BEIRUT — Gen. Michel Aoun, the head of the parliamentary Change and Reform bloc and the Free Patriotic Movement, tried to avoid analyzing the regional situation and its effects on Lebanon. But he called on “taking precautions,” preferring to wait for the outcome of the “current battle” until Lebanon’s position in the equation is determined — which is expected to lead to an international re-balancing in the region. Aoun thinks the Americans are still drawing up solutions with other parties. And if there’s an international understanding with Iran, the understanding will “secure [Iran’s] interests.” But he wondered “to what degree?” He talked about influence sharing between the United States and Russia. But he said that he did not side with one Arab axis against another.
Aoun was also keen to highlight his image as someone seeking stability and someone who wants to reassure the people about the future in Lebanon. He noted that the ongoing dialogues and his policy of reaching an understanding with Hezbollah have achieved results. “Despite the fiery tongues, no one has assaulted anyone. And my conscience is clear regarding this policy,” he said. He told the story of how he visited Rome nearly two years ago (and met Future Movement leader Saad Hariri at the time) and “then the government saw the light.”
Regarding the journalistic interpretations of his meetings with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Future Movement leader [Saad] Hariri, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt and others, he said, “Sometimes they write that I will be president of the republic and at other times they [say the opposite]. … We spoke with Jumblatt against extending [the terms of the military commanders]. So [the journalists] said, ‘Aoun and Jumblatt: No to extending Jean Qahwaji’s term.’ We will not give a name. We are against the principle of extension because I cannot digest it. And those to whom I said that cannot digest it either. It is against the laws and the constitution.”
Regarding the press leaks regarding what is being said about Saudi Arabia’s negative position on Aoun becoming president and about Aoun having dinner with Hassan Nasrallah on Saturday [March 21], he said, “These are all journalistic news and rumors that hide behind the guise of sources being portrayed as reliable in order to fool the reader.”
He denied that he has nominated Brig. Gen. Shamel Roukoz to lead the army but does not rule out that he may nominate him. He defends Hezbollah’s fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, preferring to wait till the dialogue with the head of the Lebanese Forces Party Samir Geagea ends in order to know whether Geagea will end up supporting Aoun’s candidacy for the presidency. But Aoun said that Geagea has “ended his veto.” Aoun refused to say how long the presidential vacancy will last.
Aoun was keen to point out that he spoke about the role of the fundamentalists in the region on March 10, 1994, in an interview with Al-Hayat. In that interview, he expected the fundamentalists would reach power in some countries, that they will fail and that they would later be ousted, referring to what happened in Egypt and Tunisia.
Here is the text of the interview conducted the evening of March 23.
Al-Hayat: In your last speech, you said that the next transformations cannot afford any waiting and that we must choose what we want before others impose on us what they want. Do you fear that regional and international understandings will come at Lebanon’s expense?
Aoun: This is a possibility and we must take precautions. But it is not necessary that [this possibility] will happen. But when one is planning for his country’s future, he doesn’t leave the possibilities that may hurt him without control. He tries to eliminate them. And here we have to secure a minimum of national unity to face the coming shifts.
Al-Hayat: How do you classify the upcoming understanding between the US and Iran? Will it harm or benefit Lebanon’s interests? Will it harm a Lebanese party and benefit another?
Aoun: If the region reaches a power balance — not only at the regional level but also at the international level — which would then produce a regional power balance, then this will be very good and the matter would end. And if no power balance is achieved, then one side will overpower the other.
Al-Hayat: There are Arab powers that are seeking a power balance by establishing a bloc that includes Egypt and the Gulf, with perhaps Turkey and Pakistan, to confront Iran’s expansion. Does this create a power balance or does it fuel the conflict?
Aoun: We have to see the goal of this current conflict. What are the limits of the goals of each party? It is very difficult to find this out as long as the battle is ongoing. There is no doubt that an understanding with Iran may secure its interests, but to what extent?
US is drawing up solutions
Al-Hayat: Its interests are expanding in Yemen and Iraq. There has become a direct or semi-direct presence [for the US]. The party that wants a power balance, i.e., the Gulf, thinks that Iran is causing wars by intervening.
