Michel Aoun Talks to Asharq Al-Awsat
Interview by Marwan Haddad in Beirut
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How long can Lebanon afford to remain an arena for regional
and international conflicts, and to what extent the local political forces can
isolate themselves from that arena?
[Aoun] The Lebanese conduct towards foreign intervention is the basis for controlling that intervention, and the national unity is the basis for such a process. Any country where there is national unity can prevent foreign intervention in its internal affairs and it is the duty of the government to prevent such intervention. But as long as local forces have direct ties with foreign states Lebanon will remain exposed to foreign intervention.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are the local forces unable to isolate themselves from such intervention?
[Aoun] Certainly they can if they possess an independent will, do not look suspiciously at Arab parties present in the Lebanese arena, and are able to send a clear message to all Arab leaders intervening in our affairs. The message should be that we are a friendly country and a brother that does not allow their interests to be harmed through us, and therefore they should not transfer their differences with other states to our internal arena. In this way, we would keep an atmosphere of friendship with them, without harming them or ourselves. But if we take sides with the parties to a dispute, the error would be doubled; the Lebanese party would then either attract external players, or the external player would attract local forces. Therefore the local forces should neither attract external players nor be attracted by them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We know that you received invitations to visit Arab capitals, including that of Saudi Arabia. Why did you delay these visits?
[Aoun] I did not receive an invitation from Egypt. As for Saudi Arabia, I asked to go there in 2005; the invitation came in 2006. I confirmed my acceptance of invitations to visit Gulf countries, including, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. But the atmosphere in Lebanon was too pressing and tense following the assassination of the Member of Parliament, Pierre Gemayel; so I asked for these visits to be postponed. On the same day, the Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon contacted me to say that the kingdom was ready for my visit. I requested him to have my visit postponed, and it never occurred to me that the Saudis interpreted my request as a rejection. When the atmosphere in Lebanon relatively cooled down, I informed the Saudi Ambassador of my readiness to visit. I even said so publicly through the press, including your newspaper. But invitations were not forthcoming, so I thought the Saudi leadership had changed their mind. At any rate, I am not one of those who pester individuals or states for a visit, and I regard myself as least demanding in this respect.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So, what about the visits to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates?
[Aoun] I informed the embassies of the two countries of my wish to make a visit when circumstances permit, but so far, I have not received an answer. In addition, I was asked more than once if I would like to visit Egypt and I said yes. After the Doha conference I personally tried to express my wish to visit Egypt and I informed the Egyptian ambassador to Lebanon of this when he visited me, and he was most welcoming. But up until this moment, I have not received an invitation. I believe that all these visits require new circumstances as the circumstances in which the old invitations came were unfavorable, but I am still as ready as before. Whenever I visit a country, I carry to it Lebanon's friendship and I return with their friendship to Lebanon. If those states regard my visits as hostile or against their interests; that is their problem, not mine. I am strong at home. Had I not been what I am in Lebanon, I would not have been invited by any other country. I do not aim to draw strength or weakness from visiting any country.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can we say then that your visit to Iran was an alternative to all these visits?
[Aoun] It is not an alternative at all; I go searching for friends. Lebanon should not have enemies. Its message is one of peace, co-existence and love. Even our military thought is defensive. If we can help reconcile other countries, we should play that role, if playing it was allowed and acceptable to others.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are we allowed to know what you carried back from Iran? [Aoun] My visit to Iran was within the framework of searching for friends for Lebanon. The Iranians wished to honor me for my stand during the war on Lebanon [ 2006], my attitude towards the [armed]resistance and my political 'understanding', which I follow in my political life. I have no official capacity to make promises or conclude agreements with other states. In my view, all that I did in Iran is that there I heard the words I reiterate here.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can we say then that the visit of the head of the Executive Committee of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea to Egypt was a response to your visit to Iran?
[Aoun] I do not want to know whether it was or not. But it seems to be so. I would not comment on the issue; he is free to visit who ever he wishes.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It has become certain now that you are going to visit Syria. Has this visit been preceded by any preparatory visits by your representatives? In addition to 'knowing each other' which you said was the purpose of your visit, what would you be carrying to them or what would they present to you more than that?
[Aoun] We will not come back carrying presents.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the former minister Suleiman Franjieh said that you will come back with an explanation to the issue of 'the missing'?
[Aoun] This issue was not a condition of my visit. As you know, I was the most difficult obstacle in front of Syria and I was on the receiving end. But any individual or state or people cannot stand transfixed at a certain point in history. When circumstances change one has to accommodate oneself to the new environment and reconsider the past in a way that helps build the future. We were the first to clash with the Syrians. Nevertheless, we said we will be ready to have the best of relations with Syria once they have withdrawn from our country. Thus our credibility requires us to carry out what we promised to do, regardless of what we have been through. We have said in the past and we say now, that the issue of the [Lebanese] missing in [Syria] should be solved. I said this in France at the time the Syrian forces were withdrawing from Lebanon. And let us not forget that the President of the Republic Michel Suleiman has taken this issue upon himself in his sworn-in speech. He said the same thing when he received the remains of the resisters at the airport. Moreover, in his visit to Damascus, he spoke of forming a joint committee to discuss the issue of the missing, and I am not in a competition with the President. If I find I can be useful in this respect, I shall not hesitate to do all I can.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think this issue would have a happy ending- if we may say so?
