* Interview with Lebanese President Michel Aoun
Q: Mr President, welcome to Qatar. We thank you for giving us the opportunity to meet you, and allowing us to start: What is the purpose of your gracious visit to Doha and your agenda?
A: I received an invitation from His Highness the Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to attend the opening ceremony of the FIFA Arab Cup 2021 and the inauguration of the stadium.
This invitation comes in the context of the friendship that unites me with His Highness the Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and before that with His Highness the Father Amir.
I was honoured to have him visit me at my home with Her Highness Sheikha Moza.
Q: What is your assessment of the Qatari-Lebanese relations, in particular at the political level?
A: The relationship between Lebanon and Qatar is longstanding, firm and strong.
Shortly after my election as President of the Republic, I paid a private visit to Qatar to express the depth of our relations and the friendship that unites us.
These relations continued to grow and develop year after year.
Our communication has never been interrupted during this time.
Q: Upon the directives of His Highness the Amir, Qatar was present alongside Lebanon after the explosion of the port of Beirut.
What are your comments?
A: The solidarity expressed by His Highness the Amir Sheikh Tamim and the brotherly Qatari people with Lebanon after the explosion of the port is appreciated, and we are thankful and grateful for that.
The Qatari presence was distinguished and strong after the disaster that struck Lebanon.
His Highness gave directions for a considerable amount of aid to be sent.
We appreciate Doha's constant support for us, and we thank His Highness for following up on Lebanon's situation.
In short, what unites us and Qatar goes beyond friendship and rises to the level of brotherhood, where the brother cares for his brother.
You get concerned about us and we get concerned about you.
Q: Qatar gives great consideration to its diplomacy. How do you evaluate, Your Excellency, the roles played by Qatari diplomacy on the regional and international arenas?
A: Qatari diplomacy is pioneering and is always present in regional and international forums.
It constantly plays a conciliatory role that helps establish understanding for the sake of stability, security, and the well-being of peoples.
Q: Last July, Qatar committed itself to supporting the Lebanese army with 70 tonnes of foodstuff per month for a year.
How do you view this support, and what is its importance for the military establishment?
A: Lebanon is going through a stifling economic crisis, and the Lebanese army and other security institutions are not immune to it.
The causes of the crisis are manifold, and they begin with the catastrophic consequences of the Syrian war.
It blocked the land ports to the Arab Gulf states, disrupted the export movement, harmed the Lebanese economy, and flooded Lebanon with 1.85mn displaced Syrians, out of whom only a few groups have returned.
Because the return is voluntary, it constituted a great financial burden on us, especially since the United Nations limited its financial aid to the displaced people.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Lebanon spends between $3-4bn annually on the displaced.
The 2019 demonstrations contributed to the deepening of the economic problem, and then came the coronavirus pandemic, further tightening the noose on our economy.
Then the port exploded, which is a major disaster that blocked the main artery of the economy.
Q: Is Your Excellency satisfied with the level of economic and investment relations between Qatar and Lebanon, and what are your future aspirations in this regard?
A: There is no basic Qatari investment in Lebanon, knowing that the land is fertile at the present time.
During my visit to Doha, I will invite His Highness the Amir to direct investment in the reconstruction of the port of Beirut, in electricity and infrastructure, in addition in the banking service.
Q: The Lebanese pound has been reckless and the dollar is without brakes, and this state of financial instability reflects negatively on the daily lives of the brotherly Lebanese people.
What is the way to recovery for the national currency?
A: The large indebtedness is one of the main reasons for the collapse of the national currency.
The additional factors I mentioned above contributed to the comprehensive collapse.
The government is working to formulate an integrated economic plan, based on the principle of negotiation with the IMF to carry out the necessary reforms and to reorganise several sectors, including the banking sector, in order to control and rationalise spending, and other reforms that I had previously called for their approval.
In the previous government, we developed an integrated plan that was supervised by the McKinsey group, but the political developments that came successively after that prevented its implementation.