Aoun: But the region is under US influence till that influence changes. The US is drawing up solutions with parties that are negotiating with it [the US]. They are not heated negotiations. One day an agreement is likely, then on another day it stumbles. Two countries, the US and Russia, will continue to have influence on the existing regimes. A regime’s shape reveals to which influence each country is subject to. So the Gulf states and Iran should reach an understanding first, and this will be in everyone’s interest.
Al-Hayat: The Yemeni President [Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi] said: I will not submit to the Iranian experience, which means that the conflict will be long …
Aoun: Yes, in Yemen there is a civil war that has started to give signs of escalation. We look forward to a political understanding outside any regional or international influence in order to preserve the integrity of Yemen and of the neighboring countries.
Al-Hayat: You have already said that Lebanon will be where Syria is, [and Syria] is now in the Russian-Iranian sphere. Does this apply to Lebanon?
Aoun: It will have at least an impact. The reason is that Lebanon’s Arab facade is Syria. From there, we can access all the Arab countries. You know how many times the borders were closed, causing us great losses to our economy and to our agricultural harvests. So by virtue of the neighboring environment, Lebanon must have good relations with Syria, but not relations that affect the interests of Lebanon or the sovereignty of sisterly or friendly countries. [We need] a policy of good neighborliness whereby each side’s borders are secure, which is essential to be friends. The relationship between Lebanon and Syria is not a relationship between two regimes but between two peoples. A regime can change. But whatever happens, the relationship with Syria must remain good. But this does not mean being enemies with others. Discord between Syria and others should not be imposed on us.
Al-Hayat: If Russian and Iranian influence gets solidified in Syria, will they have the upper hand in Lebanon?
Aoun: I am known to oppose any external influences in Lebanon and any touching of its sovereignty. But I never look for war with anyone. I also respect common and vital interests. The Lebanese, the Saudis and all those who have differences now [with Syria] have said that there is a special relationship between Lebanon and Syria. Special [relations] are determined by geography, traffic, transit and water. But we are linked with the Arab states through the Charter of the Arab League. We should respect that.
The war is heading toward a conclusion, and the possibility of partition
Al-Hayat: Given the optimism that an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program is near and the possibility that the regional conflict may go on, will the situation in Lebanon become worse or will the policy of containing its possible explosion prevail?
Aoun: The overall apparent atmosphere from international politics is that the war is heading toward a conclusion. Afterward, things will be contained. The Europeans are no longer able to withstand the spread of terrorist organizations.
Al-Hayat: How do you read the US fluctuations regarding negotiating with President Bashar al-Assad? Sometimes they say they are with negotiations and at other times they say that he has lost his legitimacy and the solution is not through him?
Aoun: These are political maneuvers to prepare the public opinion, perhaps as a prelude to engage Assad in dialogue. Regarding where they will lead to, this is another subject.
Al-Hayat: After all the bloodshed in Syria, can the opposition accept [Assad]?
Aoun: What is their ability to change the regime? In war, one can refuse or accept when there is similar power. He who owns the land owns the solution. And here I am talking objectively, not emotionally.
Al-Hayat: But the ground in Syria is in flux. No one owns all of it …
Aoun: In this case, then maybe there will be partition, God forbid. Now, we are in this situation, but maybe something will happen that changes the ground. As you said, the ground is in flux.
Al-Hayat: You also said in your speech that if we want to dissociate Lebanon from the fire around us, we have to elect a strong president. Does this mean that electing you will revive the dissociation policy and the Baabda Declaration?
Aoun: Isn’t dissociating from Syria our current policy?
Al-Hayat: But some parties are intervening [in Syria].
Aoun: The borders were threatened, so they intervened, because the borders were not protected. Now there is intervention. This intervention can subside with the securing of the borders. On the Akkar front, there is no one because there is no danger there.
Al-Hayat: Isn’t that because Hezbollah is not entering [Syria] from this area?
