Former Prime Minister General Aoun: "The Lebanese people's potential is enormous"

Posted in Broader Middle East | 19-Apr-05 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Former Prime Minister General Michel Aoun: "The empowerment of the individual is the major stumbling block"

WSN: What is your view to achieving stability and freedom in the "Broader Middle East?"

General Aoun: It is critical to recognize that stability and freedom cannot be acquired overnight. They are achieved through a long process of evolution at the level of the individual and the social mindset at large. In this regard, the Lebanese people clearly have an advantage since they did practice democracy for many years prior to the outbreak of the war. By recovering our freedom, sovereignty and independence, we will have to work to restore the viability of our various Lebanese institutions. In order to maintain enduring stability and protect this newly reclaimed freedom, these institutions, which have been decaying for 30 years under occupation, must quickly be made functional again. We must revitalize and restructure the executive branch, the legislative branch, the justice system and – not to be forgotten – the press, which is the fourth element of a vibrant democratic society.

A reassessment of the role of the security services is also required after the withdrawal of the Syrian forces from Lebanon. The army must be redeployed along all borders in order to preserve national security and territorial integrity. Police and internal security forces have to preserve homeland security and public order, and their mission ought not be hijacked by the political establishment for sectarian purposes and against the interests and freedoms of the people.

The process of democratization in the Middle East must include reconciliation between the individual citizen and the institutions that are supposed to represent him and protect his dignity, in order for those institutions to demand in return that the individual citizen fulfill his obligations within the confines of the law. It is only through this evolution of citizenship and the gradual initiation to respect others that the majority can finally express itself and the minority no longer feels threatened, but rather fully integrated into their environment.

WSN: What are the major stumbling blocks?

General Aoun: The empowerment of the individual is, in my opinion, the major stumbling block. The United Nations report on the status of the Middle East, published a couple of years ago by thinkers and intellectuals of the region, stated that the Middle East was the most behind in terms of the development of its human potential. That is, after all, the outcome of decades of oppressive governments that cared little for their people and worried more about their own hold on power.

The objective is to transform the thinking at the level of the individual to believe that he or she belongs to a community of peoples and nations, rather than see the rest of the world as an enemy to conquer. Ideologically, we must begin by accepting the "others" as they are and not as targets to subdue or convert or dominate, and definitely not as hostile enemies who are constantly conspiring against us. Economically, by integrating the Middle East into the community of nations on the basis of a healthy and open competition, you defuse the frustrations emanating from poverty and lack of opportunity that often lead to fundamentalism and obscurantist paranoia. Everyone should have a fighting chance in building wealth and prosperity, and as long as there are governments that deny people access to economic opportunity through corruption, cronyism, feudalism and undue regulation, then those governments will remain stumbling blocks in the aspiration for freedom and stability in the region.

WSN: What is the role of Hezbollah in the new situation in Lebanon?

General Aoun: Hezbollah definitely has a role to play in the Lebanese body politic. It now must reassess, in light of the developments of the last two months, what it stands for, and naturally, the will of the Lebanese people. Hezbollah says it wants to implement the Taef Agreement, which is quite similar to UN Resolution 1559. We invite them to re-read the text of the agreement in order for them to evaluate how far they have gone in their own adherence to the Taef Agreement, especially in those clauses pertaining to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and the spread of the Lebanese authorities' control over every centimeter of the nation. As a matter of fact, the Taef Agreement clearly mentions the implementation of the following points:

-Disband all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias and deliver all of the militias’ weapons to the state of Lebanon

-Deploy all efforts to implement 425 and other UN Security Council Resolutions.

-Implement the truce agreement concluded on 23 March 1949 (between Lebanon and Israel).

-Deploy the Lebanese army in the boarder area adjacent to Israel, and provide the opportunity for return of security and stability to the boarder area.

We have no qualms with Hezbollah – or any other group for that matter – when it comes to their political program, no matter how different they may be from ours. But is Hezbollah ready to return the exercise of that sovereign authority and obligation to the state? Are they ready to become strictly a political and social movement? Or do they want to remain a militia and maintain the untenable proposition of sharing sovereignty with the national army? Those are some of the questions that they are facing and which they must answer fast so as to clarify the role they want to play in the near future.

WSN: Is Syria ready to withdraw all its military forces and secret services from Lebanon?

General Aoun: The Syrian regime is indeed bringing its occupation to an end by withdrawing its forces and intelligence services from Lebanon, and in the words of its President, Bashar Assad, they are doing so to implement the clauses of Resolution 1559 pertaining to Syria. In other words, Syria is carrying out its withdrawal under pressure from the United Nations. This pressure should continue until the last Syrian soldier and the last intelligence service agent leave Lebanon. Still, in order for Lebanon and Syria to resume normal relations, the Syrian government must release all Lebanese prisoners it has held, and continues to hold, in its prisons in violation of all human rights.

