Alain Aoun: "We are in a national crisis"
- Exclusive WSN interview with Alain Aoun, Political Officer of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), conducted by Manuela Paraipan -
WSN: What exactly is your role within the FPM?
Alain Aoun: I am the political officer and I deal with some of the party’s relations to the embassies, but not only this.
WSN: What was the purpose of the tent city and why is it still blocking downtown?
Alain Aoun: It started in December 2006, if I am not wrong. At that time it served as a protest against the government, and the movement called for a government of national unity, new electoral law and early elections. The crisis continues since that day. The sit-in was decided due to circumstances that have remained unsolved. Somehow, everybody got stuck in the situation. The demands were not met, the government forces cannot remove the tent city and so here we are. The tent city symbolizes the crisis in which we are living, regardless of whether it is successful or not.
WSN: I went downtown yesterday and the place is practically deserted. You have the tents, but few people. Not to mention that the sit in has had a negative impact on the economy.
Alain Aoun: In Lebanon there is this disposition to not want to acknowledge when there is a problem. You do not want to give points to the adversaries, so you keep going. It’s the decision that has been taken. When the opposition decided this step they never expected it to last that long. They thought it would be a matter of two, three weeks; but the cycle went on and they did not know how to stop it. It was not a successful step, in my opinion, but they would say that if we remove it, the government would have won. This is the logic behind it.
WSN: How would you describe the political crisis, the lack of agreement between the two blocks?
Alain Aoun: I'd say that we are in a national crisis. It's no longer just a political crisis. There are no political milestones, no rules that can put an end to it. I feel that the crisis could last years if the two parties remain stubborn on their stances. Nothing guarantees, for example, that the parliamentary elections will take place in 2009. If the country is divided and you have an even balance, on one the hand, and no solutions can be found, nobody wins and everybody keeps the status quo. You have half of the population on one side, and the other half on the other side. One side says that the government is illegal; the other side used to say that the president was illegal, and no one respects anything anymore. The parliament is not functioning, so who is running the country now?
WSN: How did it get to this point?
Alain Aoun: Maybe these are the consequences of regaining our independence after 30 years of occupation. The country that lost its independence in 1975 is not the same country that regained it in 2005.
Many things changed internally, regionally, demographically and politically when we regained this independence. It's a different equation, different forces. The Taef, (The Taef Agreement ended the war between the Palestinians and the Lebanese. It was negotiated in Taef, Saudi Arabia in 1989. It has never been applied in practice) it was the second republic that began to be implemented in 1999. Therefore, it was never the Taef that ruled the country - it was the Syrians, so we never knew if this system would work. In 2005, we observed that the system was not working properly. Whenever there is a conflict between two religious groups, it is reflected in the institutions. When we started to govern on our own, we reached a political crisis and saw that there was no mechanism to unblock it.
We cannot force early elections, the removal of a minister, the resignation of the government or that the speaker closes the parliament and so on. The situation is aggravated by the fact that each institution is ruled by a religious group.
WSN: The cover is religious, but the objective is holding on to power for self interest or sect interest.
Alain Aoun: Yes, it is for power but since 2005 we have the situation that religious groups have gained political power. On the Christian side there are multiple parties, but for the Sunnis, most are with Hariri (Saad Hariri, leader of the Future Movement) and the Shias are with Hezbollah and Amal. When you have a problem with a party, it’s like you have a problem with all Sunni or the whole Shia sect. This complicates matters and on top of that, we have the regional aspects that we cannot underestimate. They have a huge impact. After September 11 and the Iraq War, the conflict shifted from an Arab-Israeli one to a Sunni-Shia one.
We have the struggle between two axes: Iran, Syria and Hezbollah on one side and the Arabs, Americans, the West and Israel - implicitly, not explicitly - on the other side. There are problems in all Arab countries where both Sunni and Shia live. Before, they were all united under the banner of fighting Israel. They were all Muslims. Now they differentiate, and you are either Sunni or Shia.
WSN: How exactly does this have an impact on Lebanon?
Alain Aoun: No doubt there is an impact on the situation here. These two axes are fighting in Iraq, and Hamas in Gaza and Lebanon became an arena for the axes. One axis wants to get rid of Hezbollah's arms for issues related to Israel, and the other one wants to protect it and use it in the fight. What is at stake is beyond Lebanon's borders.
WSN: Why did the Christians take sides in a not yet violent Sunni - Shia conflict? Shouldn’t they have stayed united as a third block, maybe as a mediator?
Alain Aoun: The Christians will say that they did not take sides. On the regional issue we are not taking sides, but on the internal front we have a problem. FPM has a problem with Christians being marginalized. This is why we ask for a new electoral law. In 2005, it was a big alliance that excluded the Christians. This is the discrepancy between FPM and the March 14 block. It was the only problem and led later to an alliance with the Shias. This alliance is limited to internal issues like political representation, power sharing etc.
WSN: Can you totally disconnect the internal issues from the regional ones?
Alain Aoun: This is one of the points used against us. As far as FPM is concerned, we consider the alliance limited to internal matters. We are not part of any axis in the regional conflict. However, we needed an alliance in Lebanon and the Shias are part of this country and part of the political life here. The FPM considers it has proposed a road map to solve the problem of Hezbollah's weapons; the key element is to strengthen the state and its institutions. This is the real intention behind the alliance, although the alliance is a victim of disinformation.
WSN: Is there an independent player in Lebanon?
