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    Talking To: Nassib Lahoud

     

    Minister of State Nassib Lahoud sat down with NOW Lebanon’s Hanin Ghaddar in an exclusive interview to talk about Hezbollah’s weapons, the sporadic violence in Tripoli, his candidacy in the 2009 legislative elections, negotiations with Israel, and the status of the March 14 forces.

    NOW Lebanon: You insisted on including the phrase “under the state’s authority” in the ministerial statement when it came to Hezbollah’s arms. Knowing that Hezbollah is not committed to nor wants to involve the Lebanese state in its political and military decisions, what practical use does this phrase have? And how can the state make Hezbollah respect its authority, through, for example, the ministerial statement?

    Nassib Lahoud: The philosophy of the ministerial statement is to commit all the resources available in Lebanon toward the liberation and the restitution of the Shebaa Farms and the Lebanese part of the Ghajar village, and toward the defense of Lebanon against any aggression. So this is an effort that should involve all of Lebanon’s abilities, and only the state of Lebanon can provide the auspices for such a comprehensive effort. I cannot imagine any activity or any policy involving Lebanon and the Lebanese that is not effectively under the auspices of the Lebanese state.

    That does not involve disarming Hezbollah. It involves benefiting from Hezbollah’s human and military resources within the framework of the legal armed forces. This should be reached through dialogue, and only through dialogue, and we do hope that under the patronage of Lebanese President Sleiman, the dialogue committee will find mechanisms to achieve this goal.

    NOW: How do you see Hezbollah cooperating with the state on a defense strategy, especially since it has already made it clear that it does not approve of putting the Shebaa Farms under UN supervision? Also, if it “shares” its arms, it would lose the reason for its existence.

    Lahoud: The aim of the whole exercise is to strengthen the sovereignty of Lebanon as a whole, and to defend its territory and its waters. Now only the state can provide a comprehensive view on defending Lebanon.

    Defending Lebanon includes a military dimension, but there is also the need to defend Lebanon against an economic collapse, against the emigration of its talent and its youth. There are many dangers that can affect the future of this country, and only the state of Lebanon can manage all of these challenges.

    So the question is not about Hezbollah’s weapons in as much as that the means that are used in Lebanon – for either liberation or defense – should be under the auspices of the state.

    NOW: Are you running for parliamentary elections in 2009?

    Lahoud: Yes, I will run in 2009

    NOW: Can we speak of a list that would include you, Amin Gemayel and Michel Murr in the Metn?

    Lahoud: I will definitely be on the same list with Amin Gemayel. This is natural because I am part of the March 14 coalition. I would like to stress here that the March 14 coalition will fight in the elections united, with lists all over the country. Beyond the March 14 coalition, alliances have not been structured and will remain open to many possibilities.

    NOW: What do you think about the Doha Agreement establishing that the 1960 electoral law will be used in the upcoming 2009 elections?

    Lahoud: This law is a compromise that allowed all political parties involved to agree on a common ground for the next elections. It does not answer our aspirations for Lebanon. We would have been much happier if the districting proposed by the Boutros Commission had been agreed upon, so as to provide for the Lebanese people a mix of a majority system and proportional representation. This would have been much more efficient, and would have provided truer representation of the Lebanese people.

    Sure, the 1960 districting is a good compromise, and we would like to implement it. Moreover, there is a serious effort in the parliament today to implement the electoral reforms that have been proposed by the Boutros Commission, which involves limiting the effects of money in the elections, giving an equitable distribution of media capabilities, and providing an incentive for women to be better represented in parliament. Maximum reform along these lines should be achieved. What is technically possible to implement for the next elections will be done, and what cannot be implemented should be put in place for implementation in 2013.

    NOW: Will there be an independent electoral commission for the next elections?

    Lahoud: I think this is essential. I think there is wide support for it. Also, the present Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud supports this commission. I hope it will be introduced very quickly.

    NOW: What do you think of the Doha Agreement in general?

    Lahoud: In as much as the Doha Agreement has allowed Lebanese to reintegrate their institutions, to elect a new president, and to form a national unity government…

    NOW: But it also gave the opposition the obstructing one-third vote in the government.

    Lahoud: Why not, as long as the opposition uses it in a responsible manner. The idea is to give them participation and a voice in running the country. This is not necessarily bad.

    NOW: This is true, theoretically speaking. However, in reality, we have seen how the opposition has been using all the means it has to obstruct the state’s institutions.

    Lahoud: At the threshold of elections, taking place in ten months, the Lebanese people will look very harshly at any party that attempts to obstruct the normal course of the government, which is destined to relieve the pains of the Lebanese people and provide them with a better life, including the proper secure environment that they need to conduct their businesses and their lives, and to express themselves at times of elections. So talking about the Doha Agreement, it has banned any party from resorting to arms and force. It also strongly stressed that any political struggle should be conducted within state institutions. It has allowed Lebanese institutions to function again.