As a first step toward new constructive relations between the two neighboring countries, Syria should agree to the long overdue requirement to exchange diplomatic relations with Lebanon by posting a Syrian ambassador in Beirut. Syria has refused to do so since the independence of the two countries, in spite of Lebanese requests to establish diplomatic relations.

Another critical step that must be taken to normalize relations between the two countries is the abrogation of all so-called agreements that Syria, the occupier, forced on Lebanon, the subjugated party. Since 1990 when it completed its takeover of Lebanon, Syria has imposed on the successive Lebanese governments a number of agreements that essentially subjugated Lebanon to Syria in all aspects of life: Economic, educational, security, military, immigration, customs, etc. Two of these agreements stand out, namely the Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination, and the Defense and Security Agreement, which must be renegotiated.

WSN: What kind of guarantees by the EU and/or the US would be supportive?

General Aoun: The United States and the European Union should continue to work together under the United Nations umbrella to encourage Syria to move in the right direction. UN Resolution 1559 was a great example of this positive cooperation. There are three major steps to overcome in order to provide real guarantees. The UN should help apply the principle of the 3Ds: Disarm, Democratize and Develop. Only then can we speak of a real guarantee for genuine stability in Lebanon and in the region. The UN, the US and the EU should also help Lebanon overcome the economic difficulties it currently faces due to a 30-year occupation and its legacy of corruption and mismanagement.

WSN: Is there danger of a civil war in Lebanon?

General Aoun: With the Syrians out of the picture, there is no longer danger of a civil war today. However, we reject the premise that the Lebanese War was a civil war, insofar as it was a war between the Lebanese people and Syria and its proxies, the Palestinians at the time. Granted that some of the Lebanese fell into the Syrian trap and eventually became Syria's allies in "managing" Lebanon. But we saw the failure of that management, politically, economically and otherwise, and its ultimate demise with the will of the Lebanese people supported by a united international community. The Lebanese people, in all their confessions and political affiliations, proved to the world with their 1.2 million-strong pro-sovereignty and pro-unity demonstrations of last month that the Lebanese War was anything but civil. The entire Lebanese population is 3.5 million. Some people are trying to stir up conflict as we saw with the terrorist acts that have been committed here and there, but the main producer of the "civil war", namely Syria, is now packing its bags, so there won't be any war. The international climate is such that Syria is under the microscope and it will no longer be able, as it has in the past, to use the Lebanese playground to serve its interests. Lebanon is now in the hands of the international community and is no longer a hostage of the Syrian regime.

Let me add that a plural and diverse country such as Lebanon is always at risk. However, that source of weakness is also its source of strength so long as the Lebanese remain united and in agreement over the basic principles that underlie identity and nationhood. There is nothing more powerful than unity in diversity.

WSN: Will progress in the Israel/Palestine conflict have a positive impact?

General Aoun: There is no direct connection between that conflict and the Lebanese situation. Any such connections were artificially imposed on Lebanon. Still, there is no doubt that a resolution or progress on the Palestinian-Israeli track will have a positive impact generally on the region, and by extension on Lebanon. Most other Arab countries are making inroads to some settlement with Israel: Egypt and Jordan have diplomatic relations, the Palestinians are engaged in a process with Israel, and Tunisia and other North African countries are reaching out to Israel. Even Syria has been calling for a resumption of negotiations with Israel without any of the pre-conditions that the Syrians used to put forward.

WSN: Will the elections take place in May? Will they be free and fair?

General Aoun: There is nothing to preclude the elections from being held on time, if Syria completes its withdrawal as planned by the end of April. However, should technical reasons impose a postponement of the elections, any delay should not exceed two months. The elections must be held in August at the latest.

I have every confidence that the Lebanese institutions, once free to return to their authentic missions, will manage free and fair elections. We want the new parliament to be representative of the will of the Lebanese people, and we trust that the international community will provide the supervision and monitoring necessary to bring about the freest and fairest elections held in the country since the last truly free elections of 1972.

WSN: Sir, if you were to come back to Lebanon at this point in time, you might risk being arrested. Are you willing to take this chance? What would you hope to gain from your return, if anything?

General Aoun: As you know, the Lebanese justice system is after me for two reasons: One, for having testified in 2003 at the US Congress in support of the Syria Accountability and Lebanon Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSRA), and two, on false charges of embezzlement of public funds from the time when I was Prime Minister just before I was exiled.

