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Interview with Al Anwar Newspaper
14 Aug 2005

Q:Your excellency, you have been away from Lebanon for a long time, what is the secret behind this absence, and when are you returning?

IMF: I am not away from Lebanon, in this age of communication, of cell phones, internet and satellite TV, the world is a global village. I am in continuous and hourly contact with Lebanon and developments there. There is no ‘secret’ behind my physical absence, except that after a long period of work in Parliament and the government I have neglected my businesses around the world, and it is necessary to give them some attention, and when it is necessary for me to return to Lebanon, the plane is ready.

Q: is this absence for security reasons?

IMF: caution is always necessary, except that when there is a real national need for my presence, security reasons will not prevent me from being in Lebanon.

Q: do you intend to continue in your political work after you voluntarily left parliament and your governmental post?

IMF: I make a distinction between political work, in its narrow sense, and national work, that I consider a duty. If you mean by political work what we read and see in the media, then I never considered myself a member of the professional political club in Lebanon. I am still an amateur, in the sense of doing something because I love to do it, and from this perspective I will serve Lebanon in whatever way and from whatever position I can.

Q: but you closed your offices in the North and Beirut.

IMF: I closed the offices that were necessary for my work as deputy Prime Minister, but at the same time I opened new offices to undertake development projects that would be of benefit to Akkar and create employment, the first of which, for example, is a cheese and dairy factory.

Q: And the Fares Foundation?

IMF: The Fares Foundation is continuing and will maintain its humanitarian, social and cultural programs, and we are in the process of restructuring it in light of the experience of the last years, in order to make it more effective in achieving its goals.

Q: What is your comment on the letter that was addressed to you by the “Religious Scholars of Akkar” in which they called on you to return to the Akkar and Lebanese scene?

IMF: indeed, I was moved by the feelings behind this letter, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart, and I assure the religious scholars, who are like brothers to me, and the people of Akkar, who are also very dear to me, that I will be by their side in good times and bad. The authors of this letter are dedicated to serving the interests of Akkar, and Parliament is the proper place to raise Akkar’s demands, which have been ignored for so many years. There are now two ministers from Akkar, and I am very confident that they will do all they can to approve development projects for the region.

Q: how do you assess the government’s takeoff?

IMF: the government only recently received its vote of confidence, and I am not one to issue premature judgments, but I will judge on performance and on the achievements and accomplishments not on slogans and statements. And what I care about is the extent to which the government’s performance adheres to Lebanon’s interests. And here we see that some of the decisions that were taken by the government in its first session go in the right direction, for example: establishing the National Commission for Electoral Law Reform; a serious attention to addressing the problem of electricity and fuel, and beginning state to state negotiations. But on the other hand, there were decisions in the last session that indicate a continuation of the old style, such as paying contractors and consultants in the field of waste management from the Independent Municipal Fund, and this is something I had objected to more than once, given the great waste involved and due to the fact that municipalities are deprived of their share of resources from the Fund because of the vast amounts paid to those contractors and consultants, whereas only a small number of municipalities benefit from their services ; and this despite several previous government decisions relating to ending the problem of waste management.

The government also took a decision to renew the lease on the ESCWA building at a cost of $8 million, although this had been discussed previously in the Council of Ministers, but the situation is still as it was.
I think that within the perspective of reform that was announced by the government, it would have been better not to renew the lease and to find another building at lower cost, and to develop a general plan for rented government buildings, knowing that the Council for Development and Reconstruction had prepared a study to build new government buildings in order to move away from these rental costs, and this study is present in the Prime Minister’s office.
In light of that and after the presentation given by the Minister of Finance in the last session, we simply warn that the result of delays and hesitation in undertaking necessary reforms will be negative and dangerous for the country.

Q: you referred to the Taif Agreement and the constitutional changes, what are these changes from your point of view?

