Interview with Michel Aoun: "If Lebanon Fails, So Does the Middle East"
by Daniel Pipes
Born in 1933 to a farming family living in a small Maronite village south of Beirut, Michel Aoun attended Christian schools, then, during his military service, studied law at the Lebanese University. He had an active role throughout Lebanon's war and rose to the position of commander-in-chief of the army in 1984. Although President Amin Gemayel appointed General Aoun as the prime minister in September 1988, most Muslims rejected his legitimacy and, supported by Syrian troops, managed to force him from office in October 1990. General Aoun took refuge for ten months in the French embassy before leaving for France, where he has since lived. Daniel Pipes interviewed General Aoun in French on September 20 at his very heavily guarded residence in La Haute Maison, a small town outside Paris. Gina Kim, an undergraduate at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, translated the interview from French.
Middle East Quarterly: Is the civil war in Lebanon permanently over?
Michel Aoun: Personally, I never call the war in Lebanon a civil war. It was a war between the country to the east, Palestinians, and Lebanese. Syria favored the destabilization of Lebanon by helping Palestinian armed groups. The war started between Palestinians and Lebanese, then developed sectarian consequences.
The war in Lebanon will never restart if Syria is neutralized. In Syria, then, you see both the origin of this war and its end. Syria is playing the role of a pyromaniac firefighter.
MEQ: Might the fighting start up again if the Syrian troops withdraw?
Aoun: There will never be war again if Syria is neutralized internationally. There will not be war in Lebanon if Syria were to withdraw. The Syrians and some other Arab countries encouraged an uprising that caused this war of twenty years.
MEQ: Was it inevitable that Christians flee Lebanon, irrespective of the civil war? Is this not part of a larger exodus, under way for decades?
Aoun: Yes, and especially after the so-called Ta'if Accord, which I call the Ta'if Dictat. Several things started happening to Lebanon. First, it lost its political identity by giving up decision making to Syria. Secondly, it lost its cultural identity in the drive to Arabize. But Arabic is not scientifically a rich language so Arabizing reduces us to a cultural backwater. There are no scientific works in Arabic because the Lebanese have chosen to speak foreign languages and participate in a world culture.
Thirdly, there is a demographic invasion. This is not simply a matter of internal changes but a lack of control over borders. Hundreds of thousands of foreigners, especially Syrians, are entering Lebanon. In addition, many Lebanese, whose families have been rooted in Lebanon for centuries, have left. But those who have left Lebanon have not left for good, and they will return when the situation improves, foreign forces withdraw, and the rule of law is restored.
MEQ: What do you seek for Lebanon?
Aoun: My conception is a new Lebanon, a modern state, a state of law, all while respecting public liberty; an honesty in the administration of the state; and very good relations with neighbors.
MEQ: Has the Syrian occupation brought any benefits?
Aoun: No, no, no. It is an occupation that never worked for the good of the people.
MEQ: But it has brought economic recovery.
Aoun: The economy? I'm sorry to say that companies are operating at 20 percent to 40 percent of their potential. Besides, there is a systematic suppression of the middle class, which has virtually disappeared, rendering the society unstable. There remain only a few rich people and many poor. Ninety percent of Lebanese are poor today. They sell what is left of their possessions to survive. I'm afraid of an economic catastrophe ahead because of corruption, mismanagement, and plundering of public funds and resources.
MEQ: Is there a Syrian plan to change the population of Lebanon by forcing the Christian population out?
Aoun: Yes, and it's systematic. The Syrians are in the process of changing the country's cultural, political, and demographic identity. They imposed a new naturalization law that arbitrarily gives citizenship to tens of thousands.
MEQ: What about the elections in Lebanon? Don't they give the government legitimacy?
Aoun: Please do not talk of legitimacy when 96 percent of the people boycotted the most recent parliamentary by-elections in Beirut. For the parliament to be legal, at least 25 percent of the registered voters must participate in the elections. The current imposed parliament was elected by only 14 percent of the people back in 1992.
MEQ: Are the Lebanese united against the Syrian occupation, or do the old divisions still prevail?
Aoun: The Syrian invasion in 1990 removed all lines dividing Lebanese. From that moment on, there has been a consensus against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.
MEQ: You wrote in an open letter to President Clinton that "The Syrian regime has made an exact science of human rights violations."1 What do you mean by this?
