Speaking of internal and regional files… Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati in an exclusive interview with Euronews
As if nothing had happened.. The calamities that have befallen Lebanon in recent years, particularly since the summer of 2019, have not changed the behavior of its politicians.
The scenes of hundreds of citizens standing for hours in front of humiliating queues at banks in search of deposits that were stolen overnight, and in front of ovens to obtain a bundle of bread, did not prompt party leaders and officials to work seriously, away from political maliciousness and bickering, to expedite the election of a president capable of pulling the country out of a crushing, exhausting crisis. State institutions and flattened the national currency.
On the contrary, the already dark Lebanese scene, with the power outages for years, is getting darker day by day, and the Lebanese parties are throwing accusations at each other, blaming each other for the vacuum in power and the position of the president remaining vacant for 6 months.
And all of this comes amid tensions on the southern borders and military maneuvers that, according to some, are adding to “making things worse” between Hezbollah on the one hand and Israel on the other. Coinciding with hints from Tel Aviv about its willingness to wage a war that will not be easy for Lebanon, which is mired in the corruption of a system that is good at tweeting and is unable to provide any effective solutions on the ground, and idly awaits external settlements in the hope that it will have a share of the positive atmosphere.
In order to answer all these questions, in addition to the urgent files on the Lebanese scene, starting with the displaced Syrians, through the crisis of the presidential vacuum, and all the way to the investigations with the Governor of the Banque du Liban, Euronews had a special meeting with the head of the caretaker government in Lebanon, Najib Mikati.
Arab summit between Zelensky and Assad
Mikati begins the interview by answering a question about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s participation in the Arab summit held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and believes that “the Arabs are open to listening to everyone, and we do not close the door to anyone.”
Emphasizing that Zelensky’s presence was a natural matter, and with regard to the Arab differences over the position on Ukraine, Mikati says: “Lebanon took a principled position in the context of the war between Moscow and Kiev, and it is based on rejecting any invasion of another country or occupation of its lands.”
He also confirms that this Lebanese position “is not directed against Russia, with which we have distinguished relations.”
Returning to the Jeddah summit, Mikati explains that it was “excellent,” pointing out that “Syria’s Arab affiliation does not need any decision, as Syria is the heart of the Arab world.”
He says, “I am not aware of the talks that took place before the invitation to the summit, but the important thing is that Syria will play its natural role in the Arab League in the future.”
He added, “The coming days will prove Syria’s role in the region,” explaining that “what Lebanon currently cares about is the return of the displaced Syrians to their country.”
The crisis of the displaced Syrians and Lebanon’s relations with Saudi Arabia
With regard to the crisis of the displaced Syrians, the Lebanese caretaker prime minister stresses that Beirut is forming a ministerial committee to go to Damascus to discuss this file, “Certainly this step will be in coordination with the six-party committee emanating from the Arab League.”
While Mikati believes that “we cannot force the Syrians to return to their country,” he considers that “Lebanon has sovereignty and has the right not to accept the presence of any foreigner on its land illegally.”
He says, “The issue is not directed against a specific nationality, and we cannot be accused of racism. Rather, we only want to exercise our right to sovereignty over our entire land, hence the decision to deport any foreigner who does not possess the necessary legal documents for his residence in our country.”
He added, “With regard to the refugees, we have short, medium and long-term plans to find a solution to this file, and they were discussed and agreed upon by all Lebanese forces in government sessions.”
Regarding the nature of these plans, Mikati explains that they “represent 9 basic points, and I will present them during my visit to Brussels to participate in a conference on the crisis of the displaced Syrians next month.”
On the other hand, the Lebanese prime minister touches on the issue of relations with the Gulf states, specifically the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and believes that “the Iranian-Saudi agreement reduced sectarian nervousness.”
Mikati points out that “Syria’s return to the Arab League and its excellent relationship with Riyadh will automatically affect Lebanon, because Syria is Lebanon’s closest neighbor.”
When asked about the validity of the information about Saudi support for Beirut, he points out, “We have not yet seen any close Saudi investments in Lebanon, but there are promises, and if Lebanon returns to the right track, it will have a share of these investments.”
The relationship with Hezbollah and the recent military maneuvers
It is not possible to talk about Lebanon’s relations with its Arab surroundings, without touching on an important aspect that greatly influenced these relations in the past years, which is the Lebanese Hezbollah.
From here, the caretaker prime minister indicates that “the Arab summit issued recommendations that distinguished between terrorism and the weapon of resistance, and this is the official Lebanese position, as the party is resistant until the liberation of the occupied Lebanese lands, and this is contained in the ministerial statement of my government.”
Internally, Mikati stresses that “no one controls the Lebanese state, and there is no one greater than Lebanon’s sovereignty, and we do not accept the existence of a state within a state, and I am the first to criticize any practices that may affect the country’s sovereignty.”
He says, “I will never allow Hezbollah’s weapons to be used internally, and I am committed to the ministerial statement of my government in terms of resisting the Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory.”
