Interview with Ghazi Aridi, Lebanon’s Minister of Information

Posted in Broader Middle East | 22-Sep-07 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

"We are not ready to pay another price after six months for Iran and for the interests of Syria"

While in Beirut, WSN’s Manuela Paraipan had the opportunity to speak with Ghazi Aridi, Lebanon’s Minister of Information:

WSN: Please sir, introduce yourself and your current position within the Lebanese government.

Ghazi Aridi: I am the Minister of Information in the government of Fuad Siniora.

WSN: You have had several positions before this one.

Ghazi Aridi: I was Minister of Information for the first time 2000. Afterwards I became Minister for Culture in 2003 and this is now the third time and I was nominated again as Minister of Information. I am also a member of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), which is presided over by Walid Jumblatt. Since 2000 I have been a deputy in the Parliament and I am a member of the democratic parliamentary bloc.

WSN: The majority bloc?

Ghazi Aridi: Yes.

WSN: Knowing that some of the ministers resigned months ago, how is the government coping with it? Can it work at full capacity?

Ghazi Aridi: There is a problem. I cannot deny that there is a problem. Our colleagues represent very important communities in Lebanon. Practically speaking there are three ministers and they are working now. They don't participate in our meetings, but in their ministries they are working. I can say that we are working very well as a government aside from the political problems of the country. Everything is signed by the government in the whole country thus everything is controlled by the government. This is very important because they say that the government is not legal and it is not constitutional. Well this is not true because…

WSN: So these ministers are also signing and doing their jobs?

Ghazi Aridi: In all of the regions, the government controls everything. And the ministers and the prime minister sign all the papers. The ministers of Amal and Hizbollah are especially representing the South and the Bekaa. After the war and now with the reconstruction the projects are financed by the government and signed by the prime minister.

The government signs all nominations in the administration. Among these nominations there are many people representing Amal and Hizbollah. People are nominated by the government in the army, in the security forces and in the administration. And they are working. So they are accepting the decisions of the government but at the same time they are saying that the government is not legal and is not constitutional.

WSN: That is a paradox.

Ghazi Aridi: They have many political problems. They did not do anything. They could not put the government out or push Siniora to resign. In fact, this is the legal government and it is working very well. I will give you an example: The last war against Fatah al Islam in Nahr el Bared. The government and the army were in control. The government decided upon war and the commander participated in all the meetings of the government alongside the ministers of defense, interior, etc.

WSN: What are your thoughts on Speaker Berri’s latest initiative? Does it have the incentive to work? He proposed several others in the past and all have failed.

Ghazi Aridi: Listen. I still take the same position saying that the government is not the problem, and when I speak about the government, the problem is not in the numbers. The problem is not that we have 11 and 19 or 11 and 101. We must reach a political agreement. When we have a political agreement between all the Lebanese political parties, I think that everything will be solved - the presidency, the government, all the problems. Ten months ago we said to President Berri and the opposition, you ask for a united Lebanese national government. OK. I respect your demand. But when we speak about a united national government you know very well that in all the countries in the world, we have to come up with a political platform representing the base of the new government and after that we form the government. Here they insist on having a united national government based on 19 ministers for the majority and 11 for the opposition. What is the problem? The one-third that can prevent the opposition. Today you can do it, tomorrow we can do it. You prevent us from making decisions; we prevent you from making decisions. The result is that no work is done in the government. So the problem is a political one. The last initiative of Mr. Berri was based on this issue. Let us have a consensus on the presidency only. To choose the president. Who will be the president? This is not a personal question. What will be the project of this president? What will this president do? What is our political consensus? I ask these questions because after the presidential elections according to the constitution, this government resigns and we have to form a new one. Should we now elect a new president by consensus, no problem, the crisis will not be resolved. Why? Because when we start to form the new government we will have the same political issues. To form the government will be a very important political battle for us. To prepare the ministerial declaration for the government, which is the political program of the government, will be a big problem. For that we said 10 months ago that this is not a problem of numbers of the government; now we are saying it is not the problem of the president. If you are ready to reach a political agreement, this is the solution.

Unfortunately, they refused at that time and they still refuse now. They insist to choose only the president and after that we don't know what will happen. This is not a Lebanese problem. This is a Syrian position and you know very well what the relationship is between the opposition and Syria.

WSN: What about Iran?

Ghazi Aridi: Iran, too, but there are differences between Iran and Syria. Iran does not need a problem between Sunni and Shia. Iran has problems with the international community and with Saudi Arabia at its borders. There is another mentality in Iran. The objective may be the same but there is another management.

WSN: Can you highlight a few points of the political program proposed by the majority?