IMF: the required changes have been made clearer in practice, especially over the past months, as it has become clear that there needs to be more of a balance in the implementation of the principle of separation of powers, for example:
- we should expand the conditions under which we can dissolve Parliament, because the current conditions make its dissolution impossible, and the higher interest of state might require its dissolution in some cases.
- In the issue of the formation of the government, the constitution says that the formation of the government is undertaken by agreement between the President and the designated Prime Minister, but it does not specify the procedure that must be followed if they don’t agree on the names of the ministers. Therefore, this matter should be clarified, otherwise, we might face situations in the future that could lead to long ministerial crises and a crisis of government in general.
- Another matter: the constitution gave the President a deadline of two weeks to sign decrees, while it doesn’t mention any similar deadline for the signature of the Prime Minister or the relevant Minister, and this is certainly a loophole that should be closed.

- A fourth matter: what if the Council of Ministers takes a decision in a particular matter and the Prime Minister refuses to sign the decree? It is important to clarify this matter.
- Also the matter of the deputy Prime Minister: I think it is time to specify this post’s functions, for it is not reasonable that there be a post such as this in the state without any specified functions, prerogatives and/or authorities made clear in the constitution or law; otherwise, there should be no need for it. These functions, to be sure, should not touch basic authorities that are part of the national agreement represented by Taif, but they should include procedural and practical matters related to helping along the business of government; also, within the confessional system that we live in, it is important to respect the rights of the community that holds this post as a partner in national decision making, while making very clear that specifying the functions and roles of this post are important for the proper functioning of the governmental institution, and not because they refer to one community or another.

Q. what about the issue of eliminating political confessionalism, in light of what the ministerial statement said, which was then accepted by the speaker of Parliament after his reelection?

IMF: I support the elimination of confessionalism in the absolute--political and non-political--as we cannot build the nation that we aim to build if this confessional system continues. We cannot continue to ignore the formation of the National Commission for the Elimination of Political Confessionalism that was called for in the Taif Agreement and in Article 95 of the Constitution. This Commission is to be headed by the President alongside the Speaker of Parliament and the Prime Minister, and includes leading political, intellectual and social figures. The work of such a commission could take weeks or months; but the important thing is that we start today in addressing this problem so time does not pull us backwards.

Q. public debt has surpassed $40 billion, and government policies have not succeeded in addressing this problem, what is your vision and suggestions in this regard?

IMF: the growth of our public debt is the result of the fiscal and economic situations that are both in crisis, and they are related also to the general situation in the country, and to the limited ability of the government to confront political and administrative corruption and to hold officials responsible for embezzling public funds and wasting them, and benefiting from projects and contracts, and not properly managing bill collection in various public utilities, and waste in virtually all areas. The solution should be comprehensive and should include, for example, the following:
- it is not acceptable that all former deputies get monthly salaries. If some are in need (this is not a shameful thing; to the contrary, it probably means that they did not abuse their positions) they can submit requests for aid to the office of the Parliament, which will look into these requests and take the appropriate measures. But to continue in this way for all former deputies is not acceptable in my view.
- It is also not possible that tens of Grade One civil servants are set aside, yet they still receive their salaries and compensations, even after fifteen years of not doing any real work for the government; they should either be put to work if they are qualified, or they should be dismissed.
- Also we must review the employment rolls of the public sector in light of the reports from the civil service board, which said that there are several thousand employees for whom there was no need in some sectors; while in other secotrs there is need.

- There are also tens of independent Councils and Funds that need to be done away with because they are either no longer needed, or because they constitute parallel administrations to those of line ministries.
- All this creates waste and bleeding of the public treasury. Moreover, the big issues require bold decisions: for example the removal of the political protection for the Electricite du Liban company, where the debt has reached $11 billion, without really knowing the reason for the debt up till now.
- There is also the issue of medical expenditures of the government, and the Lebanese University, and the Casino du Liban, without forgetting the issue of stone quarries and the sea front properties of the state, etc.
- These are just some of the reasons that led to the failure of Paris II and that led me to call for a Beirut I Conference before holding a Paris III conference.
- You ask me of my views or suggestions, I say: the judiciary, the judiciary, the judiciary! The strengthening and independence of the judiciary is the first step, and after that comes the strengthening of the central inspection agencies and following their recommendations and reports, on condition that the politicians remove their intervention in these bodies and in the public administration in general; and then proceed with the other reform matters.

