Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Q & A with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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(Q) The international conference that will be held at the United Nations by US initiative gives the impression that Lebanon is in an extremely difficult state economically and politically. Is this the case?

(A) This conference is being held by the initiative of only the countries that are concerned, those countries that will also take part in the coming conference. This meeting points to the depth of the crisis and I do not want to downplay it. Nor do I want to leave us with the impression that this is a suffocating crisis. There is a basic issue that has been aggravated for many years and its aggravation was increased after the extension that occurred for the president. It also became more aggravated after the assassination of Premier Al-Hariri because Lebanon had taken a step toward remedying its economic and financial problems that had built up because of the war. The initiative came along to embrace basic reforms at the time of Premier Al-Hariri, and I was with him over the years during which he was the prime minister, by his sanctioning of steps to undertake financial, economic, political, and social reforms.

However, there was dawdling and a lack of action. On the contrary, when the opportunity came along at the Paris-2 conference in which Lebanon promised the international community that it would undertake these reforms, these reforms were not accomplished. On the contrary, there were obstacles and impediments that were approved so that these reforms would not be undertaken. Lebanon was forced into the position of not abiding by what it had promised. Consequently, we are now facing a situation that requires us to come to our senses in Lebanon and evaluate what we have achieved in the period that followed the assassination. That is because it is as if Premier Al-Hariri is making important accomplishments from his grave. That is based on going back to affirm the importance of a state of law in Lebanon, affirming Lebanon”s sovereignty and independence and the freedoms and sovereignty of a state of law. It is also affirms the importance of restoring Lebanon”s autonomy after 30 years of what Lebanon experienced starting with the civil war and the Israeli invasions and then the transformation of the Syrian presence from one of support for Lebanese independence and sovereignty and ending the civil war to one that leads to interference in Lebanese internal affairs. This complicated things and it did not benefit Syria and, ultimately, it did not benefit Lebanon.

In light of this changed atmosphere that has occurred in Lebanon, I believe that the current phase needs a remedy. This call for this conference assumes that the international community will provide support for Lebanon. This is a call that is coming in two phases. The first phase is in the conference that will take place in the United Nations that will send a clear message from the international community in supporting Lebanon and its reformist attitudes and the necessity of striving to cooperate in calling for the next conference in which Lebanon may present its economic program in a comprehensive fashion. After we have had a detailed discussion of this program with the entities concerned with this matter so that this conference would be sufficiently prepared so that we may succeed in the support that Lebanon needs to strengthen its economic and social stability being provided, in addition to whatever Lebanon can provide on the track of the reforms that will strengthen its political stability.

(Q) You have spoken about the importance of restoring Lebanon”s autonomy, but it seems as if Lebanon”s destiny is always tied to powers larger than it interfering in its internal affairs. To what extent does the call for holding the conference coming from the United States, and not one from one of Lebanon”s traditional allies like France, represent an indication of an increase in US influence and impact on Lebanon?

(A) There is a habit in Lebanon that if we have finished with the authority of one faction, then we have to shift to the authority of some other faction. I believe that the time has come for us to start getting into the habit of thinking about what is in the best interest of Lebanon. It is true that we are living in an interconnected world and we are living in a world in which no one can say that they are living in a state of complete independence. No country in the world, not the United States or any of the European countries or Russia or China, can say that it lives in a world of its own creation and that it is completely alone in the decisions that it makes.

On the contrary, we live in an interconnected world in which there is influence and sensitivity between countries. Such is the case in Lebanon. However, we have to get used to believing and practicing that we are embarking on a new phase in the life of Lebanon, one in which Lebanon will return and take the reins of power into its hands and will not wait for the decision (to come) from the outside. We have gone through 30 years where the computer for Lebanon was somewhere else. There was someone on the outside that was pressing buttons while we in Lebanon were doing (the action). Now, Lebanon will get used to thinking that it must make its own decisions, taking advantage of its experiences and what is going on. It must take the issues and matters that affect it into consideration because every country is influenced by what is going on around it. However, that absolutely does not mean that we will be trading one authority for another.

(Q) But is Lebanon able to make its decisions in the way you are talking about? It is obvious that there are large powers trying to exploit the delicate situation that it is currently going through.

(A) I would like to say that while these large countries do exist, with respect to Lebanon, they also exist with respect to every (other) Arab, European, or other country. Consequently, we cannot behave as if these countries do not exist. They do exist, with respect to us and others.

