Michel Aoun: 'This is Not a Government' in Lebanon

In an interview with An-Nahar, Michel Aoun, head of the Change and Reform bloc, says that Hezbollah is right to fight in Syria and that the army commander’s term must not be extended.

al-monitor Lebanese Christian leader Michel Aoun waves at the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut, during the start of the two-day parliamentary consultations to choose a new prime minister, in Beirut, Jan. 24, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/ Mohamed Azakir.

Topics covered

lebanese army, hezbollah

Jul 23, 2013

Gen. Michel Aoun always gives his opinions and judgments on domestic and foreign issues. What is important for him is the principle, not the result, even if he loses. But he is pragmatic and sometimes adjusts positions. Those close to him liken him to the horseman who rides his horse only to see someone else reach the destination. His relationship with Hezbollah is solid. He doesn’t care about the rest. He makes his plans and conducts his maneuvers on that basis.

A talk with the president of the Change and Reform bloc covered many subjects, starting with his ally Hezbollah.

An-Nahar:  Why is there ambiguity and opacity about your meeting with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah?

Aoun:  In absolute terms, whether or not we met, we have the right to hold bilateral talks and not reveal our intentions or political plans. We have opponents and it is not necessary to reveal our cards prematurely. Sometimes, friends disagree but leave room for reconciliation without telling the people the cause of their disagreement. But in fact, yes, we did meet, we talked and we reviewed the situation in relation to public and private matters. I will not say more.

An-Nahar:  How is your relationship with Hezbollah different than your relationship with your other allies?

Aoun:  There are many ambiguities in the relationship with the others. With Hezbollah, there is a relationship of friendship, and we have a common position. We are with the resistance as long as Israel threatens us and has claims [against Lebanon], not least of which the maritime boundary and water rights, and as long as our army is not ready to take over these tasks because it is more preoccupied with internal than external matters. So we must keep the resistance to deter Israel and to make an attack on Lebanon costly. This is the main point in the memorandum of understanding [that we signed with Hezbollah in 2006].

An-Nahar:  Have you started diverging from Hezbollah?

Aoun:  No, we didn’t diverge. There were some thorny issues related to certain internal political matters, not to Hezbollah. It’s over now. And the meeting [between me and Nasrallah] was unrelated to those [matters].

An-Nahar:  To what were they related then?

Aoun:  I will not answer.

An-Nahar:  Was there an agreement that you will ignore Hezbollah’s regional role in return for [more power] on the domestic scene?

Aoun:  [Hezbollah] entering Qusair was imposed by the Lebanese reality as a result of the vacuum on the Lebanese border and because of the armed operations happening from inside Lebanon toward the Syrian interior and vice versa. That matter almost caused a civil war in the Arsal region after tit-for-tat kidnappings. Entering Qusair, for many Lebanese, including myself, was a necessity to prevent a civil war.

An-Nahar:  Why do you always cover for Hezbollah’s actions?

Aoun:  I am covering no one. I am describing the reality as I see it. Since the incidents in Syria started, the Lebanese government and the security forces were not at the level of responsibility in the regions of Akkar, Tripoli and Arsal. A civil war almost happened in Sidon because some people were [not acting responsibly]. When the army doesn’t do missions, it gets exposed to shocks that have a negative impact. After the incidents that have occurred and accumulated on the Lebanese army over the years, things became dangerous for everyone. Hezbollah has not fired a bullet on the Lebanese army since the airport incident when the Syrian army was in Lebanon despite [the loss of casualties during that airport incident]. The most recent is the Mar Mikhael incident, until [Hezbollah] entered Qusair, which was the first time that [Hezbollah] acted outside the borders. [Hezbollah did so] because no one is controlling the situation between the Arsal and Hermel. The army was not there.

An-Nahar:  But the Free Patriotic Movement, from the mouth of Minister Gebran Bassil, said that it disagrees with Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria.

