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Guterres to Asharq Al-Awsat: Hezbollah Must Transform into Political Party Like Others in Lebanon

Guterres to Asharq Al-Awsat: Hezbollah Must Transform into Political Party Like Others in Lebanon

Guterres Says He Received Guarantees from Aoun, Mikati and Berri that Elections Will Be 'Free and Fair'
Wednesday, 22 December, 2021 - 05:30
Guterres sits down for an interview with Ali Barada. (Haidar Fahs from the UN)

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 battered county. Guterres called upon the Lebanese political leaders to come together to carry out "fundamental reforms" over any other interests, adding that“ the foreign interference” in the internal life of this country must end.

Guterres suggested that Lebanon “needs a new social contract” that allows rebuilding the middle class that was eliminated, revealing that he had obtained clear pledges 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 his "grave concern" regarding the “no war, no peace” situation in Syria, noting that the mediation of Geir Pedersen, the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, is the "only game in town.”

Here is the text of the conversation:

- There are a lot of things happening 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. Lebanon has shown, when I was High Commissioner for Refugees, an enormous generosity in receiving over one 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 built a democracy with it. So I have for Lebanon very strong feelings and a huge admiration for the Lebanese people. So to see Lebanon in the present situation, it breaks my heart and to see the Lebanese people in this situation breaks my heart.

I think we need two essential transformations. One is that I think Lebanon needs deep reforms. Lebanon needs its political leaders to be able to come together and to be able to understand at the present moment Lebanon and the people of Lebanon come before anything else. They must accept that Lebanon must be a country without corruption, that Lebanon must be a country with full accountability and that Lebanon must be a country with reforms that are essential for its economy and its society to prosper and at the same time. We need an international community in which no country is trying to interfere in the internal life of Lebanon and at the same time that is able to mobilize the resources and the support that a serious program of reforms will require.

- You urged the Lebanese leaders to come together and implement reforms. In practical terms, what steps do they need to take?

It is clear that elections must be held and must be free and fair. I have to say that today I got a very clear guarantee from the President [Michel Aoun], from the Prime Minister [Najib Mikati] and from the Speaker of Parliament [Nabih Berri] that elections will take place at the beginning of May before the constitutional date. Second, we need to have the possibility of a government that is able to conduct 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 true social protection system, a safety net that doesn’t exist in the Lebanese society.

Lebanon was prosperous but was never inclusive. And a government that is able to engage with civil society and establish with civil society a partnership to guarantee that corruption is eliminated and to guarantee that there is effective participation of all communities in the future of the country.

- Are you talking here about a new political and social pact for Lebanon?

It is clear for me that Lebanon needs a new social contract. When I came as High Commissioner for Refugees and discussed the problem of the Syrian children in school, I looked at the statistics and saw that there were many more Lebanese children in school than the Syrians that we needed to have in 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 - more than 60 percent - of Lebanese children were in private schools and that Syrian refugee children outnumbered the Lebanese in public schools.

So Lebanon never had a true safety net, never had a true welfare state. It was a prosperous society but a society in which many became very rich and others had no protection. The moment the crisis erupted in the absence of an effective social protection system, what we have seen was disaggregation of the middle class. So we need to reconstruct Lebanon in a sustainable and inclusive way.

Politicians lack credibility

- You are trending on the social media with posts saying that Guterres is coming here to give credibility to the political class that has failed to lead this country and pushed this country to the brink. Is that what you are doing?

No. I am here to talk with those that are in power, I am here to talk with the civil society, I am here to talk with the youth, I am here to talk with people. I have been to Tripoli to talk with people who carry out various activities in the city. It would be impossible to solve the problems of the country if I do not engage with those who are responsible for the country at the present moment. The engagement is always fundamental even when we want to change.

- Hezbollah is present in every and each report you have been issuing since you became Secretary-General. On this trip so far, I haven’t heard any word from you about the party that so many people, in Lebanon, the Arab world and beyond, believe is the real problem in Lebanon. Why?

I think there are many problems in Lebanon. I think that it is important that Hezbollah becomes a political party that plays the political party rules as any other political party in Lebanon. The only way to make it happen is by strengthening the Lebanese institutions. When you have an elephant in the room, the best thing you can do is to enlarge the room for the elephant not to be a problem.

- And among other things to pay money from the UN or through the UN to the Lebanese army?

We are supporting the Lebanese army with our resources that are meager. We massive support from the international community to the Lebanese army.

- Lebanon’s relations in the Arab world are at risk now because of what we witnessed recently, including the severing of diplomatic relations by Saudi Arabia and other countries. All this appears to favor forming good relations with Iran. What would you tell the Lebanese? Do they have to sever their relations with the Arab world and build a better relationship with Iran?

No, on the contrary, I think Lebanon must make an effort to improve relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council. I had a 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 reestablishes relations with the Gulf countries. And I appeal to the countries of the Gulf - I know Kuwait has been very active in promoting this connection – I appeal to the countries of the Gulf to be part of the recovery of Lebanon. For that, let’s be frank, we live today in a world where everybody is talking to everybody. Even Saudi Arabia is now talking to Iran in Iraq.

- Is that a good thing?

I think that the absence of dialogue is many times a reason why difficult relations transform themselves into wars.

- The refugees issue has been all over the place since your visit and there is this step-by-step approach that Pedersen is trying to promote regarding Syria, including the help of the return of refugees. What are your thoughts and plans about these issues?

I am very worried about Syria because I think Syria lives in a situation of "no war, no peace". You have independently many militias, foreign armies that are in Syria. The situation seems to be blocked and I believe that the only game in town, the only serious effort that is being made in order to overcome the present standoff is the efforts by Geir Pedersen to restart a serious dialogue between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition because the Syrians need to understand finally that the only way to get rid of all the foreign influences in Syria is to be able to come together between them.

- What is 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 values that are essential in modern society.

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