Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Lebanon’s political system is notorious for its bitter factionalism and the fragility of attempts to compensate for the country’s sectarian divides. The civil war in neighboring Syria has not helped matters, and has led to a deeper polarization between the country’s Sunni and Shi’ites, with frequent street battles taking place in Lebanon’s second-largest city, Tripoli, and elsewhere.
Lebanon is now entering its eighth month without an elected government, ruled by a caretaker cabinet led by Najib Mikati, who has been kept on as an interim prime minister despite resigning in March. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Mikati’s appointed successor, Tammam Salam, who became Lebanon’s prime minister-designate in April—and has remained so to this day—about the failure of the country’s political factions to agree on the formation of a new government, and the prospects for the next round of elections in Lebanon, scheduled for next year.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Who is responsible for delaying the formation of the new Lebanese government, eight months after it was commissioned? What are the chances of establishing a new government given the current domestic and regional situation?
Tammam Salam: If there is an opportunity to do something, it is through a transparent, moderate and patriotic figure, rather than a reckless and adventurous one. Commitment to the nation is the most important consideration. There are still people who are optimistic. There are also political forces battling day and night; their rivalry is endless. This is something that concerns people. If you look at some opinion polls, you will find that the proportion of people who support blocking the formation of the new government in order to change the prime minister designate is very high. In some surveys, 80 percent of those polls support this idea, while 42 percent of people think that the responsibility [for the failure to form a new government] falls on the political forces; 38 percent blame foreign powers; and 19 percent believe the prime minister-designate is responsible. This is what has prevented me from relinquishing the task, or taking unnecessary risks in this regard. This has counseled me to patience, and I remain committed to this charge, which I have been tasked with based on consensus and which gave the country hope that things are moving forward in a positive manner. However, it was later revealed that political conflict is still going strong and external factors also have a heavy influence. For example, the involvement of major Syrian political forces in Lebanon is deepening, directly affecting domestic balances of power.
None of this has helped form a government, in spite of how flexible I have been. Many ideas and coalitions have been rejected. The coalition that was most recently rejected included the “6-9-9” plan to have nine ministers from the March 8 Alliance; nine ministers from the March 14 Alliance; and six independent ministers. However, some agencies claimed it was disrespectful or insisted there were underlying problems, thus stalling the process. I am still working hard to carry out my duty. I was always careful to say that the prime minister-designate must take into account the wishes of the political forces and communicate with them throughout the government formation process. In contrast, nobody could eliminate the Prime Minister-designate’s role. I can say that I have not seen any cooperation from the political forces, but the president [Michel Suleiman] has been cooperative. This factor is very important, because if the relationship between the president and the prime minister-designate were strained, the situation would be much worse. The fact that the president is contributing throughout this process is very helpful.
Q: The presidential elections are approaching. Is this making the issue even more complicated?
There is a benefit to having the presidential elections sooner, and there is a benefit to waiting for the right time. Which would be worse? The fact that the presidential elections are close and we are far from forming the government makes matters more complicated. We were counting on the regional agreement between Iran, the United States and other nations to mitigate some of the tensions in the region—namely Syria—and usher in some stability. We hope it succeeds, but we have heard talk in recent days that it is not headed in the right direction. The Lebanese are all hoping that this agreement will have a positive impact on our country and the region at large. Unfortunately, there are rumors that the agreement is being undermined because each of the two sides sees the talks as zero-sum. We have learned in Lebanon that a country cannot stand when each side strives to make gains at the expense of the other. Every time one side has attempted to defeat the other, Lebanon has paid the price. We are still hanging in the balance and any further disruption will endanger Lebanon.
In the event that one side emerges victorious, then it must champion forgiveness. If a side is victorious it must reassure its former adversary and never abuse its position of power. But what if the victor wants to weaken the other side? How could a household continue to stand with such behavior? A nation cannot be built upon foundations of arrogance and enmity; this would harm Lebanon as whole. Any time a faction has challenged another faction, whether political, religious or ideological, it has been to our country’s detriment, and we have learned from our mistakes. Different sides have tried to seize control in the past, but it is always the country that has paid the price.
Q: Here is a puzzling question: With near consensus, the political powers of the country tasked you with forming a government. Yet when it came to actually forming a government, there was no consensus whatsoever. What made this confluence of opinion dissolve into intractable disputes so suddenly?
