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Former President Amine Gemayel: "The main challenge is the Syrian Hegemony"

By:  Manuela Paraipan
World Security Network Foundation, New York, April 24, 2005

PERSONAL NOTE:

With only a few days left before leaving Beirut, I had the opportunity to meet Sheikh Amine Gemayel, the former
President of Lebanon.

As anywhere else in the world, in Lebanon one cannot meet or interview the important political players without
being recommended by someone from their entourage. The recommendation brings you a step closer to the aim,
but even then it's not sure you will reach it.

Pierre Maroun, a dear friend and a respected member of the Lebanese American lobby for a free and independent
Lebanon, used his personal connections to get me on the list of journalists eager to talk with President Amine
Gemayel.

After a few phone conversations with Amine Gemayel's secretary, we scheduled the interview for my last day in
Beirut. Although the president had a full agenda for the day, his secretary squeezed me in for a brief interview. I
cannot express how honored I felt to be able to meet the president at my (still) young age and on short notice.

Although I began my journey to the president's office one hour before the scheduled appointment, I arrived 10
minutes late for the meeting. This was a very stressful situation, but the taxi driver was not familiar with the
Christian area outside Beirut where the president has his office and we had to ask numerous times for directions
until we arrived at my destination. I thought to myself: "Great! I've started out on the wrong foot. Maybe he will
cancel the interview." President Gemayel's secretary announced to him that the taxi driver had trouble finding the
office, and therefore in a few minutes time, I was able to meet with him. It is difficult to describe how I felt while
waiting in the anteroom, anxious to meet President Gemayel. I have read and heard many things about him and was
fearful that it may not work the way I wanted it to. During his mandate, Amine Gemayel confronted attempts by the
PLO to establish itself on a permanent basis in Lebanon as well as Syria's bid to control the political life of the
country.

Finally, when the secretary told me I could proceed to the president's office, my knees began to tremble and I
clearly heard my heartbeat in my ears. Could he (the president) hear it, too? Hopefully not.

My first impression was that of an extremely polite, yet distant person. After asking me a few questions about the
publication I write for, about my educational background and about the way I perceive the situation in Lebanon,
Amine Gemayel was ready to answer my questions. We were brought water, tea and coffee.

Once we started the interview, the emotions were still high, but the answers captured my whole attention. Sheikh
Amine Gemayel was as open as possible, although obviously tired because of his extremely busy schedule. He
emphasized the fact that Lebanon needs to stand on its own feet without the interference of the Iranians,
Palestinians or Syrians, and then we will see a democratic Lebanon. His past experiences with all of the above
groups were enough for me to trust his judgment. By asking for free, independent parliamentary elections and
emphasizing the importance of voting, the current opposition has won only half the battle. Much more should be
done to improve the quality of citizenship in the country and to elect a parliament - a government that truly
represents Lebanon in all its diversity.

The new office will represent Lebanon in the world, and the messages it will send to the EU, UN, US and the world at
large will matter. President Gemayel and many others were ready to pay with their lives to see Lebanon
independent again. The 1.2 million people who demonstrated after Hariri's assassination proved that President
Gemayel is not alone. Hopefully, the opposition will know how to use this important and rare popular momentum
that they are now experiencing to the benefit of the people of Lebanon

At the end of the meeting, I was reminded of an important life lesson: Ask not what your country can do for you; ask
what you can do for your country

Manuela Paraipan
Correspondent Broader Middle East
World security network

THE INTERVIEW:

During your mandate as the President of Lebanon, you took some daring steps against both the PLO and Syria. Can
you please comment on your policy?
My policy was not directed against anyone in particular, but rather it was for Lebanon. It served Lebanon's national
interest. I was trying to restore the sovereignty and independence of the country. When I took office in 1982,
Lebanon was under several occupations: The Israeli occupation, the Syrian and Palestinian occupations through
the Palestinian enclaves all over Lebanon and the Iranian occupation through the presence on our soil of the
Pasdaran, or the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Therefore, my struggle was multidimensional at that time.