Q: According to statistics, Lebanon has spent at least $45bn on the electricity sector, and the state is gradually losing control over this sector due to the deterioration of services.
Where is the loophole?
A: Government negligence has brought us to where we are today.
If the model and integrated plan that was drawn up in 2010 had been followed, we would not be so deep in crisis.
It is known that the plan was obstructed by a political decision, for which the Lebanese are paying dearly today.
It is the political wrangling and personal considerations that prevented the implementation of the plan.
Those who were behind the obstruction are known to all the Lebanese.
Q: Next year, Qatar will host the FIFA World Cup, and this event is the first of its kind in the Arab world.
How do you feel as an Arab president? And what are your expectations?
A: Despite its small area, Qatar has a big (name/reputation) in the world.
Had it not been for the exceptional effort made by the wise Qatari leadership, which was on more than one axis and level, Qatar would have never occupied these top ranks.
For an Arab country to host the World Cup in football is a major event in itself, and this event will crowned with success.
Q: There is a large Lebanese community in Qatar, and it is increasing steadily.
What is your message to them, and what role does the community play in strengthening the relationship between the two countries?
A: The relationship with Qatar is fraternal, longstanding and solid, and there is a special treatment accorded by Doha to the Lebanese it hosts on its lands, and we undoubtedly appreciate this special Qatari attention.
Despite all the pitfalls caused by Arab-Arab disputes, Qatar adhered to the policy of open doors with the Lebanese, and we appreciate this, "and God willing, we will see you in Beirut this summer”.
My message to the Lebanese in Doha is to be, as we have entrusted them, messengers of love between the two countries, and to remain loyal and giving.
They should consider Qatar as their second country and act accordingly.
Q: You said recently, "I will not surrender to the void." From now until the date of the presidential elections, will there be any remaining institutions in the country capable of electing a new president or taking over the powers of the President of the Republic?
A: The phrase “I will not surrender to the void” was misused within the framework of the intensive and programmed defamation campaigns.
What I meant was to ensure that there will be no vacuum after the end of the presidential term.
The Lebanese constitution stipulates that in case of a vacancy for any reason, the Council of Ministers collectively will exercise the powers of the president until a new president is elected by the House of Representatives.
This has happened twice before after Taif (agreement).
Q: But what if it is not possible to reach an agreement in the House of Representatives to elect a new president?
A: The government is there.
Q: What if the government resigns? Do you leave Baabda (Presidential) Palace because you have to leave at the end of your mandate, and thus leave legitimacy in the grip of a vacancy? Or will you remain because you took oath on the constitution?
A: This is a hypothesis that we hope we will not reach ... bearing in mind that the constitution is clear, and the existing government will collectively assume the powers of the president.
Q: Is an extension likely for Your Excellency, in case it is not possible to elect a successor?
A: For me, the extension is out of the question. I have said this many times and I repeat it today.
Q: "After me, there will not be a president like before. There will no longer be a president of the republic who does not represent anyone..." This is your statement, Your Excellency.
Who do you think is the future president who has the seal of Christian legitimacy?
A: He must have a parliamentary majority, which means that he has proper representation.
He should have the credentials that enable him to assume this great responsibility.
He must be familiar with the unique Lebanese composition, and be an element of union and not of divergence.
Q: Would your words be understood as paving the way for the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, who is expected to obtain the largest parliamentary bloc in the upcoming elections?
A: It is not yet certain who will have the next majority in the House of Representatives, and the picture will become clear after the completion of the electoral process.
Q: Since "October 17", there have been many calls for your Excellency's resignation.
Why did you insist on staying until the end of your mandate?
A: I am elected by the House of Representatives, for a specific term that ends on October 31, 2022.
I will continue to assume my full responsibilities until that date.
Therefore, I do not understand yet what the reason is, that necessitates my resignation?! The calls that come from time to time do not have a realistic justification.
They fall within the framework of populist bids and slogans.
If those who launched them were aware of the extent of their danger, they would have refrained from repeating them.
