BEIRUT: President Michel Aoun Monday gave a live interview on Lebanese TV to mark his first year in office, taking questions from the heads of several local TV stations in a debate format that was moderated by the head of Aoun's office, Rafik Chelala.
Aoun began his address saying: "I promised you I will overcome obstacles and secure stability in social economy and safety. Today, we need to go over what we achieved and what remains to be completed. We do not want a government without opposition."
"The work to build [a state] is not easy, especially after the years that passed. It requires all Lebanese people to come together. Tonight I will speak with all honesty, far from all rumors and exaggerations."
The first topic discussed was change and reform
New TV’s Mariam Bassam asked: “Do you think this was a year of achievements or consensus? We realize that achievements weren’t made until political understanding was reached. Why did we see [Prime Minister Saad Hariri's Chief of Staff] Nader Hariri and [Foreign Minister] Gebran Bassil going around in meetings at night ... so what is the role of authorities? Is there a mandate for President Aoun or are there other people ruling? For example, people are saying that Gebran Bassil is the ruler?”
Aoun responded: “People always say things and there are always rumors. I passed the leadership of the Free Patriotic Movement to Bassil when I became president. People know that he studies his files, but we don’t want to turn this into a dialogue about specific people.”
Jean Feghali from LBC said: “After 27 years, if Aoun is back and the trash is back - can we tell the Lebanese people how we are going to get rid of both forms - corruption and trash?
Aoun responded: “First we have to establish a state and its institutions. One person cannot combat corruption - it needs institutions. Our first priority was security and that is why we started with appointing the heads of Army and the Internal Security Forces. We held the Higher Defense Council meetings and we took on the battle to remove Daesh (ISIS).”
“Security and stability was achieved, but this is not enough. We need a judiciary, which is the important thing. When someone trusts his security and judiciary when he has problems, it will help to have a good judiciary.”
“We also formed a budget, had diplomatic appointments and passed a new electoral law. The majority and minority will all be represented and the MPs will represent all the sects of Lebanon.”
“All these things are helping to build the country, but to combat corruption more, the FPM made a book called Ibraq al-Mostahil [a book detailing allegations of official corruption] and I recommended a specific judiciary to combat corruption - but nothing has been done in this regard.”
“MP Ghassan Moukheiber proposed a number of laws, only one was approved so far, the right of access to information law - this is the plan for corruption.”
“Regarding the plan for solving trash, yes, there is a problem in Lebanon and it has been a problem for a long time. Now, all Lebanese people want to put their trash somewhere else, not in their own areas, [but the] government needs to make the decision.”
Future TV's Nadim Koteich asked the president over his choice for administrative appointments and why they didn't make the impact that the Lebanese people were expecting. Aoun said, "No appointment was made to shock ... The people that say there is sharing of spoils - this is the political environment we are in. We put the primary pillars in place and now we have to build on them. Half of the Lebanese population is a partner in this corruption. When one person goes and pays a bribe, he is taking part in this.”
The second issue discussed was the security situation and refugees
Ghayath Yazbek from MTV said: “The Army and security apparatuses kicked Daesh out and you selected Gen. Joseph Aoun as Army chief. The question is when will this institution be the sole defender?”
Aoun responded: “First, there is an internal problem, the financial issue - though do we get some aid from the Americans that we used in the battle [against Daesh]. But the economic situation does not allow us to have a full Army to battle external and internal problems."
“Another problem is that there is [Israeli-occupied] land that has not been returned to us. We also have a Syrian refugee crisis and we do not know their fate. This all needs an external solution between the Arab powers and we are just one of the powers responsible for contributing to this decision. We are not responsible for the Middle East’s problems.”
Ali Nourredine from Hezbollah’s Al-Manar said: “[Hezbollah’s] tripartite equation of [the Army, the people and resistance] proved successful in the face of takfiri [terrorism] and Israel. This is a solution that is already present.”
Aoun responded: “People are split in Lebanon. In the last Cabinet session I was in, I stood up and said, ‘some people are with this side and some are with the other side. One side will win and one will lose. But during this time, let's build Lebanon and we will both eventually win.”
Responding to a question on how Lebanon will guarantee visitors’ safety after a reported removal of a travel warning by the United Arab Emirates, [to Lebanon], Aoun said: “We told all Arab tourists that we can secure their stability and safety.”
Aoun also denied there was an American intelligence center in the Hamat airbase in north Lebanon.
The next topic was concerning the Syrian refugee crisis
Regarding his administration's accomplishments toward resolving Lebanon’s Syrian refugee crisis, Aoun said, “[I met with the ambassadors of the] five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council ... it wasn’t an easy discussion and there was some confrontation in the meeting. They say they will not return refugees until there is a solution in Syria, [but we] cannot cope with this anymore. And I say that this is an excuse for them to find a solution that they want.”
Regarding the government’s split over whether or not to have direct dialogue with Syria, Aoun said, “There are two opinions in government, one for and one against. We have not cut off relations with Syria. We are working on a plan for this, which we discussed in France and at the UN. I know the dangers of this situation. People accused us of racism at the beginning, but no one would accept half of their population being refugees.”