This is a question posed by nearly everyone. Why did the political forces agree on appointing a prime minister and tasking him with forming a government, but not in the least on how to form it? Perhaps for a moment in time the political stars aligned in just the right manner to allow for consensus around appointing me as prime minister, but when parties were asked to band together and form a government, they were not ready to take that step. And thus we encountered the obstacles that we still face today.
Q: How would you describe your mission at the moment?
It is a difficult mission, which seems virtually impossible on occasion. It can cause me to make decisions impulsively but which are in keeping my own morals and those of nation. Yes, the situation is tense.
Q: Assume you have two options in the absence of consensus: the so-called “status quo” or “apology” governments. Which are you closer to?
Neither. The only option for me is the formation of the government.
Q: Have you given yourself a certain amount of time for this decision?
I thought at the time that I could commit to a deadline, but as I said, under the pressure and urgency of the people—whom I ask to stand by me—I know I must be patient and persevere. They have put me in a tight spot and have not helped me out of it. That is where you find me now.
Q: Have you felt at any time that you came very close to forming a government?
In light of the prevailing climate, it does not feel like I have come close to forming a government. However, there have been periods of success—two or three—but these were quickly undermined.
Q: Is there any hope for the 6-9-9 solution?
The real question is: Is there any hope that a government will be formed at all, by the 6-9-9 ratio or otherwise? Given the complexities of the formation process and political forces at work, accurately depicting the current landscape is far from easy. Even if this could be done, it would necessarily shed light on what was to come. Were it up to me, perhaps things would be more transparent. However, it is apparent that the political forces, especially those in the ascendancy, are content with securing their own narrow interests, which never helps the situation.
Q: Do the dominant political powers of today bear a greater responsibility for the failure to form a government?
They are beginning to take responsibility for leading the country into the quandary in which the country finds itself now, for they chose to form a unilateral government [led by Naguib Mikati]. There was a government of national unity, but it was dropped in favor of a unilateral government. Today they say they did not desire a unilateral government, claiming that the other side did not cooperate. The other side worked with them in the national unity government [led by Saad Al-Hariri]. If they are serious about engaging with the other side, why scrap the national unity government? Yes, the unilateral government struggled for almost two and a half years, and the country struggled along with it. Problems cropped up at every level: politically, economically, socially, and with national security, which caused the people to lose hope.
Q: To what extent can Lebanon continue under present conditions?
It’s an apt question, and one that scares us all: how long can the government, the paralyzed legislature, and other official institutions continue to function in their weakened state? This isn’t the first time Lebanon has had to endure these sorts of difficult circumstances. In the past, Lebanon paid so high a price that the country became a regional backwater. And today, the nation is going into remission. How can we progress? How can we rise up and move towards the future when we are facing a regression to chaos? It’s true that Lebanese expats are doing very well for themselves, but Lebanon herself is not faring so well. It’s a truly tragic situation and very worrisome, and I am among those who have suffered the most because of it. The nation’s path these last eight months has been filled with frustration, blunders and weakness.
Q: Is the marginalization of governmental institutions in Lebanon a deliberate policy or just the result of the current crisis?
It is the result of a clash between political forces. When factions go to such great extents to subvert the constitution and the National Reconciliation Agreement, the government’s concerns begin to shift with the political wind, and the results have a way of looking intentional.
Regrettably, some political forces have begun to serve their own interests in order to maintain their superiority and power over others. From this perspective, everything is classified as either serving their narrow interests or harming them.
Q: How can Lebanon weather the storm engulfing the region? Where is the escape hatch?
It starts by achieving a modicum of understanding among political leaders, especially those responsible for rhetoric and establishing party platforms. The political leadership must bring everything to bear in order to reach consensus, and many of the thornier and more complex issues must be left at the door. The best approach would be dialogue between political forces, which all parties should participate in without precondition or seeking to dominate the conversation. The President tried to push for this with the Declaration of Baabda, which has come to be considered a starting point for the rectification of Lebanon and all Lebanese. The tenets of the declaration were determined through earnest discussion and unanimous consent. Now politicians say, ‘Let’s return to dialogue without preconditions.’ Great, but why have we abandoned this approach? Some see this as dialogue merely for dialogue’s sake and so refuse to take part, which is fine, but discussing rules and principles in previous talks proved a good thing.