Aoun: IS and the terrorist organizations do not recognize borders, according to their ideology. They say that their borders are those of the umma [Islamic nation], and we don’t know where it starts and where it ends. They also call us apostates. Everybody is afraid of this danger. So there’s an international and regional coalition, on top of which are the Gulf states, against IS.
As for the argument that Hezbollah has caused IS to enter Lebanon, we remind that IS struck in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and Hezbollah has no presence there.
Hezbollah is a resistance on the border and is currently defending the other border. We hope that things will calm down in Syria and everything goes back to its place. God willing this will happen soon.
Al-Hayat: Some of your opponents, with whom you are having a dialogue, say that you have moved one step toward them in their criticism of the regional role of Hezbollah, which is not fighting on the border, but in Quneitra, Damascus, Aleppo, Qalamoun, up to Iraq. … And yesterday, Qasem Soleimani was quoted as saying that Iraq and Lebanon are subject to our [Iranian] influence. … What is your stand on that?
Aoun: I have not read what Soleimani said. But every party wants its surroundings to be under its influence. I didn’t say that the people are angels, but that is determined by the power balance that we talked about.
Al-Hayat: On the other hand, those who oppose Hezbollah’s intervention say that [Hezbollah] didn’t conduct any serious battle against IS or Jabhat al-Nusra till the Brital attack happened. The rest of [Hezbollah’s] battles were against the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic battalions fighting IS.
Aoun: I don’t know the details of the fighting.
Al-Hayat: The statement of the Future [Movement] bloc three weeks ago blamed Hezbollah for seeking to impose a sole candidate for the presidency. Didn’t this bother you?
Aoun: The Future Movement and others used to say that Hezbollah doesn’t favor Aoun [for the presidency]. Now they say that [Hezbollah] wants me as a sole candidate. Perhaps they don’t have a second candidate. I think I am able to talk with everyone and restore stability in the interior. I have worked for that since the beginning of the events till today. Some have said that I lean toward Hezbollah. But when we made the memorandum of understanding with Hezbollah — which did not infringe on any Lebanese — we invited everyone to read it and adjust it if they wish so that we can all agree on it. But some didn’t even want to read it. Some have called it a Maronite-Shiite understanding against the Sunnis. This was very unfortunate.
I believe that Lebanon cannot live except will all its sects. I appreciate what Michel Chiha wrote at the beginning of the era of independence, that whoever tries to eliminate a sect in Lebanon is trying to eliminate Lebanon. Elimination is not in Nasrallah’s political thinking. If they deny him that, then this is something else, but I don’t deny him that. We have an understanding on this subject: No one in the Lebanese interior should overpower the other. But battles happened because if we criticize a Sunni employee because he was corrupt and careless, they say that Michel Aoun doesn’t like the Sunnis. When we criticize the prime minister, we do so because he is the prime minister. The matter has nothing to do with his sect. If they appoint me as prime minister, the people will criticize me. The situation has improved a lot now [after the dialogue with the Future Movement]. We have to look to the future now. We have to [heal] many things. The [leaders] can [heal] more easily because it is a rational choice. We must heal the wounds and the outcrops at the popular level, something that takes more time. God willing, we will reach an internal solution soon. This helps.
A decline in tension
Al-Hayat: Three weeks ago, you said that little progress was achieved on the subject of the presidency. Is there anything new?
Aoun: Artificial disagreements can sometimes happen in dialogues because of the alignments. Of course, there is no such thing as a full agreement on all points. Nor is there a full disagreement. But sometimes political partisanship drives some politicians to take a stand against their convictions. We agree on certain matters, and we will issue a declaration of intent around them. That’s regarding the relationship with the Lebanese Forces. On the other hand, there is a dialogue between the Future Movement and Hezbollah. Each dialogue is dealing with the positive and the controversial subjects. We are focused on the ground. Don’t you notice the prevailing calm in Lebanon? The tension has declined and the Lebanese are at ease. When you start a dialogue, it will be the beginning of the end. Things do not go backwards.
Al-Hayat: Your meeting with Samir Geagea is long-awaited. Will it be an Easter [gift]?
