By Nicole Dow, CNN
Editor’s note: Earlier this month, Nicole Dow spoke with former Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora during Harvard Arab Weekend, about Lebanon’s economy, political change and the influence of Hezbollah. This is an edited version of her interview.
I wanted to begin by talking about what’s been happening in Lebanon in the aftermath of the car explosion that occurred in East Beirut last month. You have been calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati and for the formation of what you describe as a neutral salvation cabinet. Why do you think that this is the best approach?
The Lebanese government formed by Mr. Mikati has been responsible for a track that has been adopted by this government throughout the past 18 months – one started by forming this cabinet that created a very unacceptable imbalance in the country…I remember I recommended to him that the best thing is to form a neutral government that can really help in having a really balanced government in the country, and that can really produce results…We told him that we were ready to give him a vote of confidence, knowing that that government came into being following the plot of the black shirts that day, which was forcing by intimidation a group of parliamentarians to move from one group into the other – forced by Hezbollah at that time. That’s why it has shifted the majority from one group to the other group.
During that period, the government was acting in a way that led to the heightening of tension in the country. And more and more of this was going on, together with a number of mistakes that were committed by this particular government – on all levels, whether it is on the national level, whether it is on the security side or…on the economic and social sides. Besides that, this government was responsible for denying the security agencies of the government the necessary ingredients for identifying the various plots – I am speaking about the telecommunications data. They continue denying the security agencies of the government the information.
Besides that, the government claimed that it is respecting the disassociation principle, [but] we find out that they are implementing it in a selective matter. And [despite] claiming to be cooperating with the international tribunal, we find that they are short of really providing the necessary support and cooperation, and those who are indicted by the international tribunal continue to lead their lives under the protection of Hezbollah. Moreover, actually, some individuals were subject to an attempt at assassination, like Sheikh Boutros Harb, and in spite of the fact that there is somebody who has been…called for testimony with the judicial authorities, Hezbollah is claiming that this is a Hezbollah man, and so they don’t really hand him over. This government has been reluctant in doing its work and its duties of protecting the people of Lebanon.
Now, over the past several months, we submitted to the president a situation saying that it is no longer acceptable for this government to stay in office with all the mistakes that it has been committing.
Moreover, [there is] bad management with continuous conflict among the various components of the government…you find out that they are continuously fighting with each other and there is no real respect for the state…to protect the people and protect law and order. The balance of payment in Lebanon was consistently in surplus over the past ten years [but] in 2011 it generated a deficit of over $2 billion, and the same thing in 2012. All these are quantitative indicators to tell you about the failure of this government.
[The] only way…to address the increasing tension in the country is by having a “positive shock,” and this positive shock can take place through the formation of a new cabinet that will address these issues and prepare us for holding the elections.
How do you envision this new cabinet? What will it look like? And if a neutral cabinet is formed, it will likely not feature members from either the March 8 coalition or the March 14 coalition. In a country like Lebanon, where most people identify with either a religious or political sect, do you think it is possible that you can create a truly neutral cabinet?
First of all, we have to differentiate between “politicized” and “politics.” In Lebanon, all Lebanese are politicized. But you can always find people who are not very stark in their, let’s say, affiliation. And we already have a recent example of that, which was the cabinet that was formed by Mr. Mikati himself in 2005 that prepared for the election. And that came after a period of important events that took place following the assassination of Hariri and many others. So that’s why we believe that it’s possible. And it is the only way to really take the country into a situation where the level of tension can be decreased. Otherwise, what we are really facing is some people saying, “Let’s try to have a national unity government,” and this national unity government is something that was really tried in 2008 by my second cabinet and in 2009 with the Saad Hariri cabinet…So, what I really mean by this is that to form a, let’s say, neutral salvation government, is possible – it has been tried before and this can really help in achieving a better performance for the government and to achieve the holding of an election under normal circumstances.
