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Lebanon PM: We must elect a president soon | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam in Beirut, in February 2015. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam in Beirut, in February 2015 (Jihad Al-Rayees)

Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam in Beirut, in February 2015 (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Lebanon is struggling to cope with its myriad domestic problems—rooted in a complex confessional political system—while at the same time attempting to contain the violent spillover from the war raging in next-door Syria.

The small country of 4 million people has been without a president since Michel Suleiman’s term in office ended in May 2014. The parliament has been unable to come to a consensus on a successor, with the Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance backing Michel Aoun and the Future Movement-led March 14 Alliance throwing its weight behind Samir Geagea.

In a wide-ranging interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Lebanese premier Tammam Salam denied that there was a “vacuum” at the top of Lebanese politics, but admitted that the “vacancy” of the post of head of state was causing problems for his government, and called for a new president to be elected as soon as possible. He also spoke of Lebanon’s attempts to cope with the ongoing Syrian war, and his fears for Lebanon’s security, and that of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees seeking shelter in the country.

Asharq Al-Awsat: What is your assessment of your government’s ability to face current domestic and regional challenges?

Tammam Salam: My government is set to mark its first year in office next week. Over the course of this year, we have been confronted with two different situations. Initially, we governed at a time when the president of the republic was in office, however over the last eight months there has been a presidential vacancy and extreme suffering in the country, on the security, economic and social levels.

At the beginning [when there was a president] political will to deal with the situation was advanced and successful and gave spontaneous and positive results. But in light of the presidential vacancy we entered a time of suffering in terms of managing our affairs. Approaching and communicating with political factions became necessary in order that the cabinet play an effective role and facilitate the affairs of the country. Despite this, there are many issues that until now are yet to be addressed radically as we, in the government, have adopted a principle of reaching consensus on all matters since the post of president became vacant. All issues that we do not agree on—and unfortunately there are many such issues—are set aside. Despite this tough mechanism, so far the government has managed to strengthen the domestic situation.

In terms of security, the situation is coherent and the economic and social aspects are also acceptable thanks to an atmosphere of dialogue and constraint among Lebanon’s sects.

Q: Has the government been successful in running the country at the minimum acceptable level?

Yes, you can say that. The government has successfully run and fortified the country at the minimum acceptable level. But this imposes the need to vigorously follow up on the issue of holding presidential elections.

Q: For how long can Lebanon continue without a president?

We have heard much appreciation, whether at home or abroad, of the performance of the government and our administration of affairs during this difficult stage. But this should not stop us from acknowledging that the presidential vacancy will have a negative reflection [on Lebanon], even if we do not reap the damages of this today. However, it must eventually lead to long term consequences should this vacancy drag on without us being able to elect a new president. No entity can maintain its full capacity or remain intact without its head.

Q: Over the past eight months Lebanon’s cabinet did manage to achieve consensus on some issues, but as you said a number of issues still need to be dealt with and resolved. Do you feel that you are leading a government that contains contradictory interests? What is this experience like?

Of course, the experience so far has been difficult and complex. I would much prefer for our democratic body to be complete, by electing a president and holding general parliamentary elections. I want the cabinet to deal with its powers in accordance with the constitution rather than on the basis of the principle of political coexistence, which we are currently adopting. There are administrative issues affecting life and development which we need to address and move on from even if one minister or political power expresses objection. This necessary consensus mechanism impedes moving forward with these issues and it is very annoying.

Q: But isn’t it also true that you have also discarded this consensus mechanism when it suited you? Could you elaborate on this?

During one cabinet session and after months of discussion on a particularly sensitive issue, we reached a point where we supposedly achieved consensus only for one political force to issue an objection at the last minute. I had to go ahead with the issue regardless of their decision as we were running out of time and the issue could not be delayed further.

Q: Aren’t you concerned that by bypassing the cabinet you might stir up resentment and political repercussions, such as the issue of the participation of Christians in the government?

This is limited to [urgent] administrative issues affecting life and development in the country. As for issues of sovereignty and conventions, it is better that they remain subject to this consensus mechanism. Post-independence Lebanon would not have been formed without consensus and our own democracy is of a consensual dimension, which ensures coexistence.

Q: Some accuse the Lebanese government of discriminating against Syrian refugees. What made you tighten entry regulations by imposing visa requirements for Syrians?

A lot of confusion has been raised about this decision. We did not ask Syrians for visas or anything like this. The thing is that, in the face of the unfettered and growing flow of refugees over the past years . . . We took the decision to start checking the background of every Syrian wanting to enter Lebanon.

Q: After the new regulations will Lebanon be able to shoulder the burden of Syrian refugees?

Syrian refugees in Lebanon are estimated at 1.5 million, of whom 1.1 million are registered with the UNHCR. Had we not imposed these regulations, Syrian refugees would have hit the two million mark. We simply cannot absorb this number of refugees, particularly since they are sharing our water, electricity, education and healthcare systems.

Q: Is the international community fulfilling its duties towards Syria’s refugees?

The international community is seeking [to help refugees], holding conferences, sending delegations and setting up commissions but is still very far from fulfilling its duties. Last year the World Bank estimated that Syrian refugees are costing Lebanon 7.5 billion US dollars, while aid did not exceed one billion.

Q: The Syrian crisis has cast its shadows over all aspects of life in Lebanon, including the security situation. How would you describe the security scene in Lebanon?

There have been several attempts to conduct assassinations and bombings and other forms of violence as well as sowing discord between Sunnis and Shi’ites to destabilize the country. But all of this has been confronted firmly and the security plans that we have adopted have been successful to a large extent. Lebanon’s security and military apparatus have been able to track and foil several of these attempts as well as uncover and expose terrorist networks. But still there are clashes with terrorists along the Anti-Lebanon Mountains as well as the traditional confrontation with the Israeli enemy in the south, which violates our airspace and acts freely, showing no regard to anyone.

Q: How accurate is the claim that armed groups control four percent of Lebanese territory?

Militants have mixed with the residents of the town of Arsal. Arsal’s population stands at 35,000 while refugees inside and around the town number approximately 100,000. Armed groups are exploiting this mixture.