Lebanon set to elect president, ending two-year vacuum
Supporters of Michel Aoun gathered in the Lebanese capital Monday ahead of a parliament session expected to elect him president and end a political stalemate of more than two years.
Lawmakers will convene at noon for their 46th attempt to elect a president but the first expected to actually produce a result.
Security was tight around the parliament and Beirut's Martyrs Square, where supporters of Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), dressed in their trademark orange, have been gathering for days.
The 81-year-old former general has long eyed the presidency, and his candidacy was backed by the powerful Shia Hezbollah movement, his ally since a surprise rapprochement in 2006.
But the key to clinching the post has been the shock support of two of his greatest rivals: Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces, and Sunni former premier Saad Hariri.
Hariri described his endorsement of Aoun as necessary to "protect Lebanon, protect the (political) system, protect the state and protect the Lebanese people".
The streets of the capital were emptier than usual ahead of the vote, with most schools and universities closed.
But Aoun's supporters were eager to celebrate the leader who is being hailed in banners strung up around the country as "the strong president" who can "work miracles".
"We're counting the minutes until General Aoun is elected, we've waited a long time," said Jean, a 35-year-old hairdresser in the Dekwaneh neighbourhood outside Beirut.
"I'm going to close the salon after he's elected and go to downtown Beirut to participate in the celebrations which will last until dawn," he told AFP.
"It's a national event par excellence," said MP Hekmat Dib from the FPM's Change and Reform parliamentary bloc.
"We haven't had an event that unites most political factions that represents all major and minor sects in a long time in this country."
Nicholas Sehnaoui, Lebanon's former minister of telecommunications and a member of Aoun's FPM, said his election was a "dream".
"The dream has come true," he told AFP.
"He will be a president for all the Lebanese, not just his party."
Sehnaoui expressed hope Aoun would be elected in a first round vote in the parliament, which would require him to win a two-thirds majority of 86 MPs.
If he fails to secure that, the vote will go to a second round, where he needs only a 50-percent-plus-one majority of 65 votes, a figure he seems to be assured.
His biggest adversary in parliament will be speaker Nabih Berri, who has said the 13 votes from his Amal party will not go to Aoun.
Aoun's detractors have ramped up criticism of him on social media ahead of the vote, accusing him of being a highly strung egomaniac who has allied himself with rivals to get what he wants.
In footage posted by an opponent, Aoun is heard railing against the same parliament set to elect him on Monday as an "illegitimate" body because it has twice extended its own mandate.
While Aoun's election will end a vacuum seen as damaging for the country, experts say it is unlikely to resolve the underlying disagreements that kept the post empty for so long.