Aoun:  We are against intervention in the absolute sense. But the series of security [incidents] forces those who are responsible to intervene. Even when committing a crime, when there is a legitimate self-defense act, the accused is exempted from punishment.

Saudi Arabia and the presidency

An-Nahar:  What happened after your meeting with the Saudi ambassador? Did things stop at that point?

Aoun:  We are in a phase of opening up [to others]. We didn’t have a negotiating session with the ambassador. Rather, we reviewed the situation in the Middle East and Lebanon. He expressed Saudi Arabia’s intentions to help Lebanon impose security and stability, and for this matter, of course, one must deal with the different components of Lebanese society. We agreed to maintain contacts and consultations to meet again.

An-Nahar:  Some say that Hezbollah had apprehensions about your opening up to Saudi Arabia, [a move] that was seen as related to your presidential ambitions.

Aoun:  This is newspaper gossip. Lebanon’s survival is my main concern. We are passing through a very dangerous phase, especially after the end of the month of Ramadan. We are striving to stabilize Lebanon. Then we will think about the presidency.

An-Nahar:  Is your openness toward Saudi Arabia due to the stronger regional Saudi role, versus the shrinking role of Qatar, and thus Saudi Arabia’s role in choosing the next president of the republic?

Aoun:  The matter was not discussed and is not up for discussion. There are other subjects, the most important of which is forming a government.

The government and party size

An-Nahar:  You have said that no one wants to form a government. Do you want to form a government? And on what basis?

Aoun:  Of course I want to. And on the basis of the consultations that happened. But does [Prime Minister-designate] Tammam Salam want to form a government for Lebanon or Indonesia? By what right does he say that he doesn’t want this or that? If the situation remains as is, then let him [admit his failure] and leave.

An-Nahar:  Which constitutional clause says that the government must be represented in accordance with the sizes of the [political blocs]?

Aoun:  In accordance to what then? What are the criteria that must be taken into consideration? Should the prime minister give a 40-deputy bloc the same [number of ministers] as a 10-deputy bloc? Of course not. We are in a majoritarian system, and whoever holds the majority in parliament forms the government. And if the government doesn’t receive the majority of votes, then it is not granted confidence. So those with more deputies are more important. This is the story of the sizes.

An-Nahar:  Salam always says that he wants a non-partisan government.

Aoun:  In this country, there is nothing but partisans.

An-Nahar:  What if he puts together a de facto government following all the conditions and counter-conditions placed by the various parties? Will you accept it?

Aoun:  No, we won’t. It would be as if he is saying that he doesn’t want us. If we had refused to enter the government then he could form a de facto government. But he is not allowed to reject us because we represent the Lebanese people. Or he would be heading toward a big problem. No one will impose on us a de facto [government]. We will resist.

An-Nahar:  Have you given him names [of ministerial candidates]?

Aoun:  He didn’t ask for anything. He conducted consultations then he sat in his house. He made no effort to discuss things.

An-Nahar:  When you give him the names [of your ministerial candidates] and the [ministerial] portfolios [that you want], then what do you leave for him?

Aoun:  What else are the consultations for?

An-Nahar:  Why don’t you give him names to choose from instead of imposing them on him?

Aoun:  I said it dozens of times. We have agreed on distributing the portfolios first, then providing the names. I cannot have 30 ministerial candidates. I have one name for each ministry. If they want me to participate [in the government] then let them tell me what are my ministries, and I will name my [candidates] because I am the one who would be responsible in case [the government fails], because I was the one who named [the ministers].

An understanding and security

An-Nahar:  You said that you were thinking of something that would patch up the internal situation. What is it?

Aoun:  If there is no understanding inside and outside the government, then we will be in a dangerous security situation. I don’t know whether the bombings were early signs for that. The security situation threatens the political situation as well as economic and social development. Based on this, we must come up with something that would control the situation, even if at the minimum. This is what we should work on. If we really want this country, then each and every one of us must accept not to solve the crisis, but to at least reach an understanding on the security issues first. And when we have security, political discussions become easier. But if the security situation deteriorates then matters become more complicated.