Aoun: We hope so. There are two Easter holidays. Did you mean the one of the Maronites or of the Orthodox?
Al-Hayat: When you insist on not repeating the mistake of granting confidence to another president and when you say that there won’t be another Doha Agreement, some considered that this means that you won’t support a military man [for the presidency], and that perhaps you favor a civilian.
Aoun: The matter has nothing to do with the nature of the person. I said that I will not [grant confidence] and I will not submit to external pressure. The Arab League, as well as European and American countries, had agreed on President Michel Suleiman. I disagreed with him because he was too weak to secure an election law and a national unity government. When he came to me, I told him that my demand is the election law because the present one, the 2000 law, is not suitable. He told me that there is a parliamentary majority.
Al-Hayat: But then he worked on an electoral law based on proportionality. It was the law proposal put forth by the government.
Aoun: This is later. I’m talking about 2008. We were in Qatar demanding proportionality but nobody wanted to hear it. We cannot accept a law through which we elect 20 deputies at the most.
Al-Hayat: By rejecting the extension for military leaders, a counter-argument says that a commander cannot be changed in mid-battle, such as Gen. Jean Qahwaji, and that a new president of the republic would pave the way for the appointment [of a new army commander].
Aoun: True. We cannot change him in mid-battle. But what battle is the Lebanese army fighting?
Al-Hayat: The battle against terrorism.
Aoun: A military battle means fighting a war and that is not the current situation. Where is the state of emergency? There is a clash every two or three months. A shell is fired every few days. [Consider] Rommel’s battle [the German commander during World War II]. The British changed the leader of the front and appointed [Bernard] Montgomery in his place. The previous one was losing and the latter won. There is no battle.
Al-Hayat: Then why is this argument being made? Is it so that Gen. Qahwaji becomes president?
Aoun: What is happening is the politicization of the subject. This is the worst that can be done to the Lebanese army.
Al-Hayat: Did you a feel a positive response from your allies, particularly Hezbollah, regarding rejecting the extension of the military commanders: Gen. Qahwaji, the chief of staff, the general director of the Internal Security Forces. … Are you in agreement with them on an alternative, which is said to be Brig. Gen. Roukoz, whose competence everyone recognizes?
Aoun: Let us first try and then we know. We cannot propose something before we apply the principle. I think that the situation in Lebanon has become accepting of non-extension. Yesterday [March 25], President Suleiman said that he is against the extension because it is illegal. Why do we disrespect our laws?
If the government is powerless, let it go
Al-Hayat: What were the positions of Berri, Prime Minister Hariri and Jumblatt?
Aoun: He who wants the extension says that he prefers it to a vacuum. I say that between vacuum and extension, there is appointing someone new. If the government is powerless, then let it go, even if we are in this situation. No one should say that they don’t agree because they want an extension. Let us try appointing someone new and then we can discuss the rest.
Al-Hayat: Will there not be disagreement in the cabinet on the appointment?
Aoun: They will not disagree. There are enough competent persons in the army for them to choose a new army commander. This could apply to the director and to all government departments. If the principle is that no one wants to change his own people, then there will be a dispute about everything. We are defending competence, not individuals. Each one has a history. To become army commander, you must have at least 35 years of actual service, except for supplement [years], which double your years of seniority.
We will pray on it when we get to it
Al-Hayat: Some consider that your and MP Suleiman Franjieh’s nomination of Brig. Gen. Roukoz was premature and may have burned him.
Aoun: I did not announce that I nominated Brig. Gen. Roukoz. This does not mean I will not nominate him. Why are they making comparisons? In the newspapers, they are saying that I am negotiating on getting either the presidency or the army command, as if Brig. Gen. Roukoz and I were the same person. If someone is my son-in-law, should he lose all his civil rights, competence and benefits? This mentality doesn’t work with me. These are things that I hate and reject. The matter is not about sentiments. Imagine that someone less [competent] is selected because the [more competent] person is close to this one or that one. During his long service, did anyone feel that this person [Roukoz] belonged to something other than the army [or is less competent than] all those who are candidates against him, if they become candidates?