What is your view on the so-called troika formed by Nabih Berri, Omar Karami and President Lahoud-that we see
now acting on the Lebanese political stage?
It is unconstitutional and undemocratic in general since it leads to confusion between some branches of
government, mainly the executive and the legislative ones. The Legislative branch is supposed to balance the
power of the executive branch, and not be a part of it as is actually the case in Lebanon. At this time, there is
complete confusion between the two branches.

Beside the political problems, you also experienced a huge economic deficit. Would you blame the poor
management ability of Lebanese officials or would you place the blame with Syrian interference in all aspects of
Lebanese society?
Both. Lebanese officials were appointed by Syria. Thus, they are the Syrian proxies in Lebanon. The economic
problems are the result of Syrian hegemony and the terrible misconduct of the administration, which is completely
and directly controlled by Syria; this created a debt of over $40 billion for a very small country. It's a huge and
unprecedented deficit.

How do you perceive the political situation at large in the region, given your long time contacts with both the US and
Europe?
Washington is trying to implement democratic systems in the Middle East. President Bush is trying hard to push the
various countries in the area to join the democratic trend. The Europeans are also trying to push the region towards
democratization, freedom and a free economy. We hope they will succeed in accomplishing this task. Lebanon
used to be an example of such a democracy in the region and restoring the Lebanese democratic system will be a
real incentive for the whole region.

What are the main challenges Lebanon will likely faces in the upcoming months?
The main challenge is Syrian hegemony. It will not be very easy to eradicate Syria's influence even after the
withdrawal of its army and intelligence apparatus. After 30 years of Syrian hegemony, the Syrians had enough time
to infiltrate our institutions and our society. We will need some time to wipe away this kind of infiltration from our
society.

What is the future of the current opposition? Is there a good chance to see them as one unified group after the
elections?
We have to work very hard to keep this consensus and to preserve our unity in order to maintain a genuine and
constructive dialog between the various communities for the sake of Lebanon.

Are there any differences between the Taëf Accord and UNSCR 1559?
There is absolutely no contradiction between the two. UNSCR 1559 was issued by the Security Council because the
Lebanese and Syrian governments failed to implement the Taëf Accord.

What should be done with regard to Hezbollah?
Hezbollah should play a political role and not a military one. Ever since Israel withdrew from the South in 2000 in
accordance with UNSCR 425, which was passed in 1978, Hezbollah's raison d'être has ended.

The Kataëb Party is now split. What is its future?
The Kataëb Party is a victim of Syrian hegemony. Syria used to exercise direct control over the various
constitutional institutions in Lebanon as well as over the political parties. Historically, the Kataëb was the main
supporter and the main defender of the sovereignty of the country. Therefore, it became a target of Syrian attacks
and a threat to Syria's agenda, because we could not accommodate Syrian interests and goals in Lebanon with our
party's role to serve the interests of the Lebanese people. This is why Syria could not afford leaving the Kataëb
Party free and independent. What we are focusing upon after the withdrawal is the liberation of the Kataëb Party.
We need to get rid of the confiscation of the party.

Is it likely that a new political formula will emerge in Lebanon instead of the political system organized along largely
sectarian lines that you now have?
It is too early to talk about the future of the political system or of the constitutional system in Lebanon. Now, there is
the Taëf Agreement that we must implement and if there is a need for further improvement of the political system,
then it should be discussed at a later date.

For years you have promoted and struggled for an independent and democratic Lebanon, either from Lebanon or
from abroad while in exile. Do you see any role for you on the Lebanese political stage after Syria's withdrawal?
It is still my task and my mission to serve a democratic and free Lebanon regardless of where I stand. As a
member of parliament before 1982, as President until 1988, in exile until the year 2000 and in the present time, it is
my duty to serve my country. I know I can do a lot for Lebanon and I am trying to be as helpful as I can

END


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