Aoun: They are very well versed and specialized in the torture of people and in the disrespect of human rights. I consider Damascus to be the anti-Geneva; Geneva is the city of the international standards, Damascus is thus the anti-Geneva. There are about thirty or so ways to torture people: fingernails, fire, and so forth. There are people who were in prison who got out -- they were the lucky ones -- after strong political pressure was applied. They tell of these things and many times carry scars on their body.
MEQ: Should Lebanon remain a member of the Arab League?
Aoun: Does the Arab League still exist? No, it's finished, especially following its failed experience in Lebanon.
MEQ: In late July 1990, just before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, you were quoted talking about Lebanese relations with Syria in the following terms: "As regards customs, traditions and culture, we are a single people. Why should we not have closer ties than neighbourly and privileged relations?"2
Aoun: It's taken out of context. What I said was: "Even if we are the same people, we don't have the same values, so there is a big difference between us."
MEQ: You often portray Syria and Israel as presenting similar problems for Lebanon. The country is "suffering a dual occupation,"3 you said; "if Lebanon still exists, it is because of Syrian-Israeli contradiction"; and the two states "want to manipulate Lebanon . . . ; they want to make it a puppet."4 Do you really see Israel in parallel to Syria?
Aoun: I do. If Lebanon still exists, it's because of a face-off between Israel and Syria. Were those two states to agree on Lebanon's elimination, it would be gone. We are always someone's plaything.
MEQ: Do you see Israel as an enemy of Lebanon?
Aoun: There is a dual occupation of Lebanon. Syria occupies and also took away the country's ability to make its own decisions. Israel only occupies a band of territory.
MEQ: Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has said that an Israeli agreement with Syria would include recognition of Syria's special status in Lebanon.5 What's your response?
Aoun: We were very angered when Yitzhak Rabin and other Israeli officials declared that they have no objection to Syria's remaining in Lebanon. Lebanon is a founding country of the United Nations and a country that never wanted to make war with anyone. It was very bad for us when Israel, a country bordering on ours, recognized the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. We hope they won't negotiate the Lebanese problem with Syria or win concessions from Syria at Lebanon's expense.
MEQ: Is there a significant difference between Labor and Likud governments in Israel on this issue? Is Likud trying harder to deny Damascus control of Lebanon?
Aoun: Israel's policy toward Lebanon has not always been steady. At certain times, the Labor Party was very inflexible with the Syrians, then it became more lenient. It made declarations which displeased us. I make tough replies on this issue because it's our country at stake.
MEQ: What policy would you like Israel to adopt?
Aoun: I cannot tell the Israeli people what to decide, but I do hope they won't give Syria the right to occupy Lebanon or to have a free hand in our country.
MEQ: You've said you expect that the failure of the peace process between Syria and Israel will prompt Americans to start "looking for an alternative," meaning a free Lebanon.6 Is it fair to conclude that your strategy is premised on the failure of Syrian-Israeli talks?
Aoun: No, I don't want that. I have proposed a trilateral table: Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Lebanon by itself is incapable of discussing with these other two states but with three at the table an equilibrium of force exists, permitting Lebanon can leave to end the dual occupations.
MEQ: Do you want the Syrian-Israeli talks to fail?
Aoun: No, that would do us no good. I want peace to succeed, but with an evacuation of Lebanon. At this moment, Lebanon serves as a prize. I am for peace, but I don't want to be its prize.
MEQ: Can Lebanon provide a commercial middle ground between Israel and the Arab world?
Aoun: Certainly. The Lebanese have great experience in this regard. We are a versatile and interdenominational country. This service sector is very well developed, even after all those years of war.
MEQ: Is the "New Middle East" of Shimon Peres a good idea?
Aoun: Yes, the Middle East is in the process of a total overhaul, leaving war behind and reorganizing the entire region a new, peaceful basis. Economic issues will become more important than such issues as ethnic affinity. The Middle East will then be an economic power.
It is necessary to be a man of peace while maintaining cultural identity. In war you try to destroy as much as you can of the other country; now, we have to see how much development we can achieve on our own. I want to help make a new Lebanon, a modern state which lives in peace with others.
France and the Vatican
MEQ: Does the centuries-old Vatican bond to the Christians of Lebanon remain? Is it a purely emotional tie or does it continue to have a practical impact?