An-Nahar:  How can we reach an understanding on security issues? And who will sponsor [the understanding]?

Aoun:  It starts with small discussions and bilateral meetings, which will later expand. [Those discussions] don’t have to be done “over the rooftop” nor in secret. Preliminary meetings will indicate an admission of recognizing that there is a problem that needs to be solved. This matter will not be sponsored by anyone. It must happen or there will be no understanding. Then the security services will get the support to implement [the decisions] and control the situation. [We cannot solve the problem] by exchanging kisses. Permission to control matters must be given. But not by saying that "we have removed the cover off the gunmen." Perhaps some thought that the matter was a game that served their interests. But the game has now become dangerous, and we are now playing on the edge of the abyss. We will fall if no one saves us.

An-Nahar:  In the absence of a government, who will oversee the implementation?

Aoun:  We cannot say that there is no government. The existing government, whether resigned or lacking parliament’s confidence, remains present and is responsible until another government takes over. There is no power vacuum. A caretaker government doesn’t only mean collecting paychecks. Whenever there is an emergency, the government should meet and make the appropriate decisions.

With the president

An-Nahar:  If the president calls for a dialogue table, will you attend?

Aoun:  Of course. I have no objections. I’m a free man, and no one dictates to me what to do.

An-Nahar:  President Suleiman said in his speech that he would submit a proposal to clarify some of the constitutional articles regarding how responsibilities are distributed, so that the government functions properly. Do you support him in this matter?

Aoun:  I was the first to request that. It has been clear for years that there are disagreements regarding what certain constitutional articles mean. They are clear to some and obscure to others. We have proposed to at least identify what we disagree on, such as al-mithaqiyya [what conforms to the unwritten pact between the Lebanese sects] in parliament or the constitutionality and legality of [parliament’s] extension, and other matters. The constitution has become a point of view.

An-Nahar:  Why this tense relationship with parliament Speaker Berri?

Aoun:  There used to be tension, but it’s gone. The relationship is normal between the deputies and the head of parliament. There are differences in points of view, and that is normal. We vote for or against, otherwise we would be clones. We still have an understanding on fundamental matters.

An-Nahar:  Did someone open a communication channel with the Future Movement?

Aoun:  I don’t mind it if there was a need to talk to each other. We meet in parliament, we greet each other and we discuss specific issues and matters.

An-Nahar:  But you target the [Future Movement] the most.

Aoun:  Because I am in the government while they are in the opposition. Sometimes I say words that are against friends and allies as well. I always give my free opinion.

An-Nahar:  Is the Baabda Declaration still valid?

Aoun:  Yes, it is still valid, and we have agreed to it.

An-Nahar:  But Hezbollah said that this is no longer the case and that [Hezbollah] was forced to agree [to the Baabda Declaration] at the time.

Aoun:  The matter should be discussed on the table.

An-Nahar:  Will you file an appeal against an extension to the army commander’s mandate no matter how the extension is accomplished?

Aoun:  If the Council of Ministers doesn’t meet to appoint an army commander, it means that there is an intention to ruin Lebanon. And I wouldn’t ask what I will do in that case. Because the “bough would have broken,” and they would reconsider Lebanon’s social, demographic and political map, and this is not an excuse. The extension speeds up the erosion while [appointing someone] new provides new thinking and new blood and a new pulse. Otherwise there will be erosion, which they are using to paralyze the institutions and dissolve them. I am not being pessimistic but I am warning people and alerting them.

An-Nahar:  Even if the Council of Ministers meets, is there an agreement on a new [army commander]? Or should the appointment be done according to hierarchy?

Aoun:  There are always standards and specifications to appointing an army commander. Let no one try to trick us. They have been making the Lebanese people live in a vacuum for a while, and the people don’t know how to live and go on. This is not a government. They are not only harming each other but also the people, the poor and the destitute.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  May Abboud Abi Akl