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by Mark dameli
Wednesday, Mar. 01, 2006 at 4:56 PM
He has the gift of facilitating matters. With him formalities and ceremonial go by the board. The conversation is quickly under way with the “General” at his residence in Rabiyé, which was thronged with young people and retired Army officers who remain devoted to him. There, one found those who had remained faithful to him, who had waited patiently for 15 years for his return from exile. I saw myself propelled back 16 years to Baabda Palace, with the same images and sensations. But that was another time and place. The general himself seemed unchanged: as feisty as ever, the eternal resistance fighter. He has changed in one way, as he himself said: he has learned to be patient, to move slowly, which for him, unfortunately, is a waste of time. He has great aspirations for Lebanon, which still has much to learn in terms of democracy, human rights and the building of nations.
Was the agreement you made with Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah a matter of personal alchemy between two men that took concrete form on the ground?
The document of joint political work was concluded in an atmosphere of mutual confidence between two resistance fighters who know the value of sacrifice. We understand the meaning of the word “sovereignty” and, especially, “peace”. I am sure Hezballah is seeking them because it has paid a high price in seeking them. As a military man and as a civilian politician, I too have suffered and resisted in my fashion. A resistance fighter necessarily loves his country, and when one loves with fervor, one can overcome all obstacles. This desire for dialogue on the part of the head of Hezballah, a party that advocates armed struggle, has both surprised the Lebanese and eased their fears. How did this desire for encounter come into being? In the great military academies, one learns that war is waged in order to promote peace. A man of war is therefore, in my opinion, the most pacifist person in the world because he knows the consequences and the torments of war. But when one is driven to do it, one makes one’s own peace. About our meeting, it began through a series of conversations by interposed persons, conversations that had their highs and lows. When I launched my call for an inter-Lebanese dialogue before the departure of the Syrians, on the eve of November 22, 2004, I sent a subcommittee to invite them and have their opinion. Unfortunately, my initiative failed at that time. Nevertheless, we stayed in intermittent contact even though our viewpoints were diametrically opposed.
What was therefore the most difficult point to discuss in the agreement?
The purpose of the first meeting was to reestablish confidence between the two sides, and this was done during several work meetings.
Realizing that it was a problem shared by both of us, we formed a team to seek a solution to specific problems. We found that we had the same concerns and we joined efforts to reduce the obstacles standing in the way of our meeting.
According to some analysts, the Christians will have gained much from this agreement. What are the corresponding gains for the Shiites?
In the final analysis, when in a dialogue one reaches results, one cannot say that one side or the other has won, but rather that all Lebanese have won, since we have resolved to seek solutions to our shared problems.
No one must be isolated
In the past Hezballah used to feel that it was isolated. With the present agreement, does it feel less isolated?
No one in the country must be isolated. I stated in front of all the media that I was not forming a front like all the other fronts and that I was still seeking a round table so that we could arrive at common denominators.
I wanted to promote dialogue, a dialogue on a national scale. But as long as my objective was not attained and as long as we remained in an impasse, we had to move closer to Hezballah and devise another mechanism to support a dialogue, an initiative in which Speaker Nabih Berri had taken the initiative.
In an interview you gave during your exile in France, you expressed a wish to attend midnight mass at the church of St. Joseph in Haret Hreik with Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah by your side. Has your wish been granted in the form of your meeting with him at the church of St. Michael in Shiyah?
I was born not far from that church, which is why I was given the name Michel.
On the national level, I can say that my wish was granted, but in regard to the mass, I believe that God has granted a mutual vow for us all.
Institutions in crisis
How will you convince others, notably the alliance of March 14, to rally to your side?
They must understand that there is no democracy without dialogue and without debate. They have to learn, first of all, to carry on a dialogue. What is now happening is an excess of democracy because the constitutional institutions are in crisis. We must therefore call on the people to deal with the situation.
There is nothing to prevent a president from resigning, but this should be done within the framework of institutions. It is necessary that the fictitious and provisional majority, which has not allowed the Constitutional Council to rule on the appeals filed against the election results announced for 10 contested seats -- which would reduce it to a minority -- understand that it cannot depose the president because they do not have the required majority. They have a sufficient majority to form a cabinet, but not to remove the president. This is how it is in all democracies, where there is a dialogue between the majority and the minority.
A call has been made to take to the streets, which means that they seek to impose a dictatorship. They have no right to have recourse to the street and to trample on the minority. We have been elected to Parliament by the will of the people, and without a majority of two-thirds of the votes in the legislature, they are required to reach a settlement with the minority, and if this doesn’t suit them, nothing can be done.
For a sound democracy
How do you conceive the republic? Would it be a federal regime with guarantees for the rights of minorities? Have you spoken of this with Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah?