Aoun: I don't know actually what the relations are. Certainly, there are Christians in Lebanon, all sorts of Christians, including those who recognize the pope as the head of the church and those --Greek Orthodox, Protestants -- who do not. This relationship is a spiritual one because religion knows no boundaries. I hope that it will remain limited to this.
MEQ: What about the long-standing ties to France?
Aoun: With France, it's a cultural relationship. France no longer has much of a role to play because it no longer has the same power. Its interests rate a lot lower than its prestige.
The United States
MEQ: What about the United States?
Aoun: The United States is the only world superpower after the implosion of the Soviet Union. Its role is essential in all ways.
MEQ: Does the U.S. government control events in Lebanon?
Aoun: No, it does not at the moment. It can make a difference if it wants to.
MEQ: Do you dislike the United States?
Aoun: Here I must defend myself. My grandfather and cousins fought in the American army. My mother was born in the United States (in Jaffrey, New Hampshire), my sister and her family live in the United States, including my nephews. I studied in the United States. I have never been against the United States and have always respected Americans, a democratic people who forward their values and peace, as we do. I cannot be against the United States; besides, politically, I am linked to American politics. How could anyone say I am anti-American? But I regret the American position on Lebanon. I pray for the day when the United States will correctly see Lebanon.
I know the power of the United States, its influence in the world. I know that it can crush anyone who resists its wishes. At the same time, I will defend myself against the United States even if it crushes me, I will only engage in self-defense.
MEQ: You were very disappointed by what you called "the Bush-Baker policy of appeasing Syria at Lebanon's expense,"7 and so supported Bill Clinton's candidacy. Are you pleased with Mr. Clinton's record?
Aoun: He did not change it much. We ask only that the Americans keep Lebanon out of the hands of Hafiz al-Asad. We fear the demographic invasion and the destruction of our cultural identity.
MEQ: What policy would you like to see the U.S. government adopt? Do you seek financial aid from the U.S. government?
Aoun: I have always heard of statements calling for the withdrawal of all foreign parties from Lebanon. For twenty years, we have waited for their implementation. Right now, there's a puppet government no different from those put in place by Hitler in occupied Europe.
MEQ: What specifically do you want of Washington?
Aoun: That it recognize the current miserable situation and help us free Lebanon. We don't ask for the Sixth Fleet to liberate Beirut, but for diplomatic intervention against Syria from the United Nations, instigated by Americans, applying economic and political sanctions.
MEQ: Why should Americans care about ending the Syrian occupation of Lebanon?
Aoun: America is not simply an industrial entity; it's a free country that supports legitimate governments everywhere. It cannot accept a government that is not legitimate. How can it speak of democratization in Iraq but accept the dictator in Syria? How can it accept a puppet government in Lebanon? I believe that restoring Lebanon is vital to the United States's credibility, prestige, morality, and morale, to its image as a great power.
MEQ: You haven't really shown why Americans should work for a Lebanon free of Syrian control.
Aoun: It's not just a matter of convincing the American people, but of convincing those who make policy in the United States. They should know that Lebanon is an antidote to much that is wrong with the Middle East. Fundamentalist Islam is creating a fundamentalist Judaism, for action always leads to reaction. If Lebanon fails, how can tolerant societies be built in the Middle East? No land of tolerance will emerge without Lebanon. Remove Lebanon and that hope is gone.
MEQ: You've said that you plan to visit the United States in the spring of 1996; do you plan to lobby the U.S. government?
Aoun: No, I won't officially visit the United States. I will visit Lebanese there.
MEQ: You have stated that the media in Western countries are not free, but "are subjected to determined influences in foreign policy."8 What countries are you speaking of? The United States?
Aoun: The United States, France, all the countries . . . When I hear reports about myself in the United States being a "Christian militia leader" and "a rebel general," which I correct over and over again, and still they insist that I am a rebel general and a traitor -- that makes me wonder. Who am I a rebel against? A traitor against whom? I am a patriot.
These actions cannot only be the choice of a journalist. The free press informs accurately, so this press is not free. It is paid, hired. He who seeks the truth must recognize that I am not a "Christian militia leader" but the constitutional prime minister. This is why I say there is freedom of the press, but that there is no free press. I am not attacking the press, I am defending it.
