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Asharq Al-Awsat Talks to Nabih Birri | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- Nabih Birri, Speaker of the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies, has affirmed that politically speaking the Lebanese government is ready, and he expects it to emerge within the next few hours or days. He stressed that it incorporates neither a blocking one-third quota nor a king-minister [guaranteeing one-third].

In a comprehensive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the first of its kind since his re-election as Parliament Speaker, Nabih Birri believes that “Lebanon has now gone beyond the Doha agreement concerning the “guaranteeing one-third” for the opposition, and we have engaged in a national partnership government based on trust between its members, and on the trust that the president of the republic is no party to it.” He considered that “there is a conviction by the two sides that they are genuine participants in government, and that the president is an arbitrator.”

Birri partially attributed the positive developments that have been achieved in the country to the Saudi-Syrian understanding, recalling the “SS” [Saudi-Syrian] theory that he had invented to refer to the importance of understanding between the two states, and its positive effect on Lebanon. He, however, denied any link between the emergence of a Lebanese government and the visit due to be paid by the custodian of the two holy mosques, King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz, to Damascus. He also denied any knowledge of a “Lebanese welcome delegation” going to Damascus to welcome King Abdullah on arrival. Birri also quoted prime minister-designate Saad al-Hariri as saying that “he has no problem visiting Damascus before or after the government is formed, and that the visit will take place when the time comes.” Nabih Birri stressed that the intra-Palestinian reconciliation needs an Egyptian-Syrian understanding that puts an end to the existing “complications.” He also pointed out that he is playing the role of a facilitator to form the government, and that he has not asked for specific portfolios or quota in the government. He said he is not against outgoing ministers being maintained in their posts, but he denied that he has made a proposal in this regard to anyone.

Nabih Birri ruled out that Israel will launch an aggression against Lebanon before the end of this year, but he reaffirmed his rejection of resurrecting the truce commission between Lebanon and Israel before the latter’s withdrawal from the Lebanese occupied territories in the Shaba Farms and Kafr Shuba hills, and before it stops stealing Lebanese waters. He also underlined that Lebanon will not sign any peace [agreement] with the Hebrew state unless it is comprehensive and fair, and guarantees all the rights of the Palestinians.

Here is the text of the interview:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are one of those who hoped to see the government formed before the end of the month [July]; what is the situation now, in this respect?

[Birri] The government is ready, in the political meaning of the word, and I personally believe that the matter will be settled within hours or days; it is not fair that some say that the government will not be formed before weeks.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is missing?

[Birri] The government airplane has arrived, containing the passengers’ portfolios, and what remains is that each passenger, meaning each political bloc leader, obtains his portfolio.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you expecting complications over ministerial portfolios distribution?

[Birri] There might be some “tug-of-war” and complications, but I believe that all can be solved; a solution could be delayed but this cannot obstruct the government. As I said, the plane has arrived at the airport.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you expecting a tug-of-war over the drafting of the ministerial statement [announcing the government], for instance?

[Birri] Not at all.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What sort of breakthrough has been achieved?

[Birri] It is the principle of a genuine national government on the basis of national partnership. In Doha there was an agreement on quotas [third of government seats for the opposition], which led to our disagreement over calling them the “blocking third” or the “guaranteeing third.” This is no longer the question. In other words the principle of this is for you and this is for me has gone. There is a conviction among the two sides [majority and opposition] that they will be genuinely part of the government, and that the president will be the arbitrator.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What changed in the last days, which facilitated the forming of the government after more than a month of marking time?

[Birri] This question should be addressed to somebody else. I was personally optimistic that the government would be formed before the end of the month [July]. I said this three weeks ago and articles have been written against me, as if I had committed a crime for being optimistic. Nonetheless, some are now more optimistic than me in this respect, and I am now lagging behind them in terms of optimism.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] On what basis are you optimistic?

[Birri] If you want to swim 100 meters you have to practice for it. I am not optimistic for nothing. I have been working for this result and in permanent contact with His Excellency the President of the Republic, Michel Suleiman, as well as with the prime minister-designate Sheikh Saad al-Hariri, and with the brothers in the opposition.

[Abbas] Has “SS” [Saudi Arabia and Syria] helped in this progress?

[Birri] Yes, and their role has been more than an important one. What has been constructed in Lebanon has a foundation: It is the Syrian-Saudi accord, and anyone saying the contrary is wrong. It is a fact that does not encroach on Lebanon’s sovereignty in any way. Many countries are in a similar situation, and no one in this world escapes foreign influence, especially our neighbors. Let anyone who has contrary beliefs give me an example for me to discuss them with him. The biggest proof of what I am saying is that there are some intractable issues in countries near us that require regional understanding.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you have in mind?

