Zgharta MP Michel Moawad obtained 36 votes in the first session held to elect a new president and 42 in the second one that was held on Thursday. While Hezbollah perceives him as a “defiant candidate,” he is currently supported by the Lebanese Forces, the Progressive Socialist Party, the Kataeb and several MPs who claim to belong to the sovereignist camp. Given his political positioning, it will be very difficult for him to obtain the support of 86 MPs, which is required for the election of a president in the first round, and for the quorum in the second round.
But for the moment, he is trying to rally a majority of 65 MPs behind his candidacy, assuming that the protest movement’s MPs and the Sunni MPs close to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri would give him their support. How can he achieve that? What objective does his candidacy have? What is his vision to get Lebanon out of the crisis? L’Orient-Le Jour delved into some of these questions in an interview with Moawad.
L’Orient-Le Jour: You are asking the opposition to unite behind your candidacy. But why must it do so, knowing that, given Hezbollah’s veto, you will not be elected president?
Michel Moawad: In the current balance of power, Hezbollah will veto any candidate who does not accept its strategic desires and those of its allies regarding the distribution of power for the coming years. In other words, no candidate will be elected without first submitting to the conditions of Hezbollah and its allies. Do we have to accept this submission? Were we not elected to change things? For example, should we stop the investigation because Hezbollah does not want justice to be served in the Beirut port explosion case?
What alternative do you propose?
Today we are in the situation of a company where one shareholder (Hezbollah and its allies) holds 45 percent of the company, but can decide everything because the rest of the shareholders are scattered. However, if the remaining 55 percent unite their ranks despite their differences, they would become the majority and we would enter a different dynamic. If this diverse opposition, which holds a parliamentary majority, were to unite behind my candidacy, with a clear vision and a precise roadmap, it would be a complete game changer. This would not automatically get me elected, since we will have to fight together for a quorum of 86 MPs. But with this parliamentary and popular majority, we could then force a national agreement that opens the way to real change.
So, will it be necessary to undergo a compromise?
No, I’m not talking about a compromise that would bring a weak president, and that would only be a new submission to the current state of affairs, but rather an agreement of national salvation in a sovereignist and reformist logic. We want an agreement like the one that allowed Fouad Chehab to access power in 1958 or René Moawad* in 1989, each time with a clear state project.
*René Moawad is Michel Moawad’s father, who was elected president on Nov. 5, 1989, and assassinated 18 days later, on Nov. 22. His wife, Nayla Moawad, became the first female Member of Parliament in Lebanon’s history.
What would be the basis of this agreement?
I propose an agreement based on four main points. The first is the need for reconciliation with the Arab world, which implies the return of Hezbollah within the Lebanese borders. The second is the development of a roadmap to sovereignty. This implies delimiting the maritime and land borders with our neighbors, finding a solution to the issue of Syrian refugees, and above all, establishing a national defense strategy that puts strategic decisions and weapons under the authority of the state. The third point is the respect for the Taif constitution. It can be reformed, but first it must be implemented. We must get out of this system of ‘vetocracy’ which prevents any decision-making. A return to good governance also requires several institutional reforms such as the independence of the judiciary, decentralization, and the independence of the administration from political parties. Finally, the fourth point concerns the establishment of a free, productive and fair economy, which requires monetary and financial reforms as part of an agreement with the IMF.
In this national agreement, you are asking Hezbollah to make many concessions. What are you ready to give in return? Should a dialogue be open on a new distribution of powers that would give the Shiite community greater representation in the institutions?
No, I refuse to link the two issues [linking greater representation in return for a national agreement]. It is a moment of truth for Hezbollah and the power structure surrounding it. They can no longer manage the country, and the state is fading away.
This will lead to widespread chaos, which would be a disaster for everyone, including Hezbollah. We are not saying ‘you are not part of the country.’ But we are proposing an inter-Lebanese agreement that would include everyone, under the umbrella of the state. Why should we remain prisoners of local and regional status-quo that we know are changing? Why not find, among ourselves, a stable and lasting agreement? Of course, it is very easy to claim ‘I am the strongest and I want to remain so.’ But it is the responsibility of the opposition to come together and force the hand for a national sovereigntist and reformist agreement.