Q: Are you confident that you will be able to lead a government that includes two factions, one of which is implicated extensively in the fighting in Syria, while the other supports the revolutionaries?
No one can deny that we feel the reverberations of what is happening in Syria here in Lebanon, and if I weren’t a part of the current government, I would probably advocate the isolationist approach that emerged two years ago. Unfortunately, political powers have not allowed this policy to be implemented as it should. But we still have a unique opportunity before us to distance ourselves on the ground, and not just symbolically, from the crisis. Keeping our distance from events in Syria and portraying Lebanon as a neutral figure should not be considered a task solely for my government; it is incumbent on any government and any president to prevent the state of Lebanon from deteriorating. And that is the challenge before me and my government when we reconvene.
Q: Hezbollah claims to be fighting in Syria in defense of Lebanon, and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said explicitly that if Hezbollah didn’t do this hundreds of car bombs would have rocked Lebanese cities. How do you reconcile this viewpoint with your official stance?
We all stress that our focus is and always has been on Lebanon’s domestic issues. If we become united and strong, we can endure anything. But when the country is weak and political powers are not acting in harmony, meddling in external affairs will only exacerbate our nation’s weaknesses. This is a heavy burden to bear, and if effective decisions are to be made we must consider every viewpoint, even that of the ‘resistance’ that has made us proud and played a major role in confronting our historic enemy, Israel. This is a threat that will not abate so long as they continue in their policy of colonial expansion. It is good when we are in conflict with our mutual enemy, because we recognize the importance of pointing our guns in the right direction. So when we refer to the resistance, a resistance composed of the children of occupied, invaded and violated Lebanese land, we must remember that the resistance represents all Lebanese. In 2006, when Israel swept over Lebanon, all of Lebanon resisted and all of Lebanon paid the price without hesitation, and it is this sense of solidarity to which we should aspire.
When we talk about the resistance, we mean a national resistance against Israel, not a small faction opposed to the government. We should work in that direction by any means necessary. What Israel failed to accomplish in the war of 2006, we achieved for them after the war by splintering Lebanese national unity. A strong, healthy Lebanon is better able oppose Israeli hegemony than a weak, degraded one.
Q: In light of the sectarian tension present in Lebanon and the region, are you worried about the Sunni–Shi’a rift? What are the ramifications for Lebanon?
It is despicable. Nothing is gained from religious conflict but destruction and ruin. The Sunni–Shi’a schism is the greatest victory Israel could have dreamed of. They have worked to perpetuate this conflict for decades, and today they are happy and stable while their neighbors are in chaos. Those who wage this war fail to realize that. The conflict does not stop at national borders, and will reach everyone, whether they are armed or not. It will infiltrate every house and family, and will affect the daily lives of every person. It is a disturbing issue and we hope it will not become the prevailing state of the Arab world and the Middle East. We hope we can create a greater awareness that the use of violence and agitating populist discontent for political gain will create only destruction.
Q: What is required of Iran after the international agreement regarding the country’s nuclear program?
Peace, brotherhood and love must take the place of violence and conflict. Iran’s agreement with the international community must be complemented by a constructive and open engagement with the Arab world.
The Arabs do not try to change anything in Iran or impose Arab politics or Arab lifestyles on Iranians, so why hasn’t Iran returned the favor by dialing back their influence in the Arab world? They should attempt to establish cooperation with Arabs, but instead they try to upset the balance. And to whose benefit? Israel has been laughing at us this entire time because of these sorts of conflicts. True, Saudi Arabia does not engage in violence, and they have not yet contributed a single bullet to Lebanon. They do not create violence, though they deal with violence both in the Kingdom and outside of it. They are always in a position of addressing violence, although they never create it themselves. This approach should prevail everywhere, in my opinion. The ball is in Iran’s court, so long as they announce that they are not trying to create nuclear weapons and eschew weapons of mass destruction. These would be positive and constructive first steps, but they must follow up by deescalating tensions in Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and all Arab nations. This will unite our societies ideologically, religiously and politically in order to combat the most racist power in the region: Israel.
This interview was originally conducted in Arabic.