament, but embarked on a policy of reconciliation between the Future Movement and Hezbollah. 

On 16 September 2008, he chaired a national dialogue conference at Baabda Palace.
He left office without seeking an extension of his term, creating another presidential void that remained unfilled until Michel Aoun was chosen president in October 2016. 

The presidency of Michel Aoun

Aoun's pre-presidential career has been documented and studied meticulously by historians, and it is beyond the subject of this article, but the president's rise to power cannot be fully understood without some historical context. 
Although hailing from a Maronite family in Mount Lebanon, Aoun was raised in Haret Hreik — a suburb of the Lebanese capital that would later become a stronghold of Hezbollah. 

As a teenager, he formed school friendships with both Muslim Sunnis and Shiites. 
He joined the military academy under Camille Chamoun in 1955, graduating as an artillery officer and took part in suppressing the 1961 SSNP coup against Chehab. 

After receiving advanced military training in the US and then at France's École Supérieure de Guerre, he was appointed army commander in 1984.

Minutes after leaving office on 22 September 1988, President Amine Gemayel named him prime minister of a six-man military cabinet, breaking the 1943 National Pact, which reserved the premiership to a Sunni Muslim, and the presidency to a Maronite Christian.  

The National Pact was an unwritten gentleman's agreement between President Bechara El Khoury and his prime minister, Riad Al Solh. Given that it had no constitutional basis, Aoun went ahead and accepted the post, dismissing the legitimate cabinet of the Sunni premier, Selim Hoss. 

Many people objected, saying that his assumption of the premiership was a precedent in Lebanese history, and a violation of the National Pact. That was technically incorrect, since back in 1952, yet another military officer — also Maronite — had assumed the premiership, being Chehab during the final hours of Bechara El Khoury's presidency. 

This time, however, two rival cabinets emerged. One was in East Beirut headed by Hoss and supported by the country's Sunni Muslims, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

The other was at Baabda Palace led by Aoun, backed by some Christian figures and an assortment of Arab leaders who had an axe to grind either with Damascus or Riyadh, like Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat. 

Lebanese Christian military leader general Aoun makes the V-sign as supporters pay him a visit at Baabda Presidential palace 06 December 1989.

On 14 March 1989, Aoun declared a war of liberation against the Syrian army, famously opposing the Taif Accords and refusing to recognise the legitimacy of newly-elected president Elias Hrawi or his predecessor René Moawad (who assumed the job for 15 days before he was assassinated in November 1989). 

Aoun also went to war against his Christian rivals in the Lebanese Forces (LF), shelling entire neighbourhoods of East Beirut, which until then, had been spared from the heavy violence of the civil war. 

He also clashed with the Maronite Patriarch Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, sending hoodlums to harass and humiliate him at the Patriarchal See at Bkerké. 

On 13 October 1990, he was forced out of office by an invading Syrian army. 

Syrian President Hafez al-Assad had agreed to send troops to help liberate Kuwait from Saddam's army, reportedly in exchange for a green light to topple Aoun from Baabda. 

Syrian troops overran Aoun's strongholds, forcing him to flee to the French Embassy. From there he announced his surrender, boarding a French warship on 29 August 1991 and heading to France for an open-ended exile. 

He was ordered never to return to Lebanon. 

Aoun, however, did come back 15 years later in May 2005. It was three months after the assassination of Rafik Hariri and just days after the Syrian army had completed its withdrawal from Lebanon. 

In exile, he had founded the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) in January 1994, which he commanded until bequeathing its leadership to his son-in-law and political heir Gebran Bassil, immediately after becoming president in 2016. 

While Aoun played an instrumental role in drafting and passing the Syria Accountability Act of 2004 and always took great pride in having forced the Syrians out of Lebanon, he eventually made peace with Damascus.

He abandoned his pro-Western history in favour of a Memorandum of Understanding with Hezbollah reached at the Mar Mikhail Church in Chiyah in February 2006. 

Aoun abandoned his pro-Western history in favour of a Memorandum of Understanding with Hezbollah, promising to protect their arms in exchange for becoming president.


Aoun promised to protect Hezbollah arms and, in exchange, Hassan Nasrallah fulfilled his lifelong ambition of becoming president. 

He lived up to his side of the Mar Mikhail Agreement, supporting the Nasrallah during the 2006 war with Israel and after his 2012 intervention in the Syrian conflict. 

Hezbollah also lived up to its part of the pact, making him president in 2016. At 83, he was the eldest in the history of the nation. Many doubted if he would live long enough to complete his term, never imagining that he would, and even strive for its extension, against all odds.  

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