Taking time out of a political visit to Turkey during the country's intense referendum campaign, Ahmad El Hariri, the general-secretary of the Future Movement Party of Lebanon, spoke to MEMO about the political crises facing his country, the turbulence buffeting Lebanese politics and security emanating from neighbouring war-torn Syria, and the issue of Shia jihadist Hezbollah's armaments.
Hariri is the cousin of incumbent Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is himself the son of the late Rafic Hariri who was assassinated by suspected Iranian proxy Hezbollah with the backing of the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad in 2005. The Hariri family is one of Lebanon's most influential Sunni families and have long played a pivotal role in Lebanon's confessional based political system, positioning themselves against Iran, the Assad regime and Hezbollah.
Q: President Michel Aoun is a known Hezbollah ally, which is why many were surprised that the Future Movement Party's Saad Hariri made a deal to allow Aoun to ascend to the presidency. This is due to his connections with the group accused of being involved in the murder of Saad's father, the late Rafic Hariri, the former prime minister. Can you explain the reasons behind this agreement?
Hariri: Firstly, Lebanon after 14 February 2005 and the assassination of Rafic Hariri suffered a harsh political split between the two main camps, the 14 March [led by anti-Assad Saad Hariri] and 8 March [led by pro-Assad Najib Mikati] movements. 14 March wanted to elect a president from its own camp, and 8 March had the same ambition, but in the end they both failed. As a result, the economic situation was getting worse taking into consideration what is happening in Syria and the war there, it was making it difficult for the country from a security perspective.
After 12 years of assassinations, after 12 years of terrorist bombings that [especially] increased after 2013 and Hezbollah's intervention in Syria, we had to think in a wise way. Did we want our country to stay functioning? Or did we want it to go to chaos? We had two choices, and so [PM Saad] Hariri took a leaf out of his father's book, as Rafic Hariri was the only figure after the Lebanese Civil War [from 1975 to 1990] who would make compromises. These compromises are for the good of the country, the people, the economy. At they end of it all, they killed [Rafic] because this [his ability to compromise] was his strength. I think the people who killed Rafic Hariri want the Lebanese to stay split and to fight each other.
In 2017, we will be having parliamentary elections, and if [last year] we reached January of this year without a president, then it would endanger the constitution, and Hezbollah had the ambition to change the constitution because they want more power in the country and influence over its politics. Prime Minister Hariri tried to select Samir Ja'ja' to become president for three years, but he couldn't, then we had the ambition to elect a neutral president, but that also failed.
After 2005, the Shia had their players in power, the Sunnis had their players in power. The Christians, since 1988 and after the Taif Agreement [of 1989] felt that they were ignored and that their main players could not become president. [As a result] we thought that it was time for a powerful Christian to be in power, and so we had an agreement with President Aoun before his election that [if the Future Movement agreed to his nomination] that he would be a president for the whole country and not just Hezbollah. Until now, after six months, we can see that President Aoun is a statesman and is dealing in a way to protect the country and its people, and to make its economy prosper. The last statement of President Aoun at the Arab League showed that he was like a father to all Lebanese, and not just Hezbollah or any other party.
Q: Given that President Aoun has blocked the extension of parliament, which has been sitting since 2009, by a month, what is the Future Movement's position on any new parliamentary elections? Is this something your party would welcome?
Hariri: Prime Minister Hariri wanted to have more time to study a new electoral law, and tensions were growing between the Christians and the Shia [last week] and they wanted to block the parliamentary session called by [parliamentary speaker] Nabih Berri to amend the constitution and postpone the parliamentary elections.
Basically, our main position is that the elections should have been done four years ago, and not now. Because a country without elections for eight years is losing its democracy and hurting its own reputation and its own constitution. That's why we are ready for elections, but under a new electoral law. This new electoral law should be passed with the acceptance of all the parties, because this is Lebanon and this is the matrix of Lebanon [and how it works]. The government this month is working hard to agree on an electoral law, and it will then vote on it and send it to parliament where all the blocs will be responsible for passing this new electoral law.
Q: What does your party propose could be done to resolve the Syrian conflict? Would you support a US intervention? If so, would you support an alliance that would unseat Al-Assad and allow for a post-Assad regime democracy to develop?
Hariri: First of all, I think that the Syrian crisis came as a domino effect of the Arab Spring. No one in the West, the UN, or the EU had a plan of what to do if the Syrian Spring started. And it is clear that after six-and-a-half years, we don't have a solution to this crisis to this new massacre, this huge massacre, that we are watching minute-by-minute on social media.
We can say that the Americans did not play their role, the Arabs did not play their role, and we are now too late to have an armed intervention because maybe an armed intervention will split the country even worse. What we think is that no civil war will be ended on the battlefield, as it always ends in compromise and negotiation.