That’s not the way to see the problem. The fact is that Lebanese politicians don’t practice democracy in a sound way, and so it’s a mistake to think that the form of the republic is important. Instead, what matters is that the minds of the Lebanese are initiated into the democratic system.
There isn’t much point in holding elections, and as long as there is no democratic spirit, we’ll fall into the present situation: a majority that wants to impose its point of view and set up a dictatorship.
In regard to the rights of minorities, they will always be preserved in a regime that respects human rights, the sole guarantee for all citizens. It’s not a question of a majority or minority, or of the religious confession of those who govern, but of respect for the law. A republic based on merit and on the equality of rights and obligations has the duty of maintaining all rights. At the present time even the majority does not enjoy its rights. All around us there are dictatorial regimes. In the political document we signed with Hezballah, we agreed on one very important thing: to recognize human rights as an intrinsic value, as is the case in a democracy. One can say that everyone is equal before the law regardless of confessional differences, and this is the way to encourage civil society.
How are your relations with the international community, with the United States and France in particular? Those two countries have expressed reservations about your agreement with Hezballah.
Perhaps they took their decision before knowing the nature of the document we agreed on. Since we reached our agreement, there have been rectifications. The document proposes solutions to many problems.
Since everyone is in an impasse, they should thank us for finding an honorable exit.
Everyone without exception is mired down in vague and imprecise statements, while we have laid down a framework in whose context each problem can be resolved, especially the weapons held by Hezballah, by defining the problem, which consists in liberating the Shebaa Farms as well as the Lebanese held in Israeli jails, in addition to Hezballah’s adhesion to a strategy devised by the Lebanese state.
In favor of a state strategy
People find fault with you on this level, that of a state strategy, on which your agreement with Hezballah is obscure. How can it be when one admits that all the Lebanese are going to be integrated into a strategy under the auspices of the Lebanese state?
We have therefore resolved a national problem. But in the minds of critics, there is a political dossier to be dealt with, since those who criticize the document we agreed on are struggling for power. They don’t want to see two Lebanese parties agreeing on a plan of action because this constitutes a weight in Parliament and a much greater weight in politics generally.
What about the weapons of the Resistance?
But Hezballah’s weapons are still linked to the Shebaa Farms and to Israeli threats.
The Israeli threats will be taken into account by the strategy laid down by the state, not by Hezballah. Even now, if there was a strong government even before the liberation of Shebaa, Hezballah could be persuaded to lay down its charges and hand them over to the state authorities.
Do you feel any desire on Hezballah’s part to hand over to the state the responsibility for liberating Shebaa?
Certainly. What is preventing the Lebanese government from reaching a solution with the United Nations? Let the state present the documents indicating that the Shebaa Farms are Lebanese territory, after which it will demand the withdrawal of Israel and the liberation of the Lebanese held in its jails.
Why doesn’t the state undertake such an initiative?
I don’t know. Its passivity in this respect raises doubts as to the sincerity of the government.
Relations with the Lebanese Forces
What about your relations with the Lebanese Forces?
I hope they will improve. In a democracy we respect the rules of the game, and if there is a dispute, there is always a way of dealing with any contentious matter, as is the case in democratic countries. If one is speaking of disagreements among Christians, no one has said that the Christians must all have a single opinion. Diversity is a source of richness. In a democracy there must be far more than one voice and one choice, so that the Lebanese can compare and choose. Why should we fear democracy, independently of what has to be done in regard to Baabda or other matters of contention? We need to promote the culture of democracy, which can be built only on differences in opinions and ideas.
Will you take part in any action intended to remove the president from office?
No removal, unless circumstances are such as will convince the president to resign.
Would you be in favor of his resignation?
If that could resolve a national crisis, I think he would himself agree to do it.
President Lahoud has laid down a condition for his resignation, which is that you should be his successor.
I thank him for his confidence, but in addition to his confidence there are other factors, particularly the opinion of the Christian community. I know that I have the confidence of the Christians, even though many people claim otherwise. I don’t know whether in a democracy one can have more than 75 percent of the votes, while the world is governed by those who obtain 50.08 percent. I have a valid Christian cover. The confidence of the president is very important, and if I also have other communities by my side, I shall be content.
Thanks to President Chirac
You lived for a number of years in France. What parties did you establish ties with, and what do you think of the position of President Jacques Chirac?
On the international level, one can only thank President Chirac. Certain people reproach him for being too compromised in our internal affairs, but nothing is less sure.
In regard to relations, I established them with everyone, but certainly with the right more than the left.
Relations with Washington
You’ve been to the United States several times. Do you have relations with the Bush Administration, and what was the impact of your most recent visit to the US?
