From Guterres to Asharq Al-Awsat: Hezbollah must transform into a political party like the others in Lebanon
Guterres says he has received assurances from Aoun, Mikati and Berri that the elections will be “free and fair”
The current situation in Lebanon “breaks my heart,” said Antonio Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, in an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, during his state visit to the bruised country. Guterres called on Lebanese political leaders to come together to carry out “fundamental reforms” on all other interests, adding that “foreign interference” in the internal life of this country must end.
Guterres suggested that Lebanon “needs a new social contract” that will rebuild the middle class that has been eliminated, revealing that he had secured clear commitments from the three presidents, Michel Aoun, Nabih Berri and Najib Mikati, to conduct a “free and fair” legislative elections in early May next year. He reiterated the demand for Hezbollah to be transformed into a purely political party, like any other political force in the country. Guterres expressed “grave concern” over the “no war, no peace” situation in Syria, noting that the mediation of Geir Pedersen, the UN special envoy for Syria, is the “only game in town” .
Here is the text of the conversation:
– There is a lot going on in this country. Your personal feeling about what is going on?
Lebanon is a country that I love. Lebanon represents an old civilization. Many people say that Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, was founded by the Phoenicians. When I was the High Commissioner for Refugees, Lebanon showed enormous generosity by welcoming more than a million Syrian refugees, sharing with them its resources already in a rather difficult situation. Lebanon represents the possibility of a society combining different ethnic groups and different religious groups and builds a democracy with it. So I have very strong feelings for Lebanon and immense admiration for the Lebanese people. So seeing Lebanon in the current situation breaks my heart and seeing the Lebanese people in this situation breaks my heart.
I think we need two essential transformations. The first is that I think Lebanon needs deep reforms. Lebanon needs its political leaders to be able to come together and understand Lebanon and the Lebanese people today before anything else. They must accept that Lebanon must be a country without corruption, that Lebanon must be a country with full responsibility and that Lebanon must be a country with essential reforms for its economy and society to prosper at the same time. We need an international community in which no country seeks to interfere in the internal life of Lebanon and at the same time capable of mobilizing the resources and the support that a serious program of reforms will require.
– You urged the Lebanese leaders to come together and implement reforms. Concretely, what steps should they take?
It is clear that elections must take place and must be free and fair. I must say that today I received a very clear guarantee from the president [Michel Aoun], of the Prime Minister [Najib Mikati] and the Speaker of Parliament [Nabih Berri] that the elections will take place in early May before the constitutional date. Second, we must have the possibility of a government capable of carrying out the reforms that are essential, reforms from the point of view of the financial structure of the country, from the point of view of the economic structure of the country, from the point of view of the creation of a real system of social protection, a safety net that does not exist in Lebanese society.
Lebanon was prosperous but was never inclusive. And a government capable of engaging with civil society and establishing a partnership with civil society to ensure the elimination of corruption and ensure the effective participation of all communities in the future of the country.
– Are you talking about a new political and social pact for Lebanon?
It is clear to me that Lebanon needs a new social contract. When I arrived as High Commissioner for Refugees and discussed the problem of Syrian children at school, I looked at the statistics and saw that there were a lot more Lebanese children. at school than the number of Syrians we were supposed to have at school. So I was convinced that it would be relatively easy to solve the problem until the then Minister of Education told me that the majority – over 60% – of Lebanese children were in private schools and that Syrian refugee children outnumbered Lebanese in public schools.
Thus, Lebanon has never had a real safety net, has never had a real welfare state. It was a prosperous society but a society in which many became very wealthy and others had no protection. As the crisis erupted in the absence of an effective social protection system, we saw a disintegration of the middle class. We must therefore rebuild Lebanon in a sustainable and inclusive manner.
Policies lack credibility
– You are all the rage on social media with posts saying that Guterres is coming here to give credibility to the political class who have failed to run this country and have pushed this country to the brink. Is this what you are doing?
No, I’m here to talk to those in power, I’m here to talk to civil society, I’m here to talk to young people, I’m here to talk to people. I went to Tripoli to talk with people who are involved in various activities in the city. It would be impossible to solve the country’s problems if I did not engage with those who are responsible for the country at the present time. Commitment is always fundamental even when we want to change.
– Hezbollah is present in all the reports you publish since you became Secretary General. During this trip so far, I haven’t heard a single word from you about the party that so many people in Lebanon, across the Arab world and beyond believe to be the real problem in Lebanon. Why?
I think there are a lot of problems in Lebanon. I think it is important that Hezbollah becomes a political party that respects the rules of political parties like any other political party in Lebanon. The only way to do this is to strengthen Lebanese institutions. When you have an elephant in the room, the best thing to do is make the room larger so that the elephant is not a problem.
– And among other things to pay money from the UN or via the UN to the Lebanese army?
We are supporting the Lebanese army with our meager means. We are providing massive support from the international community to the Lebanese army.
– Lebanon’s relations in the Arab world are threatened today because of what we have seen recently, in particular the breakdown of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and other countries. All of this seems to promote the establishment of good relations with Iran. What would you say to the Lebanese? Should they sever their relations with the Arab world and build a better relationship with Iran?
No, on the contrary, I think that Lebanon should make an effort to improve its relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council. I had lunch before coming to Lebanon with the ambassadors of the Gulf Cooperation Council. I know [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron was in Saudi Arabia. I think it is absolutely essential that Lebanon renews relations with the Gulf countries. And I call on the Gulf countries – I know that Kuwait has been very active in promoting this connection – I call on the Gulf countries to participate in the recovery of Lebanon. For that, let’s be frank, today we live in a world where everyone talks to everyone. Even Saudi Arabia is now talking to Iran in Iraq.
– Is that a good thing?
I think the lack of dialogue is often a reason why difficult relationships turn into wars.
– The refugee issue has been everywhere since your visit and there is this step-by-step approach that Pedersen tries to promote regarding Syria, including assisting the return of refugees. What are your thoughts and plans regarding these issues?
I am very worried about Syria because I think Syria is living in a situation of “no war, no peace”. You have independently many militias, foreign armies that are in Syria. The situation seems stuck and I believe that the only game in town, the only serious effort being made to overcome the current impasse is Geir Pedersen’s efforts to restart a serious dialogue between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition because the Syrians need to finally understand that the only way to get rid of all foreign influences in Syria is to be able to come together.
– What’s the first step?
The first step is the constitutional committee and after that there is something important, the guarantee that there will be free and fair elections and the guarantee that there will be a political process that respects the essential values ââin modern society.