[Aoun] There is no happiness about the issue; some have already died and some even did not reach Syria and were killed in Lebanon. I know of some cases of this sort. If you recall the incident at Dhahr al-Wahsh(at the entrance of the presidential palace), we were able to get back the corpses of the victims who fell in that confrontation because we kept their case alive through its adoption from the very beginning, by the committees that we set up.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think the changes in administration that first took place in France and then in the United States would make the Lebanese parties reconsider their positions from a political point of view?
[Aoun] They are trying to readjust, but judging by what has been done so far, it does not seem a sound readjustment. When I returned from France in 2005, I was expecting friends to come to thank me for what I did for Lebanon and for restoring its freedom. Instead, they blocked all the roads in my face, as they did in Syria's days, in order to monopolize power to the exclusion of others. Now they can block the road to Al-Masna' (a border crossing point on the road to Damascus). They [the Lebanese Forces] have made an issue out of my visit to Syria. But by what right the commander of the "Lebanese Forces", who bombarded the presidential palace and the French Embassy when the Syrian army entered Babda, dares to utter a word against my visit to Syria? I am the only one whom the Syrians do not know and I do not know them. The first time I shook hands with the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem was during the election of President Michel Suleiman. Are they trying to shame me for going to Syria after their withdrawal from Lebanon and expressing their readiness to establish good relations? What did I give to Syria other than standing by them and good neighborly relations? This was in the interest of our country and we are prepared to defend those interests.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is it true that your reconciliation with the Maronite Patriarch, which is said to be in the near future, would be on the basis of "render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's", as former minister Suleiman Franjieh put it?
[Aoun] Religiously we are not separated from Bkirki [the seat of the Maronite Patriarchy] and we are not trying to form a new Maronite splinter group - God forbid. There is a difference of views between us and Bkirki on internal and external policies. I believe this issue has been overtaken by events and the choices have been decided. I am not in a duel with the Patriarch and it is normal to differ.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did the Vatican play any role in this approach?
[Aoun] The Pope's envoy in Lebanon has always called for understanding among Christian sects. In my view, understanding should not be synonymous with uniformity of thinking - this is what I told the Patriarch on a previous occasion - because when this becomes the case, we lose our vitality and ability to evolve.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Assuming the present opposition came to power after the next elections, and the new opposition played the same role as did the present opposition in the past three years, where would this lead us?
[Aoun] If the new opposition wanted to participate in the 'obstructing one-third', they are welcome, but if they represented less than a third, they will be given the percentage they represent. I believe that Hassan Nasrallah's acceptance of the 'obstructing one-third' was very generous of him, as we [the opposition] actually deserved 13 ministerial portfolios.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Would you not rather transfer the 'obstructing one-third' to the President of the Republic, who ever that might be?
[Aoun] When I was a candidate for President of the Republic, they said they do not want a president who has a parliamentary bloc; and when the president was elected they started to talk of the necessity for the president to have a parliamentary bloc. It is shameful to want the thing and it's opposite.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It is noticeable that the parliamentary majority is giving currency to the idea of a centrist parliamentary bloc for the president of the republic, are you prepared to endorse the formation of such a bloc, if it consisted of a mixture of the opposition and incumbents?
[Aoun] This looks like an occasion for 'whitewashing records'. We do not put barriers between the President of the Republic and ourselves, and we are prepared to assign the President our bloc in its entirety.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It has been said that your ministers are boycotting the meetings of the Council of Ministers, in the same way as the opposition ministers did with the former government. Is this true?
[Aoun] This is not true. What is happening is that there is an 'objection movement' led by the Deputy Prime Minister, Major-General Isam Abu-Jamra, because the Council of Ministers is still without 'internal rules of procedure', and all establishments are unregulated and are not subject to oversight and questioning. Take for instance the Higher Relief Agency, the Council for Development and Building, the Displaced Fund, the South Council, and others.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We noticed that you have developed what has become customary to be referred to as 'Christian constants'. Do you think that Christian public opinion in Lebanon is ready for such a development, especially before the parliamentary elections?
[Aoun] We called them proposals or ideas, not constants. These ideas were derived from the needs of our Christian society in and around Lebanon. I am insisting on this because the East is the cradle of Christianity, from the land of the two rivers [Iraq] to the shores of the Mediterranean and to the Arab peninsula. We have reached the stage where we are looked upon as an expatriate community, while in fact it was our apostles who developed the West and spread Christianity, at a time when others were still living in caves. Beirut was one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire. We can open up to the West while preserving our oriental originality.