Would you be willing to withdraw for the benefit of a candidate who is more likely to unite the opposition (opposition to those represented in government)?
I am still looking for that candidate. I have never said ‘It’s me or no one else.’ But I am now supported by 44 MPs, which is a majority of almost 70 percent of the opposition forces.* You cannot ask the majority to bend to the demands of the minority, particularly since the minority is divided and has no serious strategy at the moment.
I am not asking the rest of the opposition to rally behind my candidacy without substantive discussion. I am proposing a real agreement on the vision and on the roadmap, as much as on the candidate.
You are saying you want to be the president of sovereignty. Assuming you are elected, how will you enforce UN Security Council Resolution No. 1559 which calls for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, as well as for government control of all Lebanese territory?
I am in favor of the implementation of the UN resolutions which are an umbrella that promote stability in Lebanon. In order to implement Resolution No. 1559, we need to build a Lebanese roadmap for sovereignty. As a start, this implies agreeing on a national defense strategy under the umbrella of the state.
Will this strategy include ‘resisting’ Israel?
We must defend our country against any threat to national sovereignty. Lebanon has paid the price of foreign interference and occupation by Israel and other countries, like Syria. We cannot have a friendly occupier and an enemy occupier. An occupation is an occupation. We must strengthen our defense capabilities against all occupations and, at the same time, resolve our problems with our surroundings. This implies settling disputes with all countries, always based on our national interest and under the umbrella of the state.
You are accused of belonging to the ‘US-Saudi axis.’ Is it in Lebanon’s interest to align itself with the policies of these two countries in the region?
Anyone with a discourse that differs from that of Hezbollah is accused of being a US agent, but these accusations are worthless. It is in Lebanon’s interest to restore its relations with the Arab world and with the West. But it should not be on any particular axis. I am in favor of a policy of positive neutrality.
Is it urgent in your opinion to sign an agreement with the IMF?
I have been in favor of an agreement with the IMF since yesterday! There is an urgency because every day that passes, it is an additional loss for the Lebanese depositors, and especially the small depositors who are paying the price.
Yet you opposed the ‘Diab plan’ in 2020, and more recently that of Saade Chami?
Just because I opposed the Diab plan does not mean I was against an agreement. We need to find a quick agreement, but not just any agreement. Successive governments since Hassan Diab are proposing an agreement without a political solution and without making those who got us there accountable. It will be difficult, not to say impossible, to finance an IMF plan without the Arab countries, which will not be satisfied with a technical agreement. Moreover, these plans show a clear lack of commitment to reform, which has been proven over the past three years. They advocate a technical and financial agreement that places the entire burden of losses (estimated at more than $70 billion) on Lebanese depositors and the private sector. They are asked to pay to refinance the same political system, with no visibility of change in the future. This is something I categorically refuse.
What alternative do you propose?
First, I want to make an important point: in any solution, the banks will have to lose their capital and then they must be pushed to restructure and recapitalize. But I am in favor of a plan that protects all depositors. We want an agreement based on a sustainable political solution, on the basis of the program I have presented with important reforms in the public sector. Among other things, I propose the privatization of the management of state assets, not the privatization of its assets, because it would be a disaster in the current situation. All this could minimize the bill for depositors and promote the return of confidence, and therefore growth.
Are you in favor of keeping the governor of the Banque du Liban, Riad Salameh, in his post?
You are a member of the Finance Committee. Parliament has just passed a law to lift banking secrecy, which is highly criticized by experts, even though it is an essential condition for an agreement with the IMF. Do you think it is a good law?
I was not present at the first vote, but I said at the time that the version that was voted on did not correspond to what I consider a ‘good law.’ We made some improvements to get it through, but it is still not perfect, although it is acceptable. The difficulty with this law is that there has to be a balance. On the one hand, bank secrecy is no longer a strength for the Lebanese economy, it is rather a weakness that prevents accountability. On the other hand, the complete lifting of bank secrecy that I strategically advocate must be accompanied by a reform of the administrative and judicial system so as not to allow it to open the door to discretionary uses and political settling of scores as we so often see.
This article was originally published in French with L'Orient-Le Jour.