For sure, we believe that the only obstacle to now for peace is Bashar Al-Assad, and it is clear to everyone now, even the Russians and even the Iranians. But what they are waiting for is what they will take in advance if they want to [depose Al-Assad]. The Syrian people suffered a lot over the past almost seven years, and we have a change of the demography of Syria. There are ten million or more refugees abroad, in Turkey, in Lebanon, in Jordan and in Europe, and there is also some people who left their hometowns to other areas in Syria.
I think that without reconciliation and without true pressure from the West on Bashar Al-Assad, we will not have peace. You know, when the big powers don't do their jobs, proxy wars start. What we are witnessing in Syria is a proxy war.
We look, as a party, in a positive way on the Russian role because if we did not have this Russian role and the Americans are absent, then we will instead have the Iranians being fully in power in Syria. Having the Russians is much better than the Iranians, because their main goal is to keep Syria united. The Iranians, we saw what they did in Iraq, how they split it, and they had the same in what they are doing now in Yemen, and they have the same plan in Syria.
We hope that the Astana dialogue [backed by Russia] will create a breakthrough for peace, and we should continue the Geneva talks on the basis of Geneva 1, whereby Al-Assad has no position in the future of Syria.
Q: Why is Hezbollah being allowed to keep its extensive armaments? Isn't its excuse of the resistance against Israeli occupation now void considering Israel has almost totally withdrawn from Lebanon? Shouldn't military power be focused into the hands of the Lebanese military which should be open to all Lebanese citizens irrespective of their confessional backgrounds?
Hariri: The problem with Hezbollah is that it's a regional power. It's an arm for Iran in the region, because Iran without the Shia Arabs cannot conduct all of these interventions [in the Middle East]. When [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah used to talk about Bahrain, about Yemen, about Iraq, about Syria, and especially about Bahrain, I asked myself, "Why is he so angry about what's happening in Bahrain?". Is it because it is an Iranian goal to take Bahrain and to squeeze Saudi Arabia?
But after all these years, we knew that Hezbollah is directly intervening in all these four crises [Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain]. Nasrallah and his team in Lebanon are responsible for what's happening, and Iran is directing the militants in the region, and the demonstrators in Bahrain, and they are directly controlling the [Shia jihadist] militias in Syria and Iraq. Nasrallah [answers to] the Supreme Leader of Iran [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei].
So when talking about Hezbollah as a regional power, the solution of its armaments is not a Lebanese issue only, but is an international one. This is because we can see that Iran will not let its crown jewel to be lost in this way [disarmament]. Hezbollah is the crown jewel of Iran, and Iran funded and founded Hezbollah since 1979 [after the Iranian Revolution]. It is not easy to talk about Hezbollah to give up its arms.
Second, if Hezbollah wanted to give up its arms to the national army, would they give it up just like that without wanting the army's generals to be a Shia? Without wanting a deputy for the president of the republic? Without changing the constitution in their favour? I don't think so, because they are hiding behind their arms in order to get more power…and who says that if they achieve this power they will then give up their arms?
As the Future Movement, we said in 2010 that these arms we covered for them, the resistance [against Israel] – back then they were still considered a resistance against the Israelis – and we covered them since 1996…For 14 years we helped Hezbollah internationally [to maintain their arms against Israel] and we said that this matter is a Lebanese matter.
After what Hezbollah did in Beirut in May 2008 [when Hezbollah fighters seized Beirut districts], and after the intervention [in Syria] and the killing of the Syrian people, we stopped covering for them [as a resistance] in 2010. This matter will take some time. We can solve it now, but it will change the balance, and we may go back to civil war and chaos, and we don't want this.
Now, Hezbollah is…intervening in Syria, its hurting its own image as a whole, because Hezbollah portrayed itself as the only resistance against Israel and it had the cheering of all the Arab people. Where is it now? Hezbollah now is a militia, one of the militias that Iran is sending to the Arab region to [sow] chaos…to kill people. So their image has changed.
The arms issue, we want to deal with it internally, because at the end of the day Hezbollah now is taking the role of the invader in Syria. When Israel invaded Lebanon, it lost…with all its arms and power. Hezbollah is now taking the role of the invader in Syria, like Israel, and it will lose [forcing it] to come back [to discussions] as equals.
They are now involved in four capitals in the Arab world [Baghdad, Damascus, Sana'a and Beirut] and they feel powerful, but they are dreaming. At the end, they will wake up from their dream, and then we can talk on an equal basis and arrive to a solution.
After 1943 [Lebanon's independence from French colonial rule], the Christians had their own dream. The Sunnis had their own dream with Abu Ammar [Yasser Arafat], the PLO and so on. Now, the Shia are having their own dream, and I hope that this will be the last dreams of one of the main Lebanese confessions. After that, if we manage to keep the issues that we disagree on aside, and work day-to-day together to protect Lebanon and find jobs for the people, and allow the economy to grow, we can save our country.
Lebanon today seems to be a miracle, especially when we see Iraq in chaos, Syria in chaos, Yemen in chaos. Lebanon's relative stability is a miracle considering all these factors.