With the Bush Administration relations were nil. It was rather with Congress that my relations eventually brought about the famous “Syrian Accountability and Restoration of Lebanese Sovereignty Act”. That was the cornerstone of the American policy that led to UN Resolution 1559. With the American Administration I had no relations. Last November I made a visit to Washington during which I met with numerous officials of the Bush Administration as well as Republican and Democrat members of Congress, with whom we discussed the problems of Lebanon and the region.
Are you considered an interlocutor by the Americans, or is the sole Lebanese interlocutor henceforth Saad Hariri?
I can’t say how the Americans see me, but I play my role in my own country and I think I am valid for the Lebanese.
Is it shameful to seek the Presidency?
Your detractors say that you are seeking to become president, and that is the sole reason you are making your alliances. How would you reply to them?
Is it a shameful thing in Lebanon for someone to seek to be president? I would be proud to assume that responsibility. But it is not admissible, after all that I’ve done to liberate Lebanon, to have people say this about me as though it were an accusation.
What I’m now seeking is a very important effort to help bring about a firmly-based understanding and to ensure stability among the various political forces. If I am ever elected president of the Republic, and if I could add something to that, I would be proud to do so. I don’t consider the fact that I’m seeking that high office as an accusation. I want to raise this republic out of the chaos that prevails in every sphere.
Would you be in favor of a federal system?
I’m not in favor of that system, but if the Lebanese can’t live together, there is nothing to prevent them from adopting it.
Could the Iraqi model be applied in Lebanon?
Why imitate Iraq? I don’t know why the Lebanese always look for solutions elsewhere. Peace lies in their unity, if they want it. No one can impose it on them. The responsibility for establishing peace is ours alone.
What about the commemoration of former Premier Rafik Hariri’s assassination on February 14? Do you regret not taking part in that on the popular level?
No. Why should I? Do you believe that story about one million people in the square? I would have liked to see three million people turn out to commemorate Mr. Hariri’s death. Unfortunately, the commemoration was turned into a political action, and our experience with certain political forces obliges us either to keep quiet or to have clashes for the occasion, and this is not recommended. When one invites someone to participate, it is necessary to have the politeness of the assembly.
And if dialogue were to fail?
Do you believe that the dialogue initiative undertaken by Speaker Nabih Berri will bear fruit?
One must always try, and one will always have the honor of taking part in it.
And if it failed, what might happen?
Nothing. We have our Constitution and we’ll maintain the present situation. There won’t be a disaster.
Could this situation last a long time?
When one moves away from constitutional life, problems arise with greater acuity. If we read the Constitution again and apply it, there will be no problem.
When you speak of the Constitution, are you thinking of the Taef Agreement?
Taef is already out of date, although it was transformed into a Constitution that the state no longer respects. We are reproached because we do not mention it in our document of understanding. They want it to be spoken of as if nothing else had ever existed in the country. Taef was a fait accompli. Now they’re making it the subject of outbidding, as if I were pro-Syrian and they were independentists. They denounce the Syrians so much because they are trying to soothe their consciences, which are burdened by the memory of collaboration and crimes.
Michel Aoun, the military man, the leader of the crowd, the maker of war, the politician, the peacemaker -- which of these do you see yourself as?
Neither De Gaulle nor Napoleon
Napoleon, De Gaulle, Churchill -- which of these personalities is most attractive to you?
Each one has his qualities and adapted to a situation in order to serve his country. But we have to judge people according to the period in which they lived. Napoleon was a general in the French army at a time when there were troubles in France, which he saved from the Terror, after which he reorganized the country and confirmed the central power. His actions, apart from his victories, have been criticized. There were victories and defeats. But there was also the Code Napoléon and other great acts of legislation, including the grandes écoles.
In 1940, when France was beaten, De Gaulle, with his vision, joined the Allies and restored France’s position in the community of nations. Had it not been for De Gaulle, France would not now be a great power enjoying the status of a permanent member of the UN Security Council, with the right of veto. It was he who signed the peace with Germany and he who reconstituted Europe. Those who want to make war on Syria should think of De Gaulle.
It is necessary, as we say in our document of understanding with Hezballah, to achieve peace on the same level of equality, to delineate the frontier with Syria and to exchange diplomatic missions. It is something not resolved since Emir Fakhreddin.
As for Churchill, he was a resistance fighter par excellence. He held out against Germany until the moment when the United States entered the war.
Do you appreciate the fact that people call you the Napoleon or the De Gaulle of Lebanon?
I’m just General Aoun. My career has been exceptional and they refer to me simply as “the General”. It’s become rather like a proper name.
Where do you draw your abundant energy from? So many Lebanese are very despondent about the state of their country, but not you. You give them hope.
I suppose it’s innate character, the strength of conviction and the love of people. There is also faith in God and in just causes.
If one has faith, there is no reason for fear.
Don’t you ever have days when nothing seems to be going right?
No, that’s never happened to me, not even on October 13 , when the situation was really hard and when all really did seem to be lost.
