President Aoun calls for a conference on 'governance' to save Lebanon
Ten months from the end of his mandate, the president calls for a “conference of national dialogue”. The two central points are Hezbollah's arsenal and administrative and fiscal federalism. For the president, the country’s unity is at stake. The next parliamentary elections should be a kind of referendum on change.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – In order to overcome the serious deadlock that has paralysed the government and many of its institutions since October, Lebanese President General Michel Aoun issued a call yesterday for a “conference of national dialogue” centred on reforming the country’s political and constitutional life, which would include expanded administrative and financial decentralisation, and special focus on Hezbollah's arsenal.
President Aoun’s term of office is set to end 10 months from now. For him, the country’s unity is at stake at present, and there is a need to talk about it.
“I am responsible for the constitution and laws,” he said; “it is therefore my duty to be frank with the Lebanese people and tell them that we must remain one country and one state. However, we must learn from our experience and change our mode of governance so that the state becomes viable.”
"Having the responsibility of upholding the Constitution, I call for urgent national dialogue in order to reach an agreement on three issues, and then work towards their implementation within the institutions.”
They include: “expanded administrative and financial decentralisation; a defence strategy to protect Lebanon; and a financial and economic recovery plan, including the necessary reforms and a fair distribution of losses.”
For the president, “the solution lies first of all in the National Pact”, which has been the basis of living together for Christian and Muslim communities since the dawn of Independence. There is no question of renouncing it; however, the National Pact must be revised.
“The solution,” he explained, “involves a transition to a civil state and a new system whose main pillar will be an expanded administrative and financial decentralisation (a form of federalism according to some). The next general elections (on 15 May 2022) should be a kind of referendum on these changes.”
The president also made a passing reference to Hezbollah, his political ally since the 2006 Mar Mikhaël agreement, as a factor in the deadlock. “Uniting and putting to work the Council of Ministers and all state institutions are a necessary and mandatory first step,” he said.
Implicitly invoking the principle of the separation of powers as the basis of any democracy, the president asked: "In the name of which Sharia [. . .] is this Council of Ministers suspended? Why is it being asked to make decisions outside its remit? Why is its work put on hold for a situation that does not constitute an issue stemming from the National Pact (the basis of the constitution)?”
Formed in September, the cabinet has not met since mid-October due to tensions over the investigation into the devastating 4 August 2020 explosion in the Port of Beirut that killed at least 215 people, injured 6,500 and destroyed areas of the capital.
Ministers from Shia parties, Hezbollah and the Amal movement, said they would boycott its meetings unless Judge Tareq Bitar, in charge of the investigation, was removed. The latter has issued an arrest warrant for former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, number two in the Amal movement, which the internal security forces refuse to carry out.
The president also mentioned Lebanon's defence strategy against Israel, and questioned the existence of a parallel force whose command is independent of that of the national army.
“It is true that the country’s defence requires cooperation between the army, the people and the resistance (i.e., Hezbollah's Islamic resistance), but the primary responsibility lies with the state. Only the state sets the defence strategy and ensures its implementation," said President Aoun.
In addition, the head of state expressed support for good relations with Arab Gulf States, while relations between Beirut and Riyadh have become strained over the years due to Hezbollah’s growing place in Lebanon.
“Lebanon must remain a crossroads of intercultural dialogue, not a land of conflict,” he said.
Lastly, the president addressed the central problem of auditing the Banque du Liban, “a necessary condition” according to him, “to close the accounts of the past and be able to restore to the Lebanese their rights and their money.”
For Aoun, the political deadlock was aggravating the economic crisis in which the country has been mired since 2019. Unchanged for decades, political leaders are accused by a large part of the population of corruption, incompetence and inertia.
Despite the urgency of reform, they persist in their political feuds, crippling the country’s institutions and delaying crucial negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).