As Lebanon’s presidential vacuum continues for its 10th month and the country of almost 4.5 million inhabitants continues to reel from the economic and social pressure caused by the influx of an estimated 1.5 million refugees fleeing the conflict in neighboring Syria—not to mention the other grave security repercussions resulting from the spillover of the conflict into Lebanese territory—the country, like the region as a whole, appears to be hovering over a dangerous precipice.
Former Lebanese president Amine Gemayel, who led the country between 1982–1988, is better placed than most in navigating his country’s almost-Byzantine confessional political system, which shares power between a Maronite Christian president, a Shi’ite Muslim parliament speaker and a Sunni Muslim prime minister.
Gemayel, who also leads the Kataeb (Phalangist) Party—part of the anti-Syrian March 14 alliance, which is opposed to the pro-Assad March 8 alliance that also includes Shi’ite group Hezbollah—spoke on Monday at the House of Commons in London in a lecture hosted by the newly created Centre for the New Middle East at The Henry Jackson Society.
The lecture, ‘Failed States, Islamic State, or Citizen-States: Three Realities of Arab Governance’, explored three current political systems which Gemayel sees as the only administrative choices open to Arab governments.
We spoke to Gemayel following his lecture to discuss whether these three scenarios really do form the only choices for Arab countries, and also discussed the current effect of the Syrian conflict on Lebanon, the ongoing presidential vacuum and the danger posed by extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Asharq Al-Awsat: You spoke in your lecture of three possible scenarios for the region. How does Lebanon fit into all this?
Amine Gemayel: The title of the lecture is a general description of the reality on the ground more than a personal opinion, because it is clear that what is happening right now in the Arab world is not only very strange but also highly flammable, whether in Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Yemen. It is a frightening situation, whereby we are seeing a kind of collective suicide in these countries. But there are also encouraging examples from some other Arab countries, which I summarized by citing three [countries]: Lebanon, Tunisia, and Jordan. I also spoke about the ability of Arab countries to eliminate the dangers posed by the “ISIS choice,” whereby for some people this presents an alternative to the chaos currently reigning in these countries. I also warned of a return to the “logic of dictatorship” which was the dominant paradigm during a recent stage in our modern history. From here I concentrated on presenting a number of practical proposals to avoid falling into this chaos and focusing on [the concept of] a state of citizenship—that is, states that are able to bring about security, reassurance, freedom, and ideal coexistence between all the different groups [in these societies].
When these dictatorships finally fell this opened the door for a variety of different schemes and directions, one of them being the emergence of ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front, and others like them. In contrast, there are encouraging cases such as Tunisia, which can be regarded as a genuine example of [an Arab country] that has achieved what [many] people called for during the Arab Spring. As such, we now have two choices: Do we want a failed state, the spread of extremism, and the refusal to accept the “other,” so that we continue to experience the barbaric scenes we have witnessed and are witnessing today? Or do we wish to actualize the hopes of the Arab people that were demanded during the Arab Spring?
Q: In your opinion, is Lebanon’s sectarian makeup conducive to building this “state of citizenship”?
Lebanon is not a sectarian state. It is a democratic state that is able to realize a kind of mutual coexistence and integration between all its different sects. For that reason most of the political powers in Lebanon believe in a civil state. This does not mean a state opposed to there being different sects, but one which is concerned with achieving fusion between all these different sects and based on the idea of a state built on the concept of citizenship. It is up to us to find the right constitutional and institutional context that will pave the way or push us toward this fusion.
Q: What about the current divisions in Lebanon related to Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict?
This way of looking at things distorts the reality of the Syrian conflict, which is of course much bigger than this, in that it has a [wider] strategic character rather than just being a matter of a conflict taking place in Syria. The conflict actually began since Iran started imposing its influence [on the region], whether in Iraq with [former Iraqi prime minister] Nuri Al-Maliki, in Syria via its ally Bashar Al-Assad, or in Lebanon through the influence of Hezbollah. This phenomenon began to worry a lot of Arab politicians, and one of the first to warn of it was former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who was followed by Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Since then preparations have been in place to counter the spread of these Iranian efforts in the region. These predictions all proved to be true when Iran began threatening parts of the Gulf, and with the emergence of various Shi’ite movements in a number of countries in the region. This is the correct way of looking at what is happening now, whether in Syria or in Iraq. And what is certain is that ISIS as a phenomenon did not spring from a vacuum, nor is it merely just a reactionary religious movement.
Q: How has Hezbollah’s involvement in the conflict impacted Lebanon?
The impact on Lebanon has been destructive, though it is true that the environment in Lebanon is not receptive to these extremist–takfirist movements. Proof of this is that in Tripoli there are political factions, leaders, and prominent movements which are standing up to this extremist phenomenon; and the same is true in other places as well. For this reason this impact has not affected the Lebanese national character, though there is certainly a danger [in this regard] if the current situation continues.
Q: What are your biggest fears regarding the deteriorating situation in Syria?
