* Interview with Former President M. Sleiman
Former President General Michel Sleiman is apprehensive that the failure and collapse of the Lebanese state would lead to the extirpation of the nationalist idea, given that there are people working for the benefit of their own “mini-states.” In a meeting with Jousour, Sleiman expressed that there was no solution to the Palestinian camps issue without a social contract, followed by formal legal regulation. This should first be preceded by an agreement among the Palestinian factions on the formation of a single authority to deal with the State and arrive together at a security solution.
President Michel Sleiman asserts that Lebanon has not lost its independence. “Riad al-Solh said in his Cabinet’s declaration in 1946 that we have created the state and we still have to create the homeland,” Sleiman said. “The state has been built with all its components, including drafting a Constitution, enacting laws, defining powers, privileges, rights and duties, and the national charter.” Unfortunately, the state remains to beset by the rivalries of “mini-states,” Palestinian and Lebanese alike.
“And yet, I feel that the homeland is doing well and its independence exists, and the idea and concept of the homeland have become stronger,” Sleiman continued. “The preamble to the Constitution settles the problematic issue of Lebanon’s Arabism and the finality of its entity [as an independent state]. Lebanon has over the years asserted that it has a stronger Arab identity than that of all Arabs. Supposedly, Syria entered Lebanon to protect its Christians. It was said that its departure would spell their end and the destabilization of its regime would lead to Lebanon’s collapse.
It was also said that not electing a president would divide the country. Since the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the withdrawal of Syria and the emergence of Daesh, the nationalist idea has become more entrenched than before. The different religious groups are vying with each other for nationalism and preventing the weakening and collapse of this independent entity. Let us not forget that Lebanon remained without a president for two and a half years. Before that, there was the July war and other critical events, during which the Lebanese people demonstrated that Lebanon was their definitive homeland.
“I am talking here about the people of Lebanon and not their political administration as fulfilled by a political class that is preying on sectarianism to strengthen its grip. The fear is that the failure and collapse of the Lebanese state will lead to the collapse of the nationalist idea.”
Security-related incidents inside camps and the presence of arms
Sleiman considers the Palestinian camps a microcosm of the Arab and regional situations and their axes. Factional conflicts lead to conflict within these camps, which led to the failure to implement the decision to disarm Palestinians.
“As for the initiative put forward by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his visit to Lebanon during my tenure, which called for the surrender of Palestinian arms to the Lebanese state, the Palestinian Authority was unable to enforce it because of divisions and factional conflicts. What is happening in the camps is the same as the situation in Gaza. We are not the reason for the failure of this initiative. I am convinced that a social contract is necessary first, followed by formal legal regulation and a security solution.
“We, as Lebanese officials, agreed to cooperate and to regulate the security situation inside the camps, which is a reality and we are dealing with it, but the Palestinians did not have a single responsible united authority for us to deal with. We started to address the social and living conditions in the camps, but the events, including those in Syria, Lebanon’s economic problems, the economic slowdown and the contraction of the jobs market, have eroded everything in their wake. In such conditions that are veering towards catastrophic, how is it possible to work toward improving the situation in the Palestinian camps in terms of jobs and other matters, while the Lebanese endure the collapse of their economy?”
The Army and lessons learned from the Nahr al-Bared battle
Sleiman believes that what is happening today is similar to what happened with regard to the Taif Accord and the Baabda Declaration. Nothing finds its way into implementation. “What happened with implementing the Baabda Declaration, the defense strategy, the formation of a body for abolishing political sectarianism and the adoption of a proportional representation election law, not like the one recently agreed upon and that is a sectarian law par excellence? What happened with implementing the establishment of a senate, the independence of the judiciary and Lebanon as a hub for interfaith dialogue? How do we become this hub when there are people fighting for a certain religious group and for a country other than Lebanon?
“What the president of the republic is calling for today, I have already called for before him and President Amine Gemayel before me. But we do not have the ability to achieve it. As for the Army and the security plan for the camps and the country, I believe that the obstacle is the ongoing political conflicts. I say this without forgetting the achievements of the Army. All the Lebanese and the Palestinians supported it in the fight against the terrorist group that was laying the groundwork for the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Nahr al-Bared.
“Therefore, I believe that a security structure must be created within the camps linked to the Lebanese state, with a designated and unified system, preceded by the unification of the Palestinian authority behind the PLO, given that it is the most representative. This would be a way toward a social contract with the Palestinians, which would lead to asserting their rights to employment and property ownership, among other things. So, all things are linked to a sense of cooperation and a good relationship.”
What happened in Mieh Mieh camp?
Sleiman is surprised that the trouble-maker Jamal Suleiman has left the country. He asks, “How can we make things easier in camps in such a situation? We are always afraid of a repeat of the Nahr al-Bared crisis as long as there are foreign hidden hands that incite these actions and push some Palestinians to commit bad acts against their people and against the Lebanese.
“There are many lessons to be learned from the Nahr al-Bared crisis, the first of which is the wiping out of the idea held by some terrorists that the Sunnis would stand by them. But the Lebanese, as a government and people, were united with their Army. It was later confirmed that establishing security and enforcing the law is beneficial for the State and the Lebanese and Palestinian societies in their security and their lives. And that the Palestinian cause should go back to being a purely Arab cause and the Arabs should unite around it. For those who love Palestine should help in this return, even go as far as reclaim it as an Arab cause.”
Sleiman denies the possibility of a pre-emptive Israeli war on Hezbollah. “Of course, any blow to Lebanon will be a heavy price to pay. Everyone is betting on Syria’s hand and the start of an Israeli war with the presence of big countries such as the US, Russia, Iran and Turkey, but it will not be in anyone’s interest. There are preparations for the cards on the table. Unfortunately, we as Lebanese are not ready and we do have not have any cards to play. Why hasn’t Lebanon been left non-aligned in the crisis? What happened with border demarcation? When will the Syrians return? What are our demands? Israel is putting forward its demands, so are Iran, Russia and the US. All parties have demands, but what about Lebanon’s demands? Where is our hand? Where does Lebanon fit in in this solution?”
“In any case, the solution will be in the interest of Israel,” Sleiman says. “I have already written as president of the republic to the Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon the position of Lebanon in the event of any international solution to the crisis in Syria.“
Permanent settlement of refugees and the return of this fear
Sleiman describes the fear of the permanent settlement of refugees as existent because no one wants to allow the return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland. We fear permanent settlement, but only the international community is able to provide fair solutions, and this will be through a two-state solution. Lebanon never accepted permanent settlement and never will. The Palestinians are present, and we cannot deny them their human rights and prevent them from improving their social conditions, and this is something that the Lebanese are at ease with primarily.
Lebanon cannot shoulder successive settlement processes because this will deal a blow to its formula and model [sectarian political power balance] that has been strengthened despite all the events and the calamities of recent years. The two-state solution and the return of Palestinians to the West Bank or Gaza should be secured.
Lebanon can no longer bear the demographic pressure and may explode one day. What resources can we provide for Palestinian refugees who are becoming more educated, and given that decent jobs must be provided for them? There is a high unemployment rate in Lebanon, which is difficult under its conditions and contraction of the jobs market for everyone without exception. Improving the conditions of Palestinians has nothing to do with permanent settlement, it is rather an obligation imposed by international and humanitarian laws.