So how can we fortify ourselves? We can do so by strengthening the internal unity and launching a true and democratic dialogue. We can do so by actually reverting to reliance on a state of law not for the sake of words or slogans, but for the sake of actually restoring the country to one that respects the authority of the law and restoring belief in the private sector and in competence. We have to restore a contemporary state, not one that engages in tribal and feudal thinking. It requires that it be a state of the twenty-first century.

This process is not the product of a single decision. We are moving from the phase of darkness to the phase of light. Rather, it is a long process that will require a change in the people”s mentality and their view of themselves, their country, and their relations with the world. This is the new path and when we put out the government announcement, we clearly said that this would be the course; we would be proceeding on the way to reform. As for the idea that reform can be achieved overnight, this is mistaken.

(Q) You speak about the importance of achieving internal reform, but there are criticisms aimed at the government and that it will not be able to take the right steps to remedy the security collapse that has occurred with the constant bombings. Why is the government not doing more to stop the collapse in the situation?

(A) The belief that the government is not doing anything because it has not yet appointed the General Security director is an injustice to the government. Of course, we have to appoint the General Security director, but just because we have not reached a consensus on the General Security directorate does not mean that the government has not taken off. It has done so in 101 things. It has achieved many things and we are on course to achieve other things. Consequently, this is something to which we must not give any significance that is greater than necessary. As for the bombing attempts like those that occurred just a few days ago, we have to make up our minds that those who are afraid of the results of the Mehlis report will continue with acts like these in order to show that Lebanon is not able to govern itself and that Lebanon is not able to manage its security affairs. Consequently, they want to bring this about and they also want to divert attention from what is going on with the subject of the Mehlis report.

At the same time, to some degree it is important for us to appoint a director general for General Security. It is also important that we not forget that Lebanon has taken a step of infinite importance in deciding to arrest the suspects that were akin to being the security commanders. Consequently, it is as if this decision is actually the first nail in the coffin of the security state.

(Q) But was not Mehlis the one who made the decision to arrest these security officials?

(A)Yes, but the Lebanese state is the one that carried it out.

(Q) Nevertheless, is it not possible to say that Mehlis is the one that is doing the job that should have been done by the Lebanese authorities and the Lebanese judiciary, strictly speaking?

(A) There is an international team doing the investigation and it has all the abilities, capabilities, skills, and advanced equipment that we do not have. We must not forget that the capabilities and tools used by us have become obsolete. What we are doing is coordinating among the security services in order to get them to define their needs so that we will be able to be at the same operational level as those who are trying to toy with (internal) security. The security and judicial services are accompanying the investigation and this accompaniment and this concord have made them make decisions. Making a decision of this kind is not an easy matter, but we did it with the courage and competence that made Mehlis himself acknowledges that there is great improvement in the performance of the security and judicial services in Lebanon. This is what he said at the press conference.

(Q) How worried are you about the conclusions at which the Mehlis report will arrive and their potential to inflame the situation?

(A) How often it has been said in the past period that the world will keep turning and it will not stop because of the Mehlis report. My response to that was that the world will keep turning and it will not stop on the heads of those who committed the crime or on the heads of the Lebanese. This is what happened. So when they were arrested, no one shed a tear for them and no one grieved for them.

(Q) But are not those who have been arrested still suspected of involvement in the crime?

(A) There is still suspicion about them and our position from the beginning has been that they should be given all their rights. That is because we are the ones who have been greatly affected by the powers that they exercised that they had no right to exercise. They used them against us and against other innocent people.

(Q) Have you passed judgment on them even before their trial has started?

(A) No, not at all. I said before that there is suspicion about them. I did not say that they were suspects. The other thing is that we have given them every right of self defense. The first motto I mentioned is that there is no reform except through the reformers. I have to be a reformer and I have to believe in reform and I have to act on this basis and on the basis that this is something that we have to proceed with.

(Q) It is obvious that the Mehlis investigation process is not just a criminal one, but also a political investigation process. In your assessment, what is the danger of some people exploiting the investigation process for political purposes that will contribute to the instability of the region, not the reverse?

(A) All I will say is that the investigator Mehlis was appointed by the Security Council, in other words by an international body. The investigation team is comprised of a number of nationalities, so it would be difficult for anyone to play the game of steering it because there are many countries and more than one team.

The other thing is that we have expressed our confidence in it. I do not interfere in the court and I do not know anything about it. During the two times I met with the investigator Mehlis I told him clearly and candidly: &#34I will not ask you to tell me anything that you believe will harm the course of the investigation.&#34

(Q) So do you believe that the investigation process is being conducted independently, removed from any attempts to control it?