Al-Hayat: Some say the opposite: You want both the Baabda Palace and the army command. They think that if they approve the appointment of Brig. Gen. Roukoz, then you must match it by accepting a compromise president, one whom you will have a voice in.
Aoun: Regarding this issue, we will pray on it when we get to it.
Al-Hayat: Geagea keeps blaming you for the presidential vacuum because your bloc and Hezbollah’s bloc are not going to parliament. Doesn’t that mean that it is impossible that he would support your nomination?
Aoun: At the end of the dialogue, we will know. Till now, things are fine. He lifted his veto.
Al-Hayat: The document of intentions. It is said that it is made up of 17 or 18 points and that it focuses on the rights of the Christians.
Aoun: All these are guesses, like in a race. We have proposed matters about reforms, the electoral law and other matters.
Al-Hayat: Have you proposed constitutional amendments regarding the powers of the presidency?
Aoun: No. What’s proposed is to respect the national reconciliation document. Article 24 of the constitution must be interpreted to determine the meaning of parity, read together with the document of national reconciliation, which talks about guaranteeing the bases of coexistence and true representation. What does true representation mean?
Al-Hayat: In you last contacts with Prime Minister Hariri, have you made progress regarding the presidency?
Aoun: We didn’t touch on the presidency. No one will believe that but it was a very nice, social occasion. We spoke about other political topics, but not the presidency.
Al-Hayat: What about the story that Minister Gebran Bassil traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with Prime Minister Hariri?
Aoun: It’s not true.
I did not see evidence in the tribunal
Al-Hayat: In your rounds, you have discussed raising the retirement age of the army leadership. Some say that it would be costly to the treasury in terms of the number of senior officers having the rank of brigadier-general and above, with their salaries and compensations.
Aoun: This was said in the Finance and Budget Committee, I think, but it wasn’t recorded. A preliminary study was completed and the difference was significant. The story of the three years [raising the retirement age] for all persons will not happen. The army is a pyramid from the top all the way to the foot soldiers. The officers today are rising “in a cylinder” instead of in a pyramid. I mean that some should not reach the upper ranks. The higher you go in the officers pyramid, the fewer their numbers should be.
Al-Hayat: Is there a mechanism to reduce the number of high-ranking officers coupled with the lifting of the retirement age?
Aoun: Raising the age is not a problem. But it should be raised while maintaining the hierarchy. At the current [retirement] age, they do not maintain the hierarchy. There are errors. We have written an [incentives] bill so that the officers leave before the end-of-service age with additional compensation. There are 240 to 250 officers left, but we then promoted more than them. So we essentially did nothing. We should limit the number of certain ranks. Then there are those who are promoted and others that are not. Not everyone should become brigadier-general.
Al-Hayat: Have you had the chance to listen to the testimonies in the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is exploring the political motives of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri?
Aoun: Today I heard part of them, because I have worked throughout the day and I cannot take a break. What is being said now is that someone loves someone and that someone partnered with him in the rule. People already knew all that. But I don’t know the wisdom of [those testimonies] and what the judges can infer from them. Do they want to explore every single thing that everyone has said about everything? In all that I heard, I didn’t see anyone present clear evidence that can be recorded in how [the country was being ruled].
Al-Hayat: In your estimate, how long will Lebanon remain without a president?
Aoun: The problem is not Hezbollah as some are trying to say. It is beyond that. We refuse to have a president who is appointed and who doesn’t represent his community. We have choices. The prime minister represents the Sunnis. The speaker of parliament represents the Shiites. Why should the president be naked, with no “men” behind him and without even one percent of representation? Why does representation disappear when it comes to the presidency?
Al-Hayat: Their answer is that President Suleiman Franjieh, when he was elected, was not the strongest. Same applies to President Fouad Chehab and Elias Sarkis.
Aoun: I don’t want to talk about the previous stages.
The conversation ended with Gen. Aoun saying, “Let them be fair, and the president will soon appear.”
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