Q: what are your views about the way the new elections law should be, given that the government has promised to produce a new draft law within six months?

IMF: the important thing is not to produce a new law in six months, but that the law be fixed and permanent for several electoral rounds, and this is very difficult except within the context of a non-confessional political parties law and that there be among these parties a party for ‘independents’, for all those who don’t want to join existing parties. And the law cannot be just until we address some of the articles of the Taif Agreement, especially in the direction of reviewing the administrative map so that we don’t fall again into what we fell into in past years, especially in the 2000 election law, that did not provide any equality or fairness among regions nor between citizens in terms of the drawing of districts or other standards that the constitution and Taif mentioned.
It is important to emphasize also the need to develop the logistical aspect of the election law in the direction of mechanization and computerization, and the proper management of the voter rolls, and speed in announcing results, and putting a ceiling on election expenditures, and managing media and advertising in relation to elections.

Q: do you think there is a way for the Lebanese expatriate community to participate in elections?

IMF: voting in Lebanese consulates and embassies is something that requires serious logistical preparation, and most countries that allow citizens to vote from outside the country limit that right to presidential elections. The important thing about the Diaspora is that we should remove them from the arena of political infighting and stop using them for political purposes. The non-resident community could be a savior for Lebanon and their success gives Lebanon strength and immunity. But unfortunately the state and the political class are not aware of their importance and do pursue ways to benefit from their abilities.

Q: with regard to granting citizenship to people who are of Lebanese origin; is this something possible to achieve?

IMF: we discussed this matter in the ministerial committee that the Council of Ministers formed and which I headed; it submitted its report to the government and was approved in July of last year, i.e. about a year ago. This report contains all the recommendations and suggestions that lead to increasing the connection between the non-resident community and their home-country. Among those suggestions is an Expatriate Card that gives those of Lebanese origin the right to own property in Lebanon and to open businesses and companies and to be exempt them from entry visas, and gives them the right to citizenship after living for a fixed period in Lebanon …. But the problem remains in the implementation of these recommendations.

Q: many people propose the issue of separating membership in parliament from membership in the council of ministers, as a first step toward reform and to truly achieve separation of powers as mentioned in the constitution; do you support this proposition?

IMF: I was among the first to call for this separation, and I still do, and that is based on the principle of separation of powers. One cannot be both in the executive and legislative branches of government at the same time, as the decision maker is then supposed to be the person to exercise oversight and accountability. The deputy who seeks to be a minister has less of an ability to hold the government accountable; and the minister who seeks to be a deputy has a weaker ability to implement the law and to stand up to local interests and pressures.

Q: where does Issam Fares stand with relation to the crisis in Lebanese – Syrian relations today, among them the border crisis; what is your vision for the future of this relationship?

IMF: there is no doubt that Lebanese-Syrian relations are passing through their worst period and there is no need to explain that further. And this may continue for some time until the international investigation team issues its report.
I think that we should open a new page between the two countries that takes into account the past and prepares for a new phase based on honesty and clarity, within the context of mutual respect and independence and sovereignty for each of the two countries, and the preservation of their joint interests. This relationship must be firm and stable and not personalized or mercurial or temporary. Therefore I hope that the Higher Syrian Lebanese Council will meet regularly and that meetings will continue between ministers of the two countries, and that we implement the Treaty of Brotherhood and Cooperation and other agreements, and if there is a need to amend some of their articles in agreement between the two countries, this should be done too.