Alain Aoun: Neither side in Lebanon is completely independent. FPM is the exception, and I am not saying this because I am a member or the party but because I know the relations we have and do not have. Maybe this is a weak point, not a strong one, but we do not have the regional connection the others have. After so much time, I feel that unfortunately the crisis is becoming less Lebanese, less under our control and more regional.
WSN: What is the solution?
Alain Aoun: Elections are the solution but they require the consent of both parties. Let's assume that in 2009 we will still be in the same situation, and again we do not agree on the whole package like the electoral law and so on. Nothing can force these parties to organize elections. With the latest Arab initiative we did not reach an agreement on the government.
WSN: Was it a question of numbers?
Alain Aoun: The translation is in numbers, but the fact is that the opposition wants to participate in a meaningful, effective way, to be heard and to be sure that no major decision will be taken without it. When it comes to numbers, out of 30 ministers we would have 11 and they do not want to accept this.
WSN: Do you support the electoral law of 1960?
Alain Aoun: Yes, but they don't support it. We reached a point where, in principle, most of the parties accepted the caza-based law (caza refers to electoral law based on smaller districts. In this way, the Christian vote is more representative at the national level, and the majority of the Christian MPs are then elected with Christian votes, not with Muslim votes, as has been the case thus far). Besides the current law, we have the 1960 one. It’s not the best one, but we can build on it. If they come with a better proposal, we'll give up the 1960 Law.
But to be fair, for the time being the 1960 Law is the only one that we have sort of reached a consensus on, although all of those who have accepted it have a different opinion about it. In the meetings we had, for Saad Hariri, caza-based electoral law means the 1960 Law. He wants Beirut to be one district. This means that the Future Movement would start the race with 19 deputies, while we would start with none. I don't know what will happen later, if we enter the parliamentary elections with the same set of problems.
WSN: How long will this situation continue?
Alain Aoun: Personally, I don't think it can go on like this until 2009; it is already in a state of progressive deterioration. The Arab initiative ended, not officially maybe, but it has reached a dead end. What can they come up with? The point is that we'll come to a critical and uncertain phase.
WSN: Where everything can happen?
Alain Aoun: Yes, when we feel that through political dialog we are not reaching an agreement. I am afraid a tense period might come that will be used to change the balance. The problem in the region is the balance. Without it, we would have a winner and a loser.
With these two axes fighting, and the Mughnieh (Imad Mughnieh, a high-ranking member of Hezbollah. Presumably he was behind numerous terrorist attacks worldwide. More than 40 countries have had him on the list of the most wanted terrorists for the past few decades. He was assassinated in February 2008 in Damascus. Hezbollah blames Israel, although there have been reports about some sort of Syrian involvement as well). This episode was the latest in this fight, and I don't know what will happen next.
WSN: Why not stop and compromise before reaching a tense period, as you said?
Alain Aoun: Don't take it for granted that we will go through such times; I don't know what form it will take, from conflict to assassinations of top-ranking ranking leaders that can tip the balance, a regional war, anything can happen.
The Free Patriotic Movement and the opposition have made efforts to reach a compromise, but we haven’t found one that is honorable or acceptable to both sides. The majority wants a blank check. This is unacceptable. We could say that we'll wait until 2009 to come to power. The issue is that during this time the government is bound to make critical decisions on the electoral law that will commit the others to its decisions. We were victims of the electoral law of 2005, and we want to make sure that we'll have a fair law, or we'll just be going in circles.
WSN: What is the minimum the opposition considers as acceptable under these circumstances?
Alain Aoun: We need to make sure our opinions matter. The majority will make most of the decisions, but for major decisions this requires two thirds of the votes, so our views will have to be taken into consideration. Confidence is at an all-time low between parties and we have to go through a period of bringing the country together. When they stall for time, it makes the opposition think that they have other plans and this is why we are demanding guarantees.
WSN: What exactly has been discussed in the talks between the blocks?
Alain Aoun: It reached the government, the problem of the electoral law and the constitution, but not the names for the positions in the army, security etc. If we are to be part of the government, we will have a say in such matters. If we see something wrong, we can say no.
WSN: Do you have direct contacts with the Christians from March 14?
Alain Aoun: Usually we do, but we saw in the visits made by Amr Moussa that Hariri refuses what is right for us, and the Christians in his block are the cover.
WSN: Let me make it clear: The Free Patriotic Movement tried during the crisis to bring the Christians together?
Alain Aoun: Yes, many times. Even before we reached the alliance with the Shias. Because we were excluded from power, the other Christians took our seats; after all, they are allied with those in power. They do not want to lose the leverage; it’s all private interests at the expense of general interests.
WSN: Some say Syria might pressure Lebanon to elect a president.
Alain Aoun: We have our demands. If we get them, fine. If not, we do not care if Syria wants elections to happen or not.
WSN: Fair enough. But what if Hezbollah gives in?
Alain Aoun: That is their decision. This alliance will stop if Hezbollah or Amal give in to Syrian pressure. They know they'll be putting their relations to the Free Patriotic Movement at risk, so I do not see this happening.
WSN: Is the Free Patriotic Movement that important for the Shias?
Alain Aoun: Yes, I think the Shias have reached a point where they understand the importance of having local partners. Of not being isolated. Many of the decisions that they made recently have proven that they cannot continue on their own, even if the Syrians ask them to. The Arab countries are betting on Syria's pressure. I do not think this will happen, but I may be wrong.
WSN: Thank you Alain for your valuable insight.