Ghazi Aridi: Not as a proposal, but one year ago for example there was the table of dialog in the parliament. We took many decisions but we did not implement them because there is a Syrian position against our position and the opposition was with Syria.

Then we had the war and there were so many repercussions. Then there is the resistance. We are for the resistance against Israel. There isn't any problem here. Israel is our enemy. But under this slogan you have many Lebanese parties preparing themselves and arming themselves.

For what? Against Israel? There are now 15,000 troops from the Lebanese army and from UNIFIL in the South. When the army takes the weapons, the propaganda from Hizbollah and the other parties allied with Syria start. They say that we are against the resistance and with

Israel and the United States. This is not true. Israel is an enemy, we are against the American policy in the region and we are against the American policy of protecting Israel. But at the same time we are Lebanese people and we have the right to ask, why do you have arms and why are there so many arms in Beirut, and in the mountains and other regions when there is no Israel there? In the south there is Israel and there is a resistance. So we have to discuss all these issues.

WSN: Not long ago you went to the media and said that the army confiscated weapons that were intended for Hizbollah. What happened to the weapons?

Ghazi Aridi: The arms were not all for Hizbollah. But under the slogan, arms for Hizbollah, for the resistance the arms were for other Lebanese political parties armed by Syria. But they did not admit it.

WSN: You represent the government; you are supposed to enforce the law. Why can’t you just confiscate the weapons?

Ghazi Aridi: This is what we have to discuss. We need a resistance against Israel. We have a strategy for this; we are against Israel. Israel is our enemy. But we cannot let our territory be a fighting stage and we cannot allow any political party to bring weapons inside the country. We have a state and we have an army and other security forces. But they refuse to sit and talk about it and if you say any word they accuse you of being with Israel or with America.

WSN: Is there anything else that you can do?

Ghazi Aridi: This is why we are saying that we are partners in our country, we have to discuss in order to reach an agreement and afterwards it will be very easy to elect a president, to form the new government and so on and so forth. They are refusing and I don't know what they are waiting for. I think there is an agreement between them and Syria and Syria is waiting for some change in Lebanon. In principle they (the Syrian side) didn't need the presidential elections in Lebanon and they pushed their ally to refuse it, to prevent it. In this international climate, regional position – when I say regional position I speak about the Arab position of course. Israel is not of concern to us. So now they are obliged to go through elections but they still refuse to discuss the political problems.

WSN: Assuming that you elect a president, you don't have a political agreement. What happens after the elections?

Ghazi Aridi: It will be the same crisis. We need a global solution.

WSN: Did you have discussions or negotiations related to the presidential chair with the opposition?

Ghazi Aridi: We called them 10 months ago to discuss this and we are now ready to discuss with them. We do not have the time they say; it is time to elect the president only. The thing is that afterwards we will have the same problems and same questions.

WSN: What do you think about Michel Aoun and his candidacy? Does he have a chance?

Ghazi Aridi: No. Aoun is not accepted. He does not have any chance.

WSN: He won’t be accepted by the majority?

Ghazi Aridi: No.

WSN: How is the government planning to minimize Hizbollah’s influence in areas such as the South, Baalbeck and Bekaa?

Ghazi Aridi: We don't have any problem with the influence of Hizbollah as a political party. In the end, Hizbollah represents the people in these regions. The problem with Hizbollah is, do you need the Lebanese state? Do you accept the Lebanese state? Or are you insisting on having your state inside the Lebanese state? We are not against Hizbollah and we are not denying that Hizbollah represents a very important community. This is a fact. They are our partners and our brothers. But are they ready to accept the authority of the army in the country? Are they are ready to accept the Lebanese decisions concerning the war or on peace?

WSN: What about the telecommunications lines? Were they cut off?

Ghazi Aridi: This is one of the examples. No. Even in Beirut they are still in place.

WSN: Can the army take them off without Hizbollah agreeing to this?

Ghazi Aridi: The army is trying to do something to convince Hizbollah to solve this issue. But in the end if there is a problem between the army and Hizbollah, they will say this is not the right time to do anything. This is the question and the problem with Hizbollah.

I am a friend of Hassan Nasrallah. I have known him personally for 15 years as well as having a political relationship. I respect Hizbollah and its presence but in the end we paid a very high price in Lebanon. We are not ready to pay another price after 6 months for Iran or for the interests of Syria. I’ll give you an example. They are saying that Israel hit some places in Syria. The Syrians said that they would respond but that their national priority is not a military answer. Why does Syria insist on peace while in Lebanon there is no other priority except the war with Israel on our land? Whose interest is at stake? Last year in July, Israel attacked us and destroyed many places. At the same time, there were under-the-table discussions between Israel and Syria. We simply cannot continue like this.

WSN: I appreciate it sir. Thank you.