Q: it is known that you have good and close relations with several world leaders including Presidents Chirac, Bush Sr., Bill Clinton and several Arab leaders; how do you assess these relationships?

IMF: I am proud of the personal and special relations which I have with several presidents, prime ministers and statesmen, and I am happy when I am able to make use of these relations to serve Lebanon and its interests. My relations with President Chirac are excellent and date back to two decades when he was mayor of Paris, and then Prime Minister. My relations with the Bush family go back decades and the relations are very familial and warm. My relations with President Clinton and his wife, Mrs. Hillary Rodham Clinton, are excellent and he gave a lecture upon my invitation at the Issam Fares Lecture Series in Tufts University; other lecturers in this series in the past included Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Margaret Thatcher, George Mictchell, James Baker, and Colin Powell. My relations with Arab leaders started in the 1960s in the gulf region from where I started my business career. I feel happy and content when I have the chance to promote better understanding among these leaders, of Lebanon’s situation and the situation of the region.

Q: what is your view of the developments in the political arena after your distance from it?

IMF: I was always unsatisfied with the political situation or performance in Lebanon. I always asked, how could we build a country if we cannot agree on basic matters.
We have one group that wants to eliminate confessionalism and another that is fearful of it,
One group that wants consociational democracy and another that wants majoritarian democracy,
One group that wants to separate religion from politics, and another that sees them as necessarily connected,
One group that wants to rely on the outside to impose its views and positions, and a group that relies on another ‘outside’ to impose its views,
This is in addition to the multiplicity of allegiances, and the confessional atmosphere that dominates the country and the selfishness and double-talk that permeates political speech and action.
What would you say of a country where there are 1st class citizens, and 2nd, 3rd and 4th class; the 4th class citizen can reach only to be a minister, the 3rd class can rise to deputy Prime Minister, the 2nd class to Prime Minister, and the 1st class to President?
In addition they invented a new thing called Sovereign Ministries (i.e. Interior, Defense, Finance, and Foreign Ministries) which can only be held by members of certain religious communities. What logic are they using?
Isn’t this a flagrant violation of the Lebanese constitution that says in Article Seven: “ all Lebanese are equal before the law, and they enjoy, in equality, their civilian and political rights, and shoulder their public responsibilities without distinction between them.”
Isn’t this a violation of the International Declaration of Human Rights that was issued by the United Nations, and announced the absolute equality of human beings regardless of sex, religion, belief or color?
Is this how we revive our country?
And is this how we establish our independence, sovereignty and unity?
We must start from the basic principle that Lebanon has no life except through the interaction of its religious families,
There is no Christian Lebanon alone that can live, and no Muslim Lebanon alone. If this reality is eclipsed, Lebanon will be no longer.

Q: how do you see the future of Lebanon in light of what it has seen of dangerous events over the months that followed the issuance of UNSC Resolution 1559 until today?

IMF: the Lebanese must know, especially the political and party and spiritual leaders, that Lebanon is at a crossroads. And that this new phase requires foresight and calm in taking positions, and requires affirming national principles. Words and slogans are not enough in this regard. I say, enough wasted opportunities; and we were given many of them; but unfortunately we wasted them all, because of selfishness and personal interests and confessional politics.
We must foresee the danger facing our country and protect our unity. There might be a last chance to put Lebanon on the road to salvation and to get out of the dark tunnel. And there is no options for the Lebanese if they want a free independent prosperous and modern county, except to give up their selfishness and narrow-mindedness and to be more patriotic and aware, and to read international decisions more carefully; maneuvering and posturing doesn’t get us anywhere, but to the contrary, it leads us to wasting opportunities.
This is an era of speed in international diplomacy and political movement, and we have to absorb the changes taking place around us. Private deals, that some are trying to make, do not help us; nor does the domineering behavior, that others are displaying, save us. We should do as the old saying says: “don’t be so lenient that you would be squeezed, nor so hard that you would be broken.”