(A) I do believe that and that it is doing a good job.

(Q) You were one of the persons who knew Prime Minister Al-Hariri very well. Do you believe that the late premier would want the truth to be known and justice served even if that made Lebanon less stable?

(A) I know that Prime Minister Al-Hariri, if he were in my position, would do as I have done and more. The other thing is that I have used the phrase: &#34Knowing the truth is what will strengthen stability; concealing it is what will harm and upset stability.&#34 It is attested in a hadith of the prophet in which he says: &#34If Fatimah Bint-Muhammad (i.e. the prophet Muhammad”s daughter) were to steal, then her hand must be cut off.&#34 This is something that strengthens stability because concealing the truth is like the wound that heals over an irritant and festers. This is something we have to be clear about; the truth must come out.

(Q) What do you say to the political powers that believe that the United States has a plan to change the regime in Syria and that it is using the issue of the investigation into Prime Minister Al-Hariri”s assassination to achieve its goals in the region?

(A) I am not in a position to talk about the United States and I am not in a position to talk about Syria. But I will always try to fortify anything in my country that is facing the ideas of others and their plans. If there is a mad bull, do I carry a red bandana and go down to the arena? I would certainly not do that. We have to get our country out of the elephants” way. We have to strive to keep our country from falling into positions that, ultimately, are tools for the interests of others. This is the right way of thinking. I cannot put myself into the position of the United States and its plans and programs. I do not know.

(Q) How do you see the increasing US interest in Lebanon?

(A) I believe that what happened on 14 March in Lebanon, with the demonstrations that were organized, provoked the world”s interest. It was as if 85 million Americans marched in the streets of Washington. Consequently, the world is talking about reform, democracy, and freedoms. We are seeking democracy and there it is. If you have the model of democracy in Lebanon, then why do we not support it?

(Q) What will be your main demands on the international community during your presence in New York? What are you trying to achieve?

(A) We have come to show what Lebanon has achieved during this period, why the setback to Paris-2 and the political quarrels occurred, what Lebanon”s vision is for the coming stage, and how its issues can be remedied. This is something that will be discussed in detail during the coming weeks with those concerned in order to prepare for the coming conference.

(Q) It is no secret that many predictions have swirled around the participation of President Lahoud at the United Nations summit and your participation in the conference that the United States has called for. Despite what President Lahoud said about the existence of a proper relationship between the two of you, would it not be normal to ask if there are two centers of power? Can this situation continue?

(A) With respect to our visit to New York, there are two different activities and two issues that are separate from each other. Attending the meetings of the United Nations General Assembly and there are two addresses there that must be delivered. The president wanted to attend and that is his right. Subsequently, there was a decision in the cabinet and it wanted me to attend and I did not criticize this matter. As a result of the developments and the events that followed, I reacted and hoped, from the position of what I wanted for the presidency of the republic, that he would not attend. But the president insisted and this is his right and I respect his opinion. With respect to the speech that was delivered, I was made aware of it and I expressed my point of view. After that, I expressed my opinion in the final draft (of the speech) that they were supposed to take into consideration. I told them that I did not want to prepare the presidency of the republic”s defense from me.

(Q) So there is no clash or competition between the two of you? How would you describe the relationship between you?

(A) No, there is no conflict at all. The relationship between us is governed by the constitution and I respect all the rules.

(Q) How do you see the US position on President Lahoud and the lack of a desire by the US administration to deal with him? In your opinion, is this something that is justified and appropriate at this stage?

(A) I do not want to interfere in the policy of the United States and what it wants to do with respect to this or that person. We are a small country and we must take up matters according to our size. They are free men. This is a matter that they will decide. Why should I interfere in this affair?

(Q) How does the role of the United Nations toward Lebanon seem to you, especially since the international organization has its priorities with respect to Syria while it overlooks the continuing Israeli violations that are occurring in the south?

(A) Our relationship with the United Nations is good. There is continuity and an understanding of our situation. We are monitoring the coordination with the United Nations in this regard and we do not believe that there is a fundamental problem in this framework.

(Q) In the matter of Hezbollah, it seems that there is a decision that has been made by the French, the Americans, and the General Secretariat of the United Nations to postpone the resolution to put pressure on the Lebanese Government to disarm Hezbollah. But eventually, you will be forced to deal with this matter. What is the best solution to this issue, in your opinion?