Hatred of exile and occupation
What did exile teach you?
What I hated most were two things: the military occupation and my own exile, and I had to live through the two simultaneously. No exile is respected outside his own country, not even in democracies. Sometimes you endure injustices against which it is pointless to rebel, but in your own country you can revolt.
The worst instant in your life?
There have been many, but they never overwhelmed me. Military battles, October 13 -- there were very difficult moments. Sometimes one could not deal easily with them. One was seized by doubts, until the moment came when a decision had to be taken.
Our resistance confirmed our right, Did you see October 13 coming?
I expected it.
But you felt you were going to win?
No, I knew I was going to lose and everyone else knew it: the officers, all my entourage, but it was necessary to confirm one thing, namely that it had to be made clear that we had had to yield to force and not claim to have concluded an agreement, since force had been used to impose a fait accompli, but our resistance confirmed our right.
That’s why you carried on to the very end?
I couldn’t do things half-way, and everyone saw the Syrian tanks in Yarzé. If one were to speak of all that has happened under the repression, he would have to go back to October 13, when I was prime minister, and everything that has happened since was done under the oppression.
My wife surpassed me
Women in your life. Have you any time to devote to your wife and daughters?
It’s true that we didn’t have any family life except during the years of exile; this was the sole advantage of that stage of our lives. But immediately afterwards, our daughters married and then there were grandchildren whom one used to see once a year.
My wife was always at my side, and on the evening of October 12, she refused to leave Baabda with our daughters, knowing that we would be attacked by aircraft the next day. So in terms of character, she surpasses me.
Your wife, unlike spouses of other Lebanese politicians, keeps a low profile. Do you speak to her of your cares and preoccupations, and does she give you advice?
She always accompanies me, and she knows when I’m anxious, because I become pensive. At the start she used to ask questions; now she knows that I will answer her after I’ve found a solution.
When you returned to Lebanon, did you think that things had improved on the political and social levels and in terms of life?
No. Things had gotten worse. I was under illusions when I arrived; later I found that the politicians had learned nothing and did not appreciate the fact that they had been relieved of the Syrian tutelage. Suddenly they began a relentless struggle for power, outside the norms of democracy. It seems that they do not understand democracy and in their actions they do not comply with moral and legal rules, and this is something very grave for a political class that wants to govern the country, not acting in accordance with morality and the laws.
I haven’t broken contact with young people
How did you find the Lebanese when you returned? Did you expect to have so many supporters?
I appreciate that. For despite everything said in the media about General Aoun being henceforth part of history, I knew everything because I had not broken my ties with the universities, where I used to give lectures. My house was always full of visitors who had come from all regions of the country. They used to say to me that the situation was untenable and ‘you are going to return to save us, since things can’t go on as they are’.
The political class has disappointed me
What has disappointed you most?
The political class.
How do you see the regional political map? Is a settlement of the Palestinian problem near at hand?
The settlement of that problem is nearer than before, since there is a real will of the Palestinian people in this sense. In general it is the extremists who make peace; remember Menahem Begin, who signed a peace treaty with Anwar Sadat. Unfortunately it’s the moderates who make war.
If you had to do things again, what would you not do again?
It’s difficult to say. I have made choices in my life, but I would have preferred that these choices had not been followed by actions that I had to bear. I was confronted by a choice: to choose to reject or to accept the Syrian tutelage, and everything else flowed from that.
I’d make the same choice again, but would I have the possibility of maneuvering so as not to have bad results? I don’t think so because I have always tried to maneuver to find an exit, but everything was blocked.
As a child, did you ever envisage such a destiny?
From 1986 to 2006, what changed in you, as a man and as a leader?
I have gained much more in terms of patience and I walk more slowly, because it is not a question of understanding something and of having a vision simply in order to act. It is necessary to be accompanied by others. That’s a major flaw. People’s confidence in me is sometimes not sufficient; it’s necessary to wait, which has the disadvantage that it loses time.
Are you at all introspective? Do you criticize yourself and try to change what doesn’t please you in yourself?
I change, normally, and I don’t ask questions.
Is an “orange” TV station coming soon?
The project has already begun and will perhaps be completed by the beginning of next year.
What is your best advisor?
A man of energy, someone sincere and direct: these are the traits of your character. Which of them has served you the most, and which of them has done you the most disservice?
They are both good qualities and flaws.
While in exile, you used to listen to the song by Fairouz: “Boukra berja bouqaf maakoum” (Tomorrow I will be with you again)Now that you are back among the Lebanese, what would you like them to say?
The song by the late Zaki Nassif called “Rejeh yetamar Loubnan” (Lebanon will again be rebuilt), in order to tell you that dreams can be transformed into songs and songs into action.
My great dream? The Lebanon that we have begun to build based on the internal peace concluded with Hezballah.
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