The first charge is a fabrication because it denies me my rights to exercise my freedom of expression in any venue I choose. I went to the US Congress to support the passage of the SALSRA because I was only interested and concerned with its clauses pertaining to the restoration of Lebanese sovereignty. I was not interested in its clauses pertaining to Syria. Is there anything wrong for a former Prime Minister of Lebanon to go speak to a friendly government about the freedom and sovereignty of his own country?

The second charge – the so-called "file" - has never been referred to in court for the simple reason that this file has always been an empty file. The Lebanese regime would brandish it whenever it needed to distract people's attention from more serious issues, but it never had a shred of evidence that would hold in a court of law. I have repeatedly called for the Lebanese justice system to look into the "file" and process the case, but they never have done so because they know they have no claim.

So naturally, there are risks to returning to Lebanon, but I don't count the risk of being arrested among them. Large numbers of Lebanese people have also been living in exile, and many are returning. With me, I will have hundreds of FPM supporters and delegations from France, Canada, the US, Australia and elsewhere. All of them have been working very hard with their host governments over the years to secure Lebanon's freedom.

WSN: What is likely to be the future of the Free Patriotic Movement when you return to Lebanon?

General Aoun: The Free Patriotic Movement is gradually mutating from a "movement" into an organized institution and most likely into a political party once I am back in Lebanon and most likely after the elections. At present, there are focused groups and committees that have been created within the active forces of the movement on the ground that are laying the foundations for a structural reorganization of the FPM into a party.

WSN: What are Lebanon's next steps (after elections) towards democracy?

General Aoun: Mechanistically, the country needs a caretaker government that will lead the country through the elections. Once a truly representative parliament is elected, a president can then be elected and a new government formed, and the democratic process will then be reinstated. Conceptually, once representative state institutions are in place, deliberations can begin to address a number of issues that have economically debilitated Lebanon: The chronic plague of corruption, a redirection of the relationship of the Lebanese individual with his government such that rights and obligations are upheld and accountability and responsibility are high on our agenda. There is a lot of work ahead, and the Lebanese people have to relearn what they knew before the war: Differences of political opinions are healthy and should not be feared. By the same token, such differences need to be constantly ironed out as far as possible in every situation and political issue, and a common platform must always seek to legislate and enact policy to serve the Lebanese people.

I have always said that after liberation (taHrir) there will have to be emancipation (taHarror), and by that I mean the emancipation of the Lebanese individual from the archaic modalities of the Lebanese political system. In Lebanon, we suffer from three types of feudalism that hamper the emergence of a modern state. The Lebanese people's potential is enormous, yet the existing political establishment has wasted that potential by excluding it from making any contributions to the civic life of the country.

One of the major tasks ahead to bring Lebanon into the modern world is deal with the three feudalisms that plague the country: The first one is political feudalism, where a few families maintain their traditional grip on power. The answer is for the Lebanese people not to choose their leaders based on family name and blind tribal loyalties. This has been a disaster which, unfortunately, continues today right under our eyes.

The second one is religious feudalism, in which the power of the religious authorities of all sides remains strong enough to impose itself on the political system of the country. This is what we call the confessional or sectarian system, which basically denies the Lebanese individual any rights outside his or her religious community. In order for the Lebanese state to recognize one as a citizen, one must be a certified member of one of 19 specific religious denominations. This means that any Lebanese who is born to, or wants to adopt or convert to another religion that is not one of the club of 19 has no rights under the Lebanese constitution. As a Lebanese citizen, one is forced to take on a specific religious identity whether one would like to or not. Our answer to this is to adopt secularism as the foundation of the Lebanese state and throw away the religious basis of government. Religion belongs in the church and the mosque and the home. It does not belong in the public arena. Most Successful developed nations have separated religion from matters of state, and the popularity of Pope John-Paul II as we saw with his death and funeral, provides ample evidence that religion can thrive under the protection of secular forms of government.

Finally, we have financial feudalism, which is a modern version of 19th Century serfdom. Wealthy individuals who want to be politicians simply use their money to buy people's loyalty. Combine this with a lack of access to jobs and economic and political opportunity and the Lebanese individual becomes indentured to the wealthy, offering their loyalty and vote in exchange for jobs and economic security. This breeds cronyism, favoritism and downgrades the functions of democratic government to a barter system where the Lebanese individual has no allegiance to the collective Lebanese society. Instead, he or she will sacrifice the common good (which is really in his long-term interests) to serve the special interests of one financially powerful politician for some short-term narrow interests.