Q: Do you consider the popular movements fake?
A: When a government falls under popular pressure, a new government is formed that takes into account the demands for which the people took to the streets.
I invited the movement to listen to its demands and carry out the required reforms.
With time, it turned out that the groups are (themselves in) conflict and lack a unified leadership and a single reference.
Then we learned that the operators of these groups are abroad and not in Lebanon.
Q: Do you expect the movement to obtain a number of reliable representatives in the 2022 elections?
A: Apparently, there is no cohesion between the movement's groups despite their repeated attempts to unite.
Their lack of organising themselves into unified lists will make it difficult for them to win the elections.
Q: The last year of the president's term in office in every era is the most memorable. What will remain in the memory of the Lebanese?
A: The crisis that we are living will remain, but the positive factor in this negative atmosphere is that I was able to maintain stability, despite the great international pressure for several reasons, the most prominent of which is related to the Hezbollah's weapons, which do not unite the entire Lebanese people in their view about it.
Despite that, we have created a peaceful situation between the Lebanese without a single slap taking place.
Q: What about the positive aspects of your term/era?
A: Unfortunately, the events that Lebanon witnessed during the past two years outweighed, with their negativity, all the positive aspects that were achieved during the era.
Perhaps the most prominent of which was the adoption of decrees for the extraction of oil and gas, at the forefront of the positive aspects.
Q: In this context, will oil companies wage war on Lebanon-
A: (He interrupted…) There is no war, but there are geopolitical considerations.
There is something mysterious.
I was told by the ship that was digging in Block No. 4 that gas was discovered there, and they congratulated me.
When I received the congratulatory call, it was by sunset, so I asked them to keep the matter secret until my visit to the ship the next day, in order to announce that gas had been discovered from there.
The next morning I received a call saying that the amount of oil is not commercially viable.
So I thanked them.
I added jokingly: because you were able to measure the (well/field) at night!!! I immediately estimated that the reasons (have an) international political (aspect), and the state that makes the decision in this context may be close to us geographically or may be far from us, but what is certain is that it has a huge influence on oil companies..
Among the positive aspects, is the "Dawn of the Outskirts" operation and the cleansing of Lebanon of sleeper terrorist cells.
Also among the positive aspects is the new electoral law on a proportional basis, for the first time in Lebanon's political history, after the majoritarian system.
This law established a state of balance between the Lebanese factions, in addition to a balance within each one.
Financial regularity is also one of the most prominent positive aspects.
As after 12 years of not setting a state budget where the exchange (rate) was based on the 12-year rule, the budgets were completed annually.
The audit began to cut off the necessary account to achieve the auditing bureau in accordance with the rules.
In addition, (there is) the organisation of the diplomatic corps, and conducting of diplomatic formations.
And the launch of projects to build water dams, many roads and highways, and other development achievements.
Q: In the demarcation of the maritime borders, more than one border line appeared, and the difference in the area due to Lebanon is large.
What is the tendency in this regard?
A: The position that I defined from the first day was that Lebanon has water borders in which the exclusive economic zone contains oil and gas wealth.
Indirect negotiations were launched to demarcate borders with American mediation and hosted by the United Nations.
The negotiation process stumbled, and we are now in the process of relaunching the path again.
In similar cases, the wealth is esoteric and the limits are not known, and in such a case, sharing is adopted.
Q: Does this mean that Your Excellency support the American proposal?
A: We demanded amendments to the negotiating lines and in negotiating with each party to make concessions to reach a solution.
Q: Parliamentary elections are a great achievement that crowns the last year of your term, and there is a heated dispute between you and the Speaker of Parliament over the date of holding them.
A: There is no logical reason for bringing forward the election date, and all the excuses presented do not justify moving it earlier.
That is why I decided to exercise my constitutional rights.
The Minister of the Interior proposes through a decree prepared and signed by the Prime Minister, but the last signature is mine.
This mechanism for setting the date of the elections is the responsibility of the executive authority, not the legislature.