[Birri] Intra-Palestinian reconciliation needs a foundation formed by an Egyptian-Syrian understanding. These words must be spelled out publicly, and this is not shameful. What is shameful is that the dispute [between Palestinians] goes on, that the Palestinian cause is destroyed and that we remain in the same situation. What is shameful is to see Lebanon penetrated, at a time when the Lebanese issue is the biggest and most powerful trump card in the hands of the Arabs. What is happening in Iraq and in Yemen is shameful; it is all the result of [foreign] influences. Why should we try to hide what is clear to see, and bury our heads in the sand?

[Asharq Al-Awsat] There has been talk about the existence of a link between the visit that is due to be paid by the custodian of the two holy mosques to Damascus and the formation of the [Lebanese] government; is there some truth in this claim?

[Birri] In fact, there was talk to this effect, and we have all heard it, but what happened was different. Lebanon is an important element in relations between the two countries, but there are also other issues which are no less important than the Lebanese file. The Saudi-Syrian rapprochement has very important repercussions on Iraq’s unity and on what is happening in Iraq. It has an impact also on the Arab situation at large, on intra-Arab solidarity, and on how to deal with dialogue and the Turkish-Iranian rapprochement. In the final analysis, all this is in the interest of the Arabs. It is wrong to claim that the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement is for the sake of Lebanon only. Lebanon is a very shining spot; I hope that this is a beginning and that, God willing, it will continue to shine.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] So, there is no link then?

[Birri] The question should be: Why the absence of visits? But if what is meant is the visit of Prime Minister Al-Hariri, I can categorically affirm now that I have heard Prime Minister Al-Hariri say that he is prepared for such a visit [to Damascus], that it has no problem with it, neither at this moment nor tomorrow, and that when its time comes he will naturally go there. This attitude is not alien to the good climate existing between the [Saudi] kingdom and Syria. In the end, all roads lead to the corn mill!

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will there be Lebanese officials to welcome King Abdullah in Damascus?

[Birri] I do not know.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] It has been said that Lebanese officials will be taking part in the arrival welcome ceremony, including President Suleiman, yourself, and Prime Minister Al-Hariri?

[Birri] I have read this in the papers. At any rate, we are reading much these days about topics such as the names of would-be ministers, and portfolios, but these are not the only subjects I have seen.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has the problem of portfolios been solved between the opposition and the majority?

[Birri] According to my information, this is not what is happening. The question of portfolios and appointments has not yet been tackled. I was quoted as saying things that I did not say, but this does not mean that I am against what was said. For example I was quoted as being in favor of maintaining the status quo (outgoing ministers keeping their posts). I might not be against this idea, but I have not said it. It is up to the president in charge to decide, and it is also up to political blocs, some of which might change their opinions about specific ministries. It is not my role to call for the status quo to be maintained. I know the limits of my work in institutions and in politics. As long as there is genuine partnership, some ministers might stay on while others might change position, with different people getting different ministries. There is no permanent ministry “registry.”

[Asharq Al-Awsat] As apolitical group, what are your demands concerning portfolio distribution?

[Birri] I have not broached this with the president in charge, and I do not believe that it will pose a problem. In fact, from the start I promised myself to facilitate the task of the president in charge, proceeding from the principle that a partnership government will be formed. This was my sole condition before voting for the president in charge, alongside all the members of my bloc. This does not mean that I said to him: “Go and fight, you and your people, because we are staying here.” I am ready to help and to facilitate matters in this domain. Prime Minister Al-Hariri knows that I have helped and I am still helping.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the problem of giving ministerial portfolios to those who lost the elections?

[Birri] This is not my business. I have helped as far as I could. It is something that concerns the president in charge and the political blocs.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about you personal position toward this topic?

[Birri] I am with all that facilitates the formation of the government.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about reports that General Michel Awn is displeased with the way he is being dealt with? And what about what was said by Deputy Nabil Nicolas: “Some circles have behaved toward us in an inappropriate way”? Did he mean you?

[Birri] No, not at all. If what my friend and deputy Nabil Nicolas was quoted as saying is true, it would mean that he is not informed. Yesterday night a meeting was held by leaders of Amal, Hezbollah and the Free National Trend to discuss the government issue. We should not forget that during the negotiations I was not talking on behalf of the opposition. I was talking on behalf of everybody, and I was working for the dissolving of 14 March and 8 March movements. For its part, the Free National Trend has held more meetings with the president in charge than my bloc did.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is it true that it is because the opposition has relinquished the “blocking one-third” quota that the process of forming the government was activated?