    NOW: What about the Tripoli violence? Arms are still being used whenever there is a conflict or disagreement between the two Lebanese political factions. These events took place after the Doha Agreement.

    Lahoud: This is totally unacceptable. No matter what it is, I’m sure that the security forces and army have now a strong political umbrella from the national unity government to stop the Lebanese from shooting at each other for any reason. We hope they use this umbrella and provide Tripoli with security.

    The government should also work hard to provide Tripoli with socio-economic development. After all, Tripoli is the second capital of Lebanon, and it should be treated as such. Both Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, along with other areas in Tripoli, deserve the government’s attention. It is the responsibility of the government to alleviate poverty and to provide development opportunities.

    NOW: Both Hezbollah and Syria are conducting indirect negotiations with Israel through different mediators. Do you think Lebanon should do the same at this time?

    Lahoud: I think Lebanon should concentrate its efforts on having a complete implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 in order to make sure that Israel stops flying over Lebanon and stops its incursions into Lebanese territorial waters. We should use the UN’s auspices provided in 1701 to secure the restitution of the Shebaa Farms and the Lebanese part of the Ghajar village. Resolution 1701 deserves efforts for its implementation, and I think that UN mediation at this level should be more than welcome. The objective should be to transform the cessation of hostilities that was agreed upon between the government and Israel in 2006 into a permanent ceasefire that would restore us to the 1949 truce agreement. This is our aim, and I think it should be achieved through UN mediation.

    NOW: Where do you see the real battle taking place during the 2009 parliamentary elections? Many predict it is going to be in the Christian areas. Do you agree?

    Lahoud: I strongly urge that the next elections should be an occasion for the Lebanese to express themselves democratically. It should be a competitive, not a confrontational affair. I wish for serious competition to take place all over Lebanon. I wish to see the Lebanese strongly expressing themselves on what kind of vision of Lebanon they would like to see. The Lebanese voter will be faced with clear choices. On the March 14 side, we will put on a strong message for our vision. We hope the Lebanese will take up this vision.

    NOW: Don’t you think that the Lebanese will be intimidated by the presence of arms, especially since arms are still present in many areas, such as Beirut, and obviously in Tripoli?

    Lahoud: That’s true. When we are trying to limit the influence of money on elections, one can say that the influence of arms on elections should be strongly curtailed. This is the job of the government and all factions, to provide a secure and safe environment. This is a strong challenge for the next ten months.

    NOW: How do you see this happening? How can the Lebanese government enforce security in these zones?

    Lahoud: I think we should seriously look at a security plan for the major cities and towns where armed conflicts or friction occurred or could occur. This should be under the umbrella of the national unity government. Security forces should be able to do their job.

    NOW: Where is March 14 today, three years after the Independence Intifada? Many things have happened since then. What keeps bringing the March 14 forces together?

    Lahoud: Three years later, what is bringing March 14 together is not only the martyrs we share or the struggle for an independent and sovereign Lebanon. The strong cement for the March 14 coalition is its vision of Lebanon: strong, independent and sovereign; a Lebanon that enjoys respectable relations with Syria, plays a useful role in the Arab family, and shares common causes with the Arab world, mainly the defense of the Palestinian cause and bringing economic prosperity to the country together with a social safety net. These are the values that bring us together. These are the values that will keep us together.

    NOW: No matter what challenges come along before the next elections? For example, some say that MP Walid Jumblatt is moving away from March 14 for electoral interests. Is he going to choose to be part of March 14 or choose to be a Druze leader?

    Lahoud: I think Jumblatt is one of the main driving forces behind March 14, and he will remain so. We will be a strong united front in the next elections, and beyond.

    NOW: There seems to have been a series of battles and conflicts, starting with the presidential crisis, which was solved in Doha, and then the formation of the government, then the ministerial statement. In your opinion, what is the next battle?

    Lahoud: I do not wish to speak about the next battle. I would like to talk about the next challenge. In the days ahead, it will be President Sleiman’s visit to Damascus. I think he goes there with the full support of all parties in Lebanon, and with an agenda that will try to resolve as many of the disputed or controversial issues between Lebanon and Syria as possible.

    Lebanon and Syria are not deemed to be in a state of tension. There are points of conflict that need to be resolved. I hope the president will have a good go at this time to start to resolve these disputed issues. He will not be able to resolve all of them in one trip, but this visit will produce tangible results. He has our full support in his endeavor, and I’m sure that with efforts, we will reach a state where Lebanon and Syria enjoy a respectable and egalitarian relationship, as two neighboring countries deserve to have.

    After that, the next challenge will be normalizing the security environment in Lebanon and providing the right atmosphere to hold democratic and free elections, along with addressing the multiple aspects of the socio-economic crisis.

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