Walid Jumblatt to Asharq Al-Awsat: Reform Not Possible during Aoun's Term
For the first time since 2005, head of Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) Walid Jumblatt finds himself in the opposition. He stands “alone” as he awaits what is to unfold in Lebanon after what has been tumultuous months that saw the resignation of Saad Hariri’s government in wake of massive anti-government protests, the near collapse of the economy and the appointment of Hassan Diab as prime minister at the head of a “one-sided” cabinet.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Jumblatt said he was willing to give Diab’s government a “chance” despite the appointment of some figures who are loyal to the Syrian regime and who were part of the Syrian-Lebanese security apparatus that was present in Lebanon in 2005. He also expected tensions with President Michel Aoun to come to a head, saying that cooperation with him was “no longer possible”, criticizing his son-in-law and former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
Caught between US and Iran
Jumblatt said that Lebanon is now caught between sanctions and pressure from the United States and between Iran and its allies. The protests, which have evolved into a movement calling for the overhaul of the entire political elite, are caught in the middle. The protesters, noted Jumblatt, reject the current status quo, corruption, government and ruling class “and they are right.” However, they have not yet offered a mechanism on how to change the regime.
The only way to do so lies through elections that are not tied to sectarian conditions, he suggested. Lebanon should also be transformed as a single electoral district.
Commenting on the deteriorating economy and strict bank measures, the former MP said that the people’s reaction “was not spontaneous”. He acknowledged their suffering due to the banks imposing strict capital controls, “but we are awaiting measures that the central bank governor pledged to introduce in order to better serve the people.”
“Some banks and some employees are acting harshly against depositors, who have nothing to do with the American-Iranian clash,” he remarked.
He cited recent “hurtful” comments by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who boasted that the party obtains its money and weapons from Iran and will continue to do so even if the Lebanese state collapses. Jumblatt said Nasrallah was exaggerating because the collapse of the state will impact everyone.
The new government must take firm and “decisive” measures to avert the collapse, especially in reforming the electricity sector that accounts for 40 percent of the deficit, he said.
Change is only possible through an independent judiciary, he stressed. “Can such a political class and regime and such a semi-one-sided government form an independent judiciary?” he wondered.
He acknowledged that some protest demands are justified, while others are complicated, such as holding corrupt officials to account and recovering looted funds. What can be achieved, is holding violators of marine properties to account.
Unresolved electricity problems
Addressing Aoun’s term in office, Jumblatt believed that it was “not possible” to cooperate with him. Such a term is driven by spite, he noted, citing toxic actions which left the country on the verge of civil war after the Qabr Shmoun incident months before the eruption of the protests in October.
“We miraculously made it. Some local and foreign pressure helped and perhaps Aoun realized at some point that his son-in-law’s policies are destructive,” he noted. “This is however, just one incident amid many accumulating political issues.”
As for the Diab government, the PSP chief remarked how some of the ministers were selected by some figures who played a prominent role when the Syrian-Lebanese security apparatus was active in the country.
Addressing the government’s policy statement, which has yet to be approved, Jumblatt said the document should not drone out pledges that will never be fulfilled. “We need serious reform measures, starting with the electricity sector,” he demanded. This was specifically requested by the international community at the 2018 CEDRE conference in Paris.
Lebanon was presented with “golden opportunities” that were all wasted, he lamented. He recalled how Kuwait once offered to build power plants, but Lebanon refused. Another company made the same offer and Lebanon again refused. Yet another offer was made and it too was turned down “all because those who control the energy ministry are opportunistic and do not take their job seriously”.
“They would rather keep power being generated in Lebanon through ships, which I believe have now become generators for officials at the ministry or those who oversee its affairs,” Jumblatt said. He said the ministry today is comprised of a minister and general director, without a board of directors. He added that all of Hariri’s efforts to form a regulatory authority were rejected. “They want to monitor themselves because they are acting in complete freedom,” remarked Jumblatt, noting the “major corruption” in the energy file.
Divisive presidential term
“The open campaign against politicians is selective. I do not hear enough criticism against the president’s term, but I only hear criticism against Hariri, [parliament Speaker] Nabih Berri and Walid Jumblatt. Since its eruption, the protesters had singled out Gebran Bassil, today however, this has changed. How can reform be introduced under such a president? This is a crucial question,” he stressed.
Asked if he had a problem with the presidential term or the president himself, Jumblatt replied: “Hariri believed that he could work with Aoun alone, but he failed. The president is surrounded by an intimidating team. It is not important to name names, but some judicial and political decrees were made by this team and the president complies.”
“Three more years remain. Hariri tried the diplomatic route and failed. We will see what this new government will bring,” he said when asked if efforts had reached a dead end.
“We have experience in combating presidential terms. We fought against Emile Lahoud and Beirut became divided into rival camps and then came the developments of May 7, 2008. The economic situation, however, was better back then,” he added. “How can we deal with the crisis knowing that no one will come to save us and that Rafik Hariri is no longer here?”
Returning to the new government, Jumblatt said its “looks can be deceiving, but it does include some positive elements. I have given it time, but I still place myself in the opposition. We will not give it confidence.” Asked if he will join other parties in the opposition, he replied: “I will oppose in my own way.”
“We will not return to old alliances. No one should be led to believe that we will return to the March 14 camp. The conditions that led to formation of the alliance are no more,” he explained, but revealed that coordination was ongoing with Hariri’s Mustaqbal Movement and others.
Amid such a precarious scene, how could Lebanon be kept away from regional conflicts? Jumblatt said: “We can’t do anything for a simple reason and that is the absence of a united Arab entity, Arab coordination and Arab League. The invasion of Iraq allowed Iran to expand and the Syrian regime greatly facilitated its arrival to Lebanon.”
On the role Russia could play in Lebanon, Jumblatt said that Moscow has “not advanced much”.
“The Russians must make practical advances in Lebanon,” he added, suggesting that it can play a role in renting part of the “destroyed” Tripoli refinery. They must rebuild it and keep it away from the clutches of businessmen.