The main thing that concerns us today is the sheer number of Syrians that have come into Lebanon, a number that has now reached 1.5 million people. This would be the equivalent of 16 million refugees suddenly arriving in Britain today. This poses a danger for Lebanon’s future in terms of its national character and in terms of coexistence [between Lebanese and Syrians]. It also threatens the social contract in Lebanon, as well as having an effect on the societal and economic fronts. It is also affecting our infrastructure, which is already deficient with respect to the Lebanese people—so how then can it cope with this tremendous influx of refugees?
Q: What is the exact nature of the threat which groups like ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front pose to Lebanon?
There have been extremist groups in Lebanon before ISIS and the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, especially towards the end of the 1990s. But we managed to contain and confront them. What worries us now is if these groups are able to enter and infiltrate the Lebanese national character and worsen the deteriorating economic conditions that Lebanon is currently experiencing. Right now the situation is not reassuring at all.
Q: Do you believe that the recent Saudi aid offered to Lebanon to enable the country to purchase weapons from France will tip the military balance of power in the country from Hezbollah to the Lebanese army?
Saudi Arabia has been a true and loyal friend to Lebanon for a long time now, and especially during the era of the late King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, something that is continuing now under the leadership of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman Bin Abdulaziz. The Kingdom has treated Lebanon with complete loyalty, generosity and fairness. It has never once asked Lebanon anything in return for this generous support and help.
Saudi support has helped Lebanon to endure in the long run and to face its problems. That particular instance of aid [for purchasing arms from France] is one of those that has been publicly announced, but in the past there has been help that has not been made public. There is no doubt this aid will now allow the Lebanese army to achieve a kind of paradigm shift in terms of numbers, resources, and readiness. Especially in this extremely difficult new period that Lebanon is facing due to the influx of the refugees and the general spread of chaos in the Arab world. We must face these difficulties internally via our army and security apparatus.
Q: Do you think that Lebanon’s confessional-based political system is no longer representative of the true makeup of political power in Lebanon, especially considering the current presidential vacuum in the country?
The presidential vacuum has nothing to do with the internal sectarian and confessional balance in Lebanon; it is more related to the intransigence of . . . [presidential candidate and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement] Michel Aoun, who insists on nominating himself for the presidency despite not being able to gain the necessary majority in the Lebanese parliament. Another reason is [Hezbollah] which delayed . . . the elections process. There are mutual interests that are shared by Hezbollah and Aoun, and the support he has received from the group delayed the elections . . . This constitutes a major infringement of the constitution . . .
If a candidate is fully eligible for the elections and yet is unable to achieve the necessary majority to win, then it is natural that the whole process will be put forward once again before all the political blocs in parliament, so there can be a kind of consultation in order to put forward another candidate. Our system is a complete opposite to all other constitutional and parliamentary principles and traditions. This has all caused the [drafting of the new] constitution to be delayed, which poses a huge danger for Lebanon’s future and its institutions, and on the national contract [between all the country’s sectarian and confessional groupings], because we currently have a Sunni prime minister and a Shi’ite parliament speaker, but the Maronite Christian president is missing. And if we tolerate this status quo that would mean our destroying the whole concept of this national contract and the basis on which it was agreed. Whoever delays the process of electing a president therefore bears a huge responsibility—it is as if they were completely overhauling the entire Lebanese character.
Q: Do you not think that the current intra-Maronite disputes have weakened the presidency, and could they result in Lebanon’s Maronites having to give up their right to this office?
I completely reject this way of looking at things, which some politicians have put forward as a way of putting all the blame for this situation on the Christians; which is not right because these intra-Maronite disputes have been around ever since Lebanon gained independence [from France in 1948]. In every election since there have been two camps, the March 8 and March 14 alliances, and were it not for Hezbollah’s support, Michel Aoun would not have been able to delay . . . the elections process; and this is still ongoing . . .
Q: How can this problem be resolved?
Michel Aoun must realize that this situation poses a danger for the Lebanese people in general and for Lebanese Christians in particular. As must Hezbollah realize that its position is completely illogical, and that what is much more important is the country’s best interests and the future of its institutions and reinforcing the national contract which is now disintegrating due to the presidential vacuum. All of this must in the end lead [Hezbollah] to offer different solutions and back a different candidate.
Do you believe there are any reasonable short-term solutions that could resolve the problem of the presidential vacuum?
I hope that the elections take place as soon as possible and that we all cooperate with one another in a way that can fulfill the hopes of the Lebanese people. The reality unfortunately is that we are all currently engaged in a mudslinging contest. And all this is part of an illogical delaying process that goes against our constitution and represents a complete lack of respect for parliamentary and democratic traditions. I regret that this is the current reality and I hope that all will be able to appreciate the gravity of the situation—especially in terms of how it affects them. Because this current situation is a suicidal one which does not benefit Aoun in the long run nor Hezbollah, because it is in desperate need to gain legitimacy in Lebanon. If the legitimacy [of our political system] falls then they [Hezbollah] will be the first victims, because it is this very system that protects the movement today, which is represented in parliament, the government, and all the country’s institutions. If these institutions fall, the cover of legitimacy which Hezbollah is in such desperate need of will also fall.
Source: Asharq Al-Awsat