Interview: Christian opposition member Jean Aziz
Manuela Paraipan - 11/21/2005
Jean Aziz is a member of the Christian opposition and a professor at the Saint Esprit University of Kaslik. He also works as a journalist and founded the Foundation for Human and Humanitarian Rights in 1989. Manuela Paraipan of Global Politician and the World Security Network spoke with him in Lebanon.

MP: What kind of work do you do for the organization? What are your main activities?
Jean Aziz: In general, we have many activities within the NGO, but I can mention the most important ones. First, we have an educational program on human rights. It is a course that is being taught at seven major Lebanese universities. Also, we have a training program for the public which is available in schools and NGOs all over Lebanon. The second activity is the advocacy one. When we notice violations of basic human rights, we sometimes organize press conferences in order to attract the attention of officials to these violations. The third main activity is to write monthly and annual reports on human rights issues and to act as observers.

MP: What can you tell me about your political activity?
Jean Aziz: My political activities are outside of the foundation. I am a member of the opposition and our main demand at the moment is the withdrawal of Syria's intelligence service and its army from Lebanon. We work to achieve this goal through organizing conferences and diplomatic meetings. We have close ties to both the US- and European-Lebanese lobbies to regain Lebanese sovereignty. I believe we will attain this sovereignty in the next few weeks.

MP: How would you describe the current policy of the opposition? Walid Jumblatt asked not long ago for the resignation of President Lahoud while Patriarch Sfeir said that this is not a priority. Can we talk about internal disagreements among the opposition?
Jean Aziz: First, we have to remember that the current opposition is formed from many factions. Some of the members were in power several months ago, so sure we have more than one point of view. However, the present view regarding President Lahoud is that of Patriarch Sfeir, and the top priority is to see the Syrians out of Lebanon. We do not want a constitutional vacuum that can be manipulated by the Syrians. Also, the present parliament is formed from a clear Syrian majority. Omar Karami was reinstalled in his position by 71 pro-Syrian deputies.
Therefore, if President Lahoud would resign now, this parliament would elect another pro-Syrian president for the country. Thus, we are trying to avoid this possibility by focusing on elections to have an independent parliament and only then will we think about electing another president.

MP: Is the opposition obstructing the Lebanese parliament's work regarding electoral law? The rumor on the Lebanese street is that some of the opposition members are demanding there be a fair investigation into Hariri's assassination and refuse to work until this is done.
Jean Aziz: We have an electoral law, but it is the one under which the last parliamentary elections in 2000 took place. The electoral law proposed by Omar Karami's government has not yet been ratified, but there is no legal problem here. We can use the old one in case parliament does not discuss the draft of the new law and sign it into law in the next two weeks. I would say that it is not the opposition that is obstructing the upcoming elections, but rather the Syrians, who would like to see elections postponed because they are afraid of the popular momentum that benefits the opposition.

MP: How would you describe the opposition's relations with Amal and Hezbollah?
Jean Aziz: With Amal there are no important issues to discuss or that require special relations, but with Hezbollah we are trying to start a dialog on two issues: 1) How to ensure a peaceful withdrawal of the Syrians and 2) We are thinking about the future of the Hezbollah party, how to disarm its militia and to further integrate it only as a political party. Until now, I can say that we have succeeded to begin the dialog and we hope to have some clear achievements before the elections.

MP: Do you think that the Lebanese army can take the place of Hezbollah's resistance in the South? Is it capable of this?
Jean Aziz: Certainly, we don't have an equal balance of power between Lebanon and Israel, but that's a common issue for all in the Arab and Muslim world. Even so, there is no good reason to have armed militias in Lebanon other than the police or the army. We need to disarm all militias in Lebanon, not only Hezbollah, and create a national consensus regarding the relations between Lebanon and Syria and between Lebanon and Israel. Through this consensus we can protect all our borders, the South included and of course, with the assistance of the international community. The better option for Lebanon now is to implement UN Resolution1559.

MP: Do you think that Lebanon can engage in negotiations with Israel, without Syria or must there be a collective attempt by both countries?
Jean Aziz: Both alternatives may work. Nowadays, in Lebanon we have a slogan that says that Lebanon cannot negotiate by itself with Syria, but in my view we need to get rid of this kind of slogan. All Lebanese should agree on having direct negotiations with Israel (without Syria); this would better suit our national interests if we were to follow this path. On the other hand, the Syrians may need to wait to have a democratic regime before engaging in serious negotiations with Israel, if this particular opportunity where the US, the UN and the EU are involved in a broader peace process will not be used.

MP: What is the opposition's goal after the Syrian withdrawal? Will it be still united afterwards?
Jean Aziz: Now we have this common goal of the withdrawal, and afterwards we will have another common goal, namely to have a consensus on a regime in the country. All the members of the opposition will most probably agree to maintain their unity, in spite of their constructive political competition. However, a new phase will begin and the power games are likely to be different.

MP: What is your view on the sectarian system? Is it still appropriate for Lebanon? Would a system based on competence rather than religion, work better?
Jean Aziz: I'd say that in Lebanon, we have three circles of power and interests we need to take into consideration when discussing the sectarian system. The first one is the national circle, or the interstate circle that contains the relations between Lebanon and the other states, like Syria and Israel. For these relations to be positive, we need Lebanese sovereignty. The second circle is between the Lebanese communities -- Christian and Muslim -- and it will be quite difficult to overcome our differences. That's why for the time being and for the immediate future we need to keep this political system, to have a balanced political participation of all communities. The third circle that is the smallest one is related to the political culture, individual civic action and individual political traditions and actions. For now we have been able to maintain a balance in the state; therefore, we should continue with this system and thus continue to ensure fundamental freedoms and human rights for all Lebanese, regardless of religion or political affiliation.
We need to wait and see what changes will take place next in Europe, the US and the Arab world. We need to see if we there will be a clash of civilizations as Huntington said or if there will be a dialog of civilizations as was said by Iranian President Omar Khatami. If there is a dialog, then we can have an evolution of these 3 structures in Lebanese society.

MP: Would you say that without a sectarian system Lebanon might become an Islamic country? Is this a possibility?
Jean Aziz: I think this is realistic, because the Shiia now are the majority and usually the majority imposes its goals on all of society. However, the rigid political thinking that we have in Lebanon may to a certain extent restrain political freedom. For example, a Muslim party will always elect a Muslim, and a Christian majority party will always elect a Christian. Thus, what appears as a democratic move may very well be a ticket to an undemocratic system. In my opinion, I'd say that a federal regime would best suit Lebanon's diversity.

MP: Who has a chance to become the next president of Lebanon?
Jean Aziz: There are already some names that have been proposed, but maybe the ones spoken about the most on the Lebanese street are those of MP Boutros Harb, Nasib Lahoud and Nayla Moawad. Nonetheless, the president will most likely be part of the opposition.

MP: There are Christians in both camps -- the opposition and the pro-Syrian camp. What are their relations?
Jean Aziz: We are working with the authorities and some of them are Christians, so I can say that we do have relations with them. However, we will not have a Christian coalition against a Muslim one. On the contrary: In the opposition we have Muslims as well as outside it.
*The interview was also published by the World Security Network.

***Manuela Paraipan has been published in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, World Security Network (WSN), World Press, Yemen Times and other publications.