[Birri] This is not true. The Development and Liberation bloc and the Loyalty to the Resistance bloc (Hezbollah) have never mentioned the “blocking one-third” quota, and, likewise, the Imad Awn bloc has not talked about it; instead, it talked about proportional representation. The “one-third” quota was not the objective. I personally was not looking for quotas. The figure could have been 14 ministers for the opposition, or 11 or 10. A table is measured by the meter, not by the liter. If we were talking about opposition and majority then we would use these figures, but we are talking about a national partnership government. There are other measurement standards. Everybody started copying us after Doha, but after Doha we were frank. The brothers in Qatar have made efforts; we thank them and we thank everybody who has contributed to this subject. Given the conditions of the Doha agreement, we arrived at a government with a one-third quota, but the situation is now different. The point at issue is participation in a national partnership government founded on trust: mutual trust, and trust that the president of the republic does not represent a group. Today there are different expressions used and different calculations made. Cards were reshuffled before the president was voted in and put in charge, and this will have an impact. Things are no longer on a razor’s edge, and this is a source of hope for real good for Lebanon. Before 2005, I used to meet at the Council of Ministers people with whom I had real differences over projects inside the cabinet; I would have differences even with my allies because each of us has his own interests at heart. With regard to political speeches, is the discourse of Deputy Walid Junblatt what it used to be? And are the utterances of the president in charge the same as they were when he stood up and said that he does not want arm twisting? Anyone who does not see that Lebanon is on the eve of a change does not have his glasses on.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] So, talk about a “king minister” [euphemism for arbitrator] is irrelevant?

[Birri] Everybody has now become a king.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] It is said that the opposition has secured the “Guaranteeing one-third” quota at the expense of the president’s quota?

[Birri] The Lebanese press insists on presenting things this way. Why don’t we talk about partnership?

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Perhaps because the gap is still there, on the ground, between the belligerents; in fact the two sides have directed virulent and vicious criticism against each other during the electoral campaign.

[Birri] True, but at this moment it is the bloc leaders who express positions, not a rebel deputy from this or that side. This has a wider echo, and I encourage it; we have a lot of incentives to do it. Can you not notice the rapprochement within the Christian and the Islamic ranks, and the reconciliations between the Phalange and Deputy Suleiman Franjiyah? Likewise, meetings were held in Beirut under the auspices of the army. The point is that I, Prime Minister Al-Hariri and the brothers in Hezbollah insist that the state should be the reference. This meeting is the start of joint action on the ground between Sunnis and Shiites, to restore solidarity. Those who are politically illiterate have understood what Deputy Junblatt said about the need for an intra-Islamic rapprochement as directed against the Christians.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The airplane has arrived, and the government will be formed within days, what are the main chapters of the forthcoming stage?

[Birri] It is a vast program. Don’t ask me what should be done because everything should be done. The situation of the power grid is lamentable, with people having rebuilt their homes after the Israeli aggression not being able to have electricity. There is also the problem of water supplies, and the need for laws to be passed concerning the Paris 3 Conference. There are huge resources that should be exploited to benefit from the international financial situation and to attract capitals. There are the issues of the large financial wealth in our hands, and the numerous promising discoveries of gas in the south and north of Lebanon. There is a shark sitting on the border (Israel), which wants us to fail. These jobscan be carried out only by a national unity government. Any other government would be a caretaker one. An electoral law must be enacted because the ill-famed current one needs to be changed. We should not wait until the last year of the Council of Ministers term to carry this out, all the more so because there is the issue of the expatriates and their participation in elections. Instead of paying hundreds of millions of dollars to bring them over here to vote, we should save this money and enable them to vote at their places of residence. There is also the law on municipalities. Local elections will be held nine months from now, and the local elections law needs a comprehensive review to avoid elections causing problems. In this respect, we cannot believe that real development is possible without municipalities and administrative decentralization, as our former colleague and deputy August Bakhus put it. This is only to mention a few of the tasks awaiting the government. The latter will be headed by the leader of a movement called the “future”, whereas I lead a movement called “hope” [Amal]. There is hope associated with the future.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you be the bearer of good tidings to the Lebanese and announce to them the end of the era of divisions?

[Birri] We should not content ourselves with prayers; we should add a bit of “tar” in, as Imam Ali would say; we should work hard.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Where does Lebanon stand in the face of the Israeli threats?

[Birri] We cannot be sure of anything from the Israelis, all the more so because they are permanent enemies and their aggressions against Lebanon are permanent. They are still occupying the land, and their air sorties violate our air space. There is a maritime blockade in place against Lebanon, and they are implicated, as well as acts of spying, sabotage and assassinations. I claim that a unified Lebanon, with its army, people and resistance, would make Israel think 1billion times before committing an aggression against it. I am not expecting an aggression in the near future, this year against Lebanon, but after that the situation will have to be re-assessed. This applies to the peace process where pressure is necessary; it should be restarted within a year because the Zionist lobby might succeed, through pressure, in impeding it. Will the Arab brothers be aware of this and be in solidarity with one another in order to strengthen the Arab position, otherwise we might suffer several other “Gazas.”

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Israel says that it intends to resurrect the truce commission with Lebanon, to pave the ground for peace with it?

[Birri] Before I enter into the truce commission trick with them, I would like to ask: Why are they still occupying our land? The truce agreement dates back to 1949; at that time, were they in the Shaba Farms or in Kafr Shuba hills? Were they then stealing the Wazzani River waters? Lebanon will have no peace with Israel unless it is a comprehensive and fair one that includes the rights of the Palestinian people. Besides, Lebanon has neither an internal nor an external interest in signing a peace agreement, unless it is the last one to do so.