In addition to the issue of powers, the huge constitutional violation lies in the miscalculation of the number of deputies that constitutes the absolute majority during the voting process.
The number should be 65 out of 128, but the voting process took place with only 59 votes.
If the parliamentary elections take place in the month of March, some of the Lebanese will lose their right to vote.
Some will be unable to move to the mountainous areas due to the cold weather at that period and the high fuel prices.
Therefore, in this case we will have a council/parliament of the wealthy and heirs.
We have counted 17 heirs who joined the civilian movement who presented themselves with new faces!
Q: The calculations of the Hezbollah and the Amal movement differ from those of Your Excellency regarding the fate of the government.
Is putting the government in the freezer until justice is frozen, justified?
A: Our constitution establishes clearly the separation of powers, between the executive, the legislature, and the judicial authorities.
Each authority is known to have its powers, and with regard to the judiciary, the Supreme Judicial Council can decide on objections, as well as on judicial inspection.
Q: Does this mean that Your Excellency is satisfied with the recent decisions to reject all requests of dispute with the state in the file of the investigation into the explosion of the port of Beirut?
A: This matter is left to the judiciary and its appreciation of the laws in force, and I essentially do not interfere in the work of the judiciary and respect its independence.
Q: The Hezbollah-Amal duo established that the conflict is between the government and the judiciary.
Is Najib Mikati's government to be considered as resigned, in light of the impossibility of removing the judicial investigator, Tariq Bitar?
A: This linking does not apply. It is not within the power of the Council of Ministers to decide on the issue of Judge Tariq Al-Bitar, and this matter is left to the judiciary exclusively.
Q: You wrote a tweet in which you quoted Imam Ali saying, "Whoever puts himself in the position of the accused, let him not blame the one who thinks badly of him", and this tweet elicited unjustified reactions.
A: The question is: Why do they put themselves in the position of the accused? There is no justification for their fear of judgment
Q: Were the Hezbollah drawn into a file that was not theirs?
A: The Hezbollah are not yet concerned, because those summoned to the investigation do not belong to its ranks.
Q: So how do you explain (the) sensitivity?
A: Correlation of paths between the two.
Q: Do you think, Your Honour, that the responsibility of the army is secondary to the nitrate issue?
A: I did not see the investigation, and therefore I cannot address any detail in light of my lack of knowledge of the file.
I preferred not to contact any judge so that it would not potentially be deemed as interference by me.
The issue of the investigation into the Beirut port explosion file is one of the most difficult and complex cases.
The limits of my authority are to ensure that issues are going properly and not to interfere in the work of the judiciary.
Despite my undeniable immunity, I put myself at the disposal of the judiciary to present a good example to the ministers and parliamentarians who upheld their immunities.
Q: Russia recently submitted aerial photos of the port explosion.
Is its content reliable, or is it standing still?
A: I asked President Vladimir Putin, and he responded.
The photos arrived in a secret and sealed envelope, which I refused to receive and I requested that it be handed over to the Minister of Justice, who in turn handed it over to the judiciary.
Q: Do you expect the Russian photos to make a difference to the outcome of the investigation?
A: We can't say in advance what the photos might reveal.
Q: Is it possible that Israel was the one who launched the attack? Are Western countries withholding satellite images from Lebanon in order to protect (Israel)?
A: We cannot rely on speculation. The case is before the judiciary, and the investigation will show whether it was Israel or someone else.
Q: There is an open diplomatic crisis between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia caused by the Hezbollah, and recently Australia included it on the terrorist list.
A: (Interrupting) Did Australia include it by self-determination on the list of terrorism?!
Q: Have the Hezbollah turned into a burden on Lebanon?
A: The Hezbollah are almost besieged, and this external siege may generate an internal explosion if it exceeds this limit.
The security explosion inside – if it happens, God forbid – is a sign of the outbreak of a civil war.
We are currently bearing the consequences of the siege, but this situation, despite its disadvantages, is much better than the civil war, which is unlikely to happen because no one can enter this lost adventure.