MEQ: Elie Salem writes in his book Violence and Diplomacy in Lebanon that although Amin Gemayel invited you to form a government just fifteen minutes before his presidential term expired, on September 22, 1988, "he had opposed Awn for the presidency and . . . was thinking of firing him from the army command."9 Is this statement accurate?
Aoun: It's true; he really called me fifteen minutes before his term ended. He made a political choice. And he not being able to form a government, I accepted the commission.
MEQ: You were a bit surprised?
Aoun: No. I was not surprised because when Gemayel called me during the morning, we saw it coming. He handed me a fire ball that I had to take with both hands. I accepted this as a military mission.
MEQ: What sort of support do you have in Lebanon?
Aoun: The mass of the Lebanese people back me. Opinion polls show that seven out of ten Lebanese support me. Fully 95 percent are against the presence of Syrians. We have had all sorts of elections in Lebanon. In the universities and the unions, for example, I have a strong majority, of 90 percent.
You'll find in Lebanon that nine out of ten individuals don't want to know the current news; but when a newspaper publishes an interview with me, then, just like that, it is sold out.
MEQ: To what do you attribute this support?
Aoun: I am very different. I do not come from the classic school but formed my views with a certain independence. In the old school, leaders made key decisions among themselves. Now, for the first time, I offer a direct discussion between the leader and the people. I don't speak a sibylline language like the others. I have a direct style.
MEQ: Do you have the support of Muslim Lebanese?
Aoun: Lots of Muslims support us.
MEQ: Same level as before?
Aoun: No, it increases as they gain experience with the Syrians.
MEQ: Lebanese politics have long been dominated by feudal-style families: you are a self-made man who bluntly speaks out. Do you see yourself changing the very nature of Lebanese politics?
Aoun: Yes, everyone wants to change style. Right now, a new political discourse is developing in the country. We no longer listen to the old one.
MEQ: During your period in power, you were pro-Saddam Husayn. Have you changed your views in this regard?
Aoun: You speak of this as if it were an accepted truth. Besides, it was approached to me officially in a letter to which I responded. I would like the administration to publish this letter which was written at that time, not now, and you will have the answer to this question. Besides, if John McCarthy, the former American ambassador, publishes the texts of my conversation with him, these would clarify my real position. I have always stood for the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all countries, including Kuwait and Lebanon. It surprises me that the United States did so much to restore Kuwait's independence but neglects Lebanon's.
MEQ: Is it true that you have over $15 million in the bank donated by supporters?
Aoun: No. At a certain moment, the Central Bank of Lebanon, under the control of Syria, froze my state account as prime minister. I had $12 million that was frozen in Beirut. But, it was not the state's. Some supporters placed the money at my personal disposition, and under my personal guarantee. The state has nothing to do with it. It's engaged in a political inquisition against me. I was chased away from the country without my rightful material possessions.
MEQ: There's a lot of money backing you?
Aoun: I have money, enough to live on right now.
MEQ: But not $15 million?
Aoun: Oh, no, no, no, because they are still frozen in occupied Beirut.
MEQ: You have announced your return to Lebanon five years after having left the country. In view of Syrian power and your rejection of the Syrian presence, what sort of response do you expect?
Aoun: I cannot return before August 28, 1996, due to an unconstitutional law depriving me of my rights as a citizen. But after August 28, 1996, I can return because I will then, even according to that unconstitutional law, be a citizen.
When I announced my return, the Syrian-installed government did not officially reply, but it filtered down into the newspapers its rejection of the idea. It is thinking of orchestrating parliamentary elections before my return. That would be exactly the same as having had elections in South Africa without Nelson Mandela.
MEQ: Why are you going back?
Aoun: Because I want to bring home my fight against the Syrian presence in Lebanon. My country is occupied, and I always want to exercise my right as a free citizen.
Everyone is perplexed that I want to return there; at the same time, they are trying to figure out how to side with the "General." They want to side with me so that they can be reelected to play a future role in the republic.
MEQ: The Syrians have a history of killing Lebanese leaders of whom they disapprove.
Aoun: If the Syrian forces are going to kill me, fine, let them. This will not intimidate me. If I am killed, I am killed like the others, and my people will carry on the mission.
1 Advertisement in The Washington Post, Jan. 14, 1994.
Reader comments (1) on this item
Comment on this item
You can help support Daniel Pipes' work by making a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes