The Lebanese government is a year old, and it was expected to last only three months. But some of those who formed it knew beforehand that the presidential vacancy would extend the government’s term.
In the current Cabinet, Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk can boast in front of his friends and colleagues that he has achieved much at the ministry, both in political and security matters, a key portfolio for his ministry, or in administration matters, which gave him the political skills that allowed him to stay out of the deadly polarization in the country.
Machnouk is the first interior minister to ever step in Brital since the Taif agreement. He is the first in years to have visited Egypt and the UAE, and his political rounds will include a visit to Washington in coming weeks.
Machnouk is a former journalist. He monitors events taking place behind the border from within the “corridors” where events are being staged. He is certain that regional changes will result in a new scene, which is still in the formative stage. The new scene will end with the establishment of a regional balance that would govern the relationship among the conflicting parties. This potential scene makes Machnouk ask a fundamental question: Where are we amid these changes? Where is Lebanon amid the expected transformation?
Machnouk looks at the regional compass to assess the upcoming changes, which remain mysterious. He thinks something is about to happen. It may not materialize in the near future, but it is inevitable.
The Saudi Arabian view
Machnouk assessed the Saudi view of regional events, a view established by the new king. Machnouk said: “Saudi Arabia’s policies are being misread. The reign of late King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz was marked by confrontations on more than one level. But the reign of King Salman is more balanced, although it is not clear yet. The new monarch is trying to gather into his hands the internal and external cards in order to establish a balance. This takes time and cannot be done overnight.”
In Machnouk’s view, cards are being gathered to establish a new power balance, not to enter a confrontation. King Salman can easily claim that he has lived through major crises and sometimes worked with the five kings that preceded him. He keeps his father, the kingdom’s founder, in his political memory. King Salman’s experience is about gathering the internal cards. He did so through the policy of openness and to emphasize that the crisis does not affect all Muslim Brotherhood members. He wants to promote the religious institution on the basis of understanding.
According to Machnouk, Salman’s experience is about improving relationships with Egypt. The kingdom’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz, told his sons: If Egypt is overthrown, you will be overthrown. Salman also wishes to fix the relationship with Washington and move it from confrontation to something more balanced. The relationship has been in a serious crisis.
The interior minister said: “Egypt is not run by the confrontation mindset, neither is Jordan. Jordan and Saudi Arabia have a common view toward dealing with the Brotherhood on the basis of understanding. While the UAE and Egypt have another view based on black and white, which means a rejection of the logic of settlements.”
He added: “Something is taking shape but it still needs more effort. It is a natural formation. When Saudi Arabia and Egypt are in a single line, and if the UAE and Jordan join it, then, in my estimation, there will be a balance, not a confrontation, with Iran in the region and with the West as well.”
According to this logic, “the Arab house is being put in order. Then we will move on to forming a solid Arab core, followed by an understanding with Turkey if it is possible, taking into account that Iranian policy in the region is facing serious resistance, causing unrest and confrontations in the locations where it is present.”
Machnouk sees a power balance forming, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE doing joint military maneuvers in Bab al-Mandab, recently under the headline of “Murjan 3” without much media noise, which means, in his view, that the area is heading toward a power balance, not a confrontation.
In this context, he thinks that the image of Qasem Soleimani in Tikrit “exaggerated his military role because the Iranians are not fighting on the ground, but are sending experts and trainers. The matter is also provocative, because [Soleimani] is a major security symbol.”
Syria and moderation
Machnouk says, “The project of Syria and moderation is long-term, as evidenced by the fighter training [program] that produced no more than a hundred fighters [in Jordan], which means that this project needs dozens of years to form this faction.” He revealed an effort to remove Jabhat al-Nusra from the “al-Qaeda bottle” by having Jabhat al-Nusra withdraw its allegiance from Ayman al-Zawahri and transform itself into a purely Syrian faction.
He quotes Jordanian officials asserting that they are on the fence regarding what is happening in Syria and Iraq. He revealed that Amman is playing a prominent role in the Islamic equations. This is an additional indicator that we are heading toward a power balance, not a confrontation.
However, he asserted that “Bashar al-Assad will not remain in his position,” pointing out that “Jordan didn’t do any operations inside Syria [the southern front] even if it wanted to change the landscape, maybe because of the lack of international will for change and because of the lack of alternative, as some Westerners say.”
He pointed out that Egypt needs time to recover from the successive shocks. Egypt is dealing with matters as if they are either black or white, and thus Egypt will not quiet down before the parliamentary elections and the completion of the regime’s structure.
He stressed that it is “impossible to establish a regional balance without Egypt. Saudi Arabia tried it, so did Syria and even Iraq. Those attempts failed. Egypt is able to have a role, which must be re-established. There is a struggle today in Egypt between the mind of Hosni Mubarak and the mind of Gamal Abdel Nasser, in the sense that, ‘Is the priority to the interior and its crises or to the outside?’”
The nuclear understanding … and Lebanon
Machnouk said, “Lebanon can benefit from this regional balance by making addition internal settlements,” pointing out the existence of “two elements that positively affect Lebanon’s stability: the framework agreement between Washington and Tehran — if it doesn’t happen, it means more regional clashes — and the logic of the regional balance, which Saudi Arabia is seeking. … I am with this balance. I encourage the concerned countries to support it and join it.”
Despite all the worries surrounding the Lebanese arena, the interior minister has a different view. He said, "The area is on a volcano, surrounded by a Sunni-Shiite fight all over the Arab the countries. But Lebanon has managed to stand fast and continue with the best head of government, Tammam Salam. In fact, the banking system succeeded in attracting deposits of more than $173 billion — $50 billion more than last year."
In Machnouk’s opinion, this is due to the confidence in the banking system and in the political system which, “since Taif has been subject to several Israeli invasions and to a lot of fierce internal crises, including the historic assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But despite that, the political system has stood fast, and the banking system has grown thanks to the confidence in it. It is not only due to the good management by the governor of the Bank of Lebanon, although he is a successful man according to the highest international standards. … We are creating crises that put us into a maze of never-ending discussions on matters that are very simple compared to what is happening in the region. But the nature of the system has protected us. The doorway of Syria to the world is through [Lebanon]. And [Syria’s] financial activities go through [Lebanon]. So [Syria] has no interest in a clash in [Lebanon]. Hezbollah is busy with its outside role, but its capital is here. Iran occupies the region in more than one location, but has drawn a red line around Lebanon.”
According to Machnouk, “Lebanon can eventually become one of the least sectarian countries in the region compared with what is happening around us. This does not mean that Lebanon’s system is perfect. The Lebanese have the right to develop it. But the regional fire cannot be ignored. And this is Tammam Salam’s distinguishing feature. He refuses that the country be part of any clash.”
The presidency and the constitutional quorum
Machnouk said there is “a high level of irresponsible behavior by the political forces without exception. While the Arab and Western countries have a sense of responsibility toward Lebanon, they have a strong desire to see the completion of the constitutional quorum to elect a president of the republic — more so than the Lebanese themselves.”
About the presidency, he said, “The other side deals with us according to the equation: It’s either our candidate or no one. Despite that, as a political group, we have not vetoed anyone. But can Gen. Michel Aoun become a consensus figure? This is his mission, not ours. … Till now, Aoun has not yet made a sufficient effort. He thinks it is enough for him to obtain the support of the Sunni component, as the Shiite component is mostly on his side. But there is a Christian component that cannot be ignored. I’m not of the view that the election is only a Christian matter. The first role is to Christians, but the rest are partners, too. … We are faced with a choice between two things: to either elect Michel Aoun or someone he approves of, because anyone that the general vetoes cannot be elected president because of [Aoun’s] representation on the one hand and his alliances on the other.”
Regarding the president’s specifications, Machnouk said, “Only a president who is far from the region’s alliances and obligations can be elected. Otherwise, it would be a coup and the victory of one alliance over another, thus drawing Lebanon into a new war. When the area’s major powers are forming a power balance, Lebanon cannot go toward a confrontation. … There is a regional crisis. Let’s assume that it is difficult to conduct elections for any reason. But let’s act responsibly toward what’s left. And that’s not nothing.”
The priorities of the Ministry of Interior
Among his priorities as interior minister is the relationship with the army — a relationship that has traditionally had several flaws. Machnouk asserted that he developed this relationship after “I informed the army leadership that I was ready to fight terrorism, but on the basis of partnership, not as a mere witness. The army commander was positive and I don’t pretend to have achieved more than 60% of what is required.”
He indicated the presence of daily coordination between army intelligence, the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces and General Security. For example, the three put down a common list of wanted persons before implementing security plans.
The interior minister is working on the prisons as his second issue. Lebanon's prisons have a capacity of 2,200 prisoners but in fact house more than 7,800 prisoners. He noted that the Cabinet’s priority is not security, as in Jordan, for example, which has more than 90,000 security forces personnel.
Machnouk has turned the prisons into a public opinion issue by establishing a support fund, which collected $12 million. The Cabinet secured $30 million, and $20 million is still needed. It has been shown by experience that states tend to not provide aid for the construction of jails, but make them the responsibility of the private sector, via the build-operate-transfer model.
The third issue is the “security plan,” which sequentially runs from Tripoli to the Bekaa Valley, then to the southern suburbs, and then Beirut, including “death square,” where the situation has largely been controlled even before the security plan was implemented “thanks to the work of army intelligence. It devoted entire teams to follow up on this matter, which continued through the security plan.”
Machnouk placed the issue of the Internal Security Forces on the table. “This agency is required to provide services from Naqoura to the Kabir River, while more than 2,150 officers are being used to escort to politicians. That’s more than 7% of the force. The law allows no more than a quarter of this number. So I proposed expanding the Internal Security Forces to 40,000. The Cabinet approved 35,000, up from about 27,000 today, in addition to adding 2,000 officers to General Security. Using the Saudi donation, we have equipped 1,200 cars and obtained weapons and ammunition.”
In the administration, he appointed 11 employees of the first category, three of them women. He completed the “biometric passport,” which is a years-old project. That’s in addition to the smart cards, drivers licenses and smart license plates.
Lebanon and the dialogue
Regarding the dialogue in Ain al-Tineh, Machnouk said, “The seventh session was very positive and will soon be implemented,” pointing out that the dialogue has several goals: relieving tension, which has largely been achieved; completing the security plan in the southern suburbs and in Beirut, which will help even more; and then electing a president of the republic.
"What is being agreed upon in Ain al-Tineh is being translated nationally, while what is being agreed upon in the Cabinet is about the daily life. The latest statement said serious progress was made, which is true. The seventh session was one of the shortest sessions, but it achieved important results, which will appear soon. … The national strategy for combating terrorism will not take place without the constitutional quorum and electing a president. … I advocate the return of Saad Hariri to head the government.” Machnouk praised Hariri’s courage, whether regarding the matters of Arsal, Tripoli, Sidon or Roumieh prison, or “even sitting at the dialogue table.”
He said he was convinced that the parliamentary elections cannot be held in these difficult security conditions, “not even a by-election.”
He talked about the rules of entry for Syrian refugees, pointing out that “90% of those who entered Lebanon entered legally and only 150,000 entered illegally. The new rules have reduced the inflow by 50%. In the past, 800,000 Syrians entered in a single month. But there are exceptions for humanitarian cases.”
The battles in the rugged hills
Machnouk said that he doesn’t fear military battles in the rugged Bekaa hills after the snow melts, adding that “proposing the establishment of Syrian border camps will cause internal disagreements. So I asked Deputy Mohammad Raad and Gen. Aoun to put an exception on Arsal regarding establishing border camps, but [the idea] was rejected. Today, the matter has become possible because of the pressure. We need to take 30,000 Syrians out of Arsal and its rugged hills, and establish controlled camps inside the Bekaa region.”
Machnouk discussed the actions taken after the “Roumieh invasion,” pointing out that “14 officers have been referred to the disciplinary board, including four who were in Roumieh prison. Two of them have been expelled.” He stressed that the situation in the prison is under control “now that the Islamists have been transferred from a devastated building that they controlled, into a non-devastated building that they don’t control. No one was treated unfairly, as some families claim. [The prisoners] should return to Building B in May after the restoration is completed.”
He pointed out that the March 3 sit-in by the prisoners’ parents was aimed at seeking an extension of the visits’ duration and to prevent the inspection of veiled women by policewomen. “I rejected the latter request,” he said.
He stressed that “unless we elect a president, the extension would apply to the security posts. There’s no need to waste time in consultations that will lead to nowhere.”
He said that political security is the top priority, followed by developing the administration and the security services, in compliance with the trio of “national cohesion, security professionalism and courage in jurisprudence, whereby we must recognize the courage of Mufti Abdul Latif Derian.” He said that he proposed this trio to the head of Al-Azhar when Machnouk visited him and asked him to help train some of the clergy, which is what is happening.
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