Responding to allegations that Aoun sold Lebanon’s foreign policy to Hezbollah in exchange for the Aoun family ruling internally, as numerous members of the family have been appointed to public office, the president replied, “The most important thing for us is solving the economic problems in Lebanon. We agreed with international economic bodies to study the issue.”
The state of the economy was the next topic
Asked about corruption, extra-budgetary spending and failure to pass a state budget for 12 years, Aoun said, “We accomplished in 10 months what multiple past governments could not.”
Responding to a question about how to resolve the budget, salary scale and tax hike, that the “public sector took from the private sector’s budget,” Aoun said: “We can’t wage the battle against corruption before building the state institutions.”
“I get a security report first thing in the morning before I have a sip of coffee,” Aoun said.
Asked about why Lebanon’s appointments for ambassadors to the U.S., the Vatican and Kuwait all had issues - “something that has never happened before” - Aoun responded, “[Our pick for the ambassador to] Washington D.C. needs to renounce his U.S. citizenship first. Regarding Kuwait, we all know the problem. With the Vatican, the candidate was a part of an organization that isn’t approved by the Vatican.” The president didn't elaborate further.
Playing down ongoing fears over the stability of the Lebanese pound, Aoun said there is no fear about the stability of Lebanese pound and also denied that there are fears over the banking sector.
Asked about the U.S. sanctions on Hezbollah, Aoun said the sanctions “aren’t anything new.”
He also said that the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and European countries are coming to Lebanon and that he “is comfortable with the [economic] situation,” while “trust and faith in Lebanon is going forward.”
To a question put forward on the oil and gas sector, Aoun said, “The first thing we did was pass the oil and gas law.”
Touching on the new electoral law
Aoun said there no revision would be made to the electoral law.
A question acknowledged the success of allowing the diaspora to vote in the new law, but asked about how to keep Lebanese people from emigrating at such high rates. Aoun said, “We need to make a good economy and create jobs, and the Lebanese people will stay here. They are leaving because they graduated and cannot find jobs. Since 1990, emigration has gone down after it was hit when the economy went down when we left the country. That day the middle class disappeared.”
When asked about how Arab nations aren’t investing in helping to rebuild the economy “because of Hezbollah and its arms,” Aoun responded: “Let’s bet [that the investments will come],” in a sign that the investments will find their way to Beirut.
Asked about comments from Saudi Minister Thamer al-Sabhan, Aoun said, “We must be unified and our national unity is essential to this. We said we will live in safety but each is allowed to believe in what he wants, politically - but national unity is important. You're free to believe in what you want.”
Al-Manar’s reporters asked the president if the economy was tied to the security situation and suggested that Hezbollah was helping maintain this. However, Aoun sidetracked and said that in his Arab League speech he was clear and told them differing sides to come sit at a table and determine what they want.
Lebanon’s positions on regional developments
Aoun was asked about the condition of Lebanon's disassociation policy and where Lebanon was on this - Aoun said, "I am in Lebanon. I'm being honest; I spoke to Arab nations and said that we are all brothers. Iran is a regional power and one is required to take it into consideration. But this doesn’t have an effect on us."
Asked where Lebanon is in the Arab-Iranian problem, Aoun didn't answer and sidetracked. "Are all Arabs against Iran," he asked. He added that he warned, in 2007, "Israel will try to change Israel-Arab problem to Arab-Arab problem.”
Concerning Lebanon’s stability and a question over Hezbollah’s role in this, Aoun said: "Stability doesn't come from Hezbollah. We have three problems: state’s problem economically, closure of all Lebanese borders and Syrian refugee crisis."
"It is a good thing that we are still standing and we have increased salaries," Aoun added.
Chelala read tweets to the president toward the end of the session.
One citizen said, "In Rabieh, we used to see you and now we don’t, we feel like we’ve lost you," to which Aoun said he was "sorry that he hasn’t been able to communicate with people the way he used to."
When asked what was left given that "80 percent of promises from the presidential oath have been completed in the first year," Aoun said, "The economy needs infrastructure, the judiciary and a lot of work still needs to be done in electricity and water sectors. And we have public debt."
Asked about job opportunities for the youth, Aoun said the economic situation needs to improve and there is a need to increase industry sectors in Lebanon.
Again asked about the security situation and if there was a need to be worried, Aoun said "if [you mean] terrorist acts, then yes we are safe and Israel will not launch a war."
"Lebanon will not play a game bigger than itself. We are a country who wants peace with all."
In conclusion, speaking to Lebanese Aoun said: "We have more work to do, but tonight shows that there are still some doubts and I call on the Lebanese media and citizens to follow truths, not rumors. I feel like I answered honestly. We want the Lebanese people to restore their trust between one another and this will not happen until we stop false talk and accusations."
"If an MP comes on TV and says another stole millions, they need to come out and show proof," he said firmly.