There is an argument that if this new cabinet is formed and the current one is toppled, there will be a power vacuum in Lebanon, and you’ve been a very vocal opponent of this theory. Could you elaborate a little on that?
I think in this regard we already have a precedent. And we have our constitution. The constitution is very clear about this matter, that there is no void in Lebanon. Whenever a cabinet resigns, then immediately it assumes the role as a caretaker and it does everything within limited thoughts…In 1973, a caretaker government was even able to declare a state of emergency in the country. Even a state of emergency tells you that first of all, there’s no void in Lebanon. The constitution is clear, and whenever it needs to take necessary decisions, it can take necessary decisions. In all the cases in which governments took a little bit more time than the usual to form a cabinet, things were running well in the country.
Now, somebody tells us that it’s very difficult now to form a cabinet – a neutral cabinet. I’d say that both parties are keen to have the elections, and this should be an incentive to both of them to come to terms in order to agree the formation of the cabinet…Hezbollah has no interest in changing the government, because they are happy where they are now…What we believe is that the best thing is to get back to respecting the constitution. Once we start violating the constitution, there is no end to that, and this is the thing that guarantees freedom, good living, the future of every component of Lebanese society.
You have said that dialogue is very important. And there have been reports that the future movement will not participate in the national dialogue before the current government resigns. Why do you think that this approach is necessary?
Well, although I still strongly believe that dialogue is necessary, I’d like to draw attention to something – that for the past seven years we have been resorting to battle and we have made certain progress in agreeing on certain things regarding the dialogue. But we never achieved any implementation of what we agreed upon in the dialogue. On the contrary, [in] one of the sessions that took place in June, everybody agreed totally to what’s called The Declaration of Ba’abda, which has already made sure that everybody has to agree on having a non-alliance with any of the regional or international powers…We found out that the first to really violate that Declaration of Ba’abda was Hezbollah, by acknowledging through a statement made by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah that they had been sending armed personnel into Syria and by sending the Iranian drone into Israeli airspace. I think this is contrary to what was agreed upon.
The various meetings of the dialogue really said that everybody has to respect the international tribunal, and they are supposed to cooperate with the international tribunal. They are not handing over the indicted people or even the one accused of plotting against the life of Sheikh Boutros Harb – they are not handing him over. And many other things that we agreed, whether it was the demarcation of the border line between Lebanon and Syria, they never really did that. Or putting an end to the weapons for the Palestinian camps, inside and outside the camps – again, they commit themselves verbally, but they don’t really do it. So that’s why we said enough…That’s why we said we are ready to go back to dialogue immediately, as soon as this cabinet is really changed.
You were quoted in a Daily Star article recently saying that you “oppose political maneuvers that waste people’s time.” What specific political maneuvers are you referring to?
What I really meant is that it is not possible to carry on a process that has been tried and that at the end of the day did not produce any results. We are losing time and opportunities – and increasing the grievances and the problems and the suffering of the Lebanese.
This is very easy to quantify when we talk about economics…Now we are getting back in a situation where this ratio of debt to GDP is increasing again. Lebanon needs to create better circumstances for its young to create new jobs and the Lebanese are really suffering and really having to emigrate. So, it is not possible anymore to hold the Lebanese hostage to certain actions by certain groups in the country by enhancing the level of tension within the country and reducing the competitiveness of the Lebanese economy vis-a-vis other economies.
So that’s why I would say that it is a waste of time that should not be permitted anymore. At the end of the day, the Lebanese are going to pay the price, and will pay it very heavily. You can ask your countrymen how they are really weathering this situation, and they are really suffering. And you see, because of lack of sound and rational rule in the country in every aspect – whether in terms of services that have to be rendered to the public, whether it is in electricity, in telecommunications, in terms of the medical policies and the social policies – Lebanon is effectively losing time and losing an opportunity that cannot be regained. The damage that is being inflicted by this government on the economy in certain aspects is irreparable.