(A) There is an understanding with the United Nations and those who were behind Resolution 1559 of the importance of Lebanon”s position and the soundness of this position. That is because Lebanon has been saying on more than one occasion that we are a country that has always respected international legitimacy and its resolutions. As such a small country, we have to decide that our only protector is our respect of the resolutions of international legitimacy. Basically, our Arab right in Palestine is based on the resolutions of international legitimacy.

So Resolution 1559 is a resolution, whether we like it or not. This does not change the picture at all because the resolution is one of the resolutions of international legitimacy.

(Q) Does that mean that you will demand that Hezbollah disarm in the coming phase, based on your desire to implement this resolution?

(A) We have continued by saying that, with our respect for the resolutions of international legitimacy, there still are matters to be mindful of and on which a unified position must be reached. Our democracy is a democracy of consensus. We cannot do anything when, in the end, we know that we will lose the world and not gain the hereafter. We are not able to carry out Resolution 1559 while losing the unity and solidarity among the Lebanese. Therefore, a dialogue must be launched among the Lebanese and I believe that the dialogue among the Lebanese on these issues has already begun. But a specific mechanism is needed to regulate this dialogue. Therefore, we are for cooperation inside the Lebanese society and the launch of this democratic, internal dialogue among the Lebanese in order to reach common beliefs. We cannot get ahead of the results of this dialogue. Let us begin the dialogue or not, and then we will see.

(Q) What is the position of the majority of Lebanese on this issue, in your view?

(A) There are differing points of view in the Lebanese society. Consequently, we are looking at how to draw the Lebanese society”s points of view closer together.

(Q) There is no doubt that the coming phase in Lebanon”s history will be a critical one. To what degree are you worried of the potential for the anticipated Mehlis report to increase the severity of the tension in Lebanon internally, and in the relations between Lebanon and Syria?

(A) I believe that there are extreme exaggerations in Lebanon about what may come out in the Mehlis report. There is a lot of talk about the world being turned upside down and that Hell will be opened up. I believe that this is something in which there is a lot of exaggeration, the intent of which is to influence the determination of the people who are endeavoring to learn the truth. Some have reached the point of saying that they do not want to know the truth so as not to turn the world upside down. Let us look at what happened after the arrest of those in whom there was suspicion: nothing happened.

(Q) But the situation will be completely different if the fingers of accusation were to point at the Syrian regime itself and its allies.

(A) We must study this matter very carefully, but it must be done under the fundamental basis that knowing the truth must always be our motto. There is a verse in the Holy Koran that says, &#34They desire to put out the light of God, but God will perfect His light though the unbelievers are averse.&#34 Consequently, we must not be afraid of knowing the truth. That is what strengthens stability, not the reverse. Why the rush? We will deal with things with wisdom and vision and certainly based on something that is a common truth. Lebanon and Syria are two neighboring countries that are linked by history, geography, a future, and interests. Whatever the case about who is supposed to have committed this crime or helped with it, we have to be clear that the depth of this relationship and its importance must continue between the two countries and the two peoples.

(Q) Has the time come to rectify this relationship by opening diplomatic relations with Syria?

(A) I believe that the step of going to Syria and in the talks with the Syrian officials, we were very clear. We are not talking about one or two years, but of thousands of past and future years. If we were to suppose that your brother committed a crime, then what is your offense? Consequently, we have to be clear in our relationship with Syria and the relationship must continue between Lebanon and Syria and be firm.

(Q) What are the most prominent challenges of the current phase with respect to you, personally, especially since you have taken on the post of prime minister during the difficult circumstances through which Lebanon is going through because of the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri?

(A) Premier Al-Hariri was a person with vision and he sacrificed his life for the sake of Lebanon. My hope is that I will achieve a portion of what Rafik al-Hariri dreamed for Lebanon. The greatest challenge is the inability to adapt to the changes. We are living in a world that is filled with changes and we have to adapt to it with the assurance of our commitment to our national truths, our values, and our morals.

(Q) Do you feel optimistic vis-à-vis Lebanon”s future, despite the current circumstances?

(A) I believe in the future of Lebanon and I am working for the sake of that. I also believe that I will face difficulties. I will achieve successes and sometimes I will fail. I will try to build on the successes and avoid failure. I do not want to use the words optimist or pessimist. It is a psychological state. I believe in the cause and I have the will. I will endeavor to maintain this will until I achieve Rafik al-Hariri”s dream.