And he added, “I call on Israel to consider this issue and leave the occupied Lebanese territories so that we will have no justification after today to use these weapons, neither as resistance nor at home.”
As for the recent maneuvers carried out by Hezbollah, Mikati expresses his denunciation of them, stressing that “this matter is not in the hands of the Lebanese government, but rather requires a comprehensive and complete Lebanese consensus regarding Hezbollah’s weapons.”
With regard to any future confrontation between the party and Israel, Mikati explains that “Hezbollah possesses the necessary wisdom not to drag Lebanon into any war at the present time. We have gone through several incidents that have occurred recently, and I am aware of what I say of wisdom and awareness to spare Lebanon any all-out war in the region.” .
Corruption cases and lawsuits against Riad Salameh
In a separate context, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, in his interview with Euronews, answers a question about the fate of the Governor of the Banque du Liban, Riad Salameh, against whom an international arrest warrant has been issued, and indicates that “the Lebanese judiciary is the one that plays the main role in this file.”
And he says: “What we care about is preserving the institutions, and in this file we are talking about the Banque du Liban; it is certainly easier for us to dismiss Salameh now, but who bears the consequences of that? And who will take over the bank? To remain a source of respect for the world and the Lebanese.
And whether Riad Salameh bears responsibility for the evaporation of depositors’ money and the tragic economic conditions alone, Mikati adds, “There is no difference between the Banque du Liban and the state.
And he continues, saying: “The state must have the audacity to say that it is responsible for everything that happened, and then it is possible to search for state accountability for the Banque du Liban and commercial banks.”
And he points out that “we have submitted a recovery plan that centers around returning deposits to citizens,” wishing the House of Representatives to study it “in order to straighten things out and rebuild this sector in modern ways.”
Regarding the accusations leveled at Western countries, specifically Germany and France, about interfering in Lebanese affairs after the lawsuits against Salameh, Miqati points out, “I am not familiar with all the judicial issue, and therefore I cannot be certain about this issue.”
The presidential vacuum crisis
The presidential vacuum has been going on in Lebanon for months, after the end of former President Michel Aoun’s term and the parliament’s inability to elect a successor over several sessions.
Commenting on this reality, Mikati considers that this scene has unfortunately become part of Lebanon’s political history, “During the past 18 years, Lebanon has lived about 5 years in total without a government, and 3 years without a president.”
He says, “From here, it can be seen that there is a defect in the operational system of governance that must be amended without prejudice to the full implementation of the Taif Agreement.”
And he added, “If we do not change anything, we will always remain in these labyrinths as countries of solution. But the important thing is that we remain in the light of the Taif Agreement that established peace for Lebanon, and it is still valid on the condition that its implementation is completed.”
Regarding external interference in choosing a president for the republic, Mikati stresses that “when the inside agrees, there is no outside talk, and the basis is between the Lebanese parties before anything else.”
On the other hand, Mikati refers to the issue of the agreement with the International Monetary Fund, and points out, “We sent the parliament the reforms required by the fund, and we established a public anti-corruption commission, appointing its members, and today it is doing its duty.”
And he continues, saying: “At the present time, we have to pass these laws in a correct manner, and then elect a president and form a government that is at the level required to control these matters, otherwise nothing will change.”
Extracting gas from Egypt
In a separate context, the head of the caretaker government talks about the issue of extracting gas from Egypt, and indicates that “Cairo did not put obstacles in this matter, but was only asking for exceptions in relation to the Caesar Act, given that the gas will pass through Syria.”
He added, “The US administration is currently in contact with the World Bank, which is financing this project, and therefore it is not possible to advance this file before the end of the talks between these three parties.”
At the end of the interview, Mikati answers questions about his private life, the accusations against him, and questions about his wealth, and says: “I was a businessman before entering the world of politics, and I did not benefit from my positions in my private affairs.”
He added, “My private wealth declined in the past years when I assumed official positions, which confirms that I did not benefit from anything because of my government positions, and I challenge anyone to prove the opposite.”
And he continues, saying: “In these difficult circumstances that Lebanon is going through, it is only natural that accusations of corruption are haphazard, and I am ready to open all files, all books, and all required investigations.”
Relationship with Basil and retirement from political life
Regarding the reason for the hostility of the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, to his person and his accusation, and the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, of being “backward and reactionary,” Mikati believes, “If there is any error in my performance, then I invite Bassil today, before tomorrow, to elect a president for the republic, and in this way he will have He did his duty and relieved me.”
And he continues, saying: “Let (Bassil) bring a president of the republic, and I will support him and pray for success for him. He considers that I am clinging to this position to monopolize power, but I am actually carrying out the tasks required of me in accordance with the constitution.”
And he adds: “The alternative to me is to elect a president for the republic, so I invite him to do so, and I will be grateful to him.”
Regarding his intention to retire from politics, as former Prime Minister Saad Hariri did, Mikati confirms, “I will not back down from national action in my life, and this task can be carried out in any position we are, and therefore I am superior to any position at the present time. What interests me is that I serve my country, not I’m looking for a position.”