Abdennour Toumi: Lebanon is currently experiencing developments that could take the Lebanese people back to the painful years of the civil war. What are the options for the next government and political activities in the country? What is the main reason for the immediate interruption of the work of the Saad al-Hariri government?
Prof. Khattar Abou Diab: Lebanon has been grappling with deep political, economic, and social problems for some time. The economic crisis in Lebanon in recent years, in addition to the influence of Hezbollah and the deep pressure of the US on Lebanon, has unfortunately left the country face-to-face with deeper problems. The riots that took place in Lebanon on October 17, 2019 vouched to trigger minor movements in the country. However, the big explosion that took place in the Port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, caused the political instability in the country to accelerate and brought the political crisis to the forefront of the Lebanese agenda once again. Especially after the Beirut Port explosion, the group consisting of Lebanese President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil, came together to postpone the political instability in the country until the next election. The clearest evidence illustrating this was on July 26, 2021, after it was revealed that Najib Mikati could not get votes from Michel Aoun and his circle, even though he had received 73 votes out of 128 to form a new government. The Lebanese people became afraid of August 4 due to the explosion in Beirut. The fact that the explosion left deep traces in the country, and the lack of a clear answer as to who carried out the explosion, evoked concern among the Lebanese people. For many years, the Port of Beirut has become an important trade center for the Middle East and the countries of the region. However, after the disaster, Lebanon was faced with the loss of its great strategic position.
Abdennour Toumi: What are the lessons learned from the 1989 Taif Agreement? Do Hezbollah’s policies have a deep impact on the agreement?
Prof. Khattar Abou Diab: The problem in Lebanon is political, not constitutional. Before the 1989 Taif Agreement, the doctrine of the National Convention existed in Lebanon. With the 1989 agreement, this doctrine was annulled. Unfortunately, with the annulment, the feeling of dependence on the country disappeared and sectarianism took its place. In addition, with the loss of the influence of the doctrine, the question of “Where and to whom does Lebanon belong?” arose. The public began to ask the question of whether Lebanon should turn to the West or take on its own identity as a Middle Eastern country. Consequently, Lebanon has some important features that distinguish it from other countries in the region. In addition to the fact that there are 18 different ethnic groups in Lebanon, there are also major differences in political life. Governing Lebanon in terms of sectarianism or ethnicity can be difficult. In order to achieve this, it is important to be able to re-establish the sense of dependence on the homeland, as it was before the 1970s in Lebanon. Lebanon’s bright future is linked to the resurgence of this sentiment.
Abdennour Toumi: How did the uprising of the Syrian people against the Assad regime affect official and popular Lebanese-Syrian relations?
Prof. Khattar Abou Diab: Lebanon and Syria have always been referred to as twin nations throughout history. In this context, former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad used the words “two nations, one state” for Lebanon and Syria in every speech. Looking back at the past, there was a rupture in diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Syria. The comprehensive diplomatic relations agreement signed between the two countries in 2009 had positive results for both countries. With the 2011 Arab Spring, a civil war broke out in Syria, and, as a result, relations between the two countries came to a standstill. However, it should be well known that the future of Lebanon is linked to the positive future of Syria and Iraq. I am sure that if stability is ensured in Syria and Iraq, this positive atmosphere will also reflect positively on Lebanon.
Abdennour Toumi: What should President Michel Aoun’s administration and new government do to save Lebanon from the nightmare of its financial crisis?
Prof. Khattar Abou Diab: The successive socio-economic crises in Lebanon, unfortunately, led the political crisis in the country to a dead end. The large sums of money that most citizens deposit in banks have recently begun to disappear and be stolen. At the same time, in the latest data shared by UNICEF, it was revealed that the hunger crisis in Lebanon has started to affect children negatively. Likewise, Lebanese citizens are unable to find bread and medicine to sustain their daily lives. It is clear to everyone that the current government has failed to manage the financial crisis. It would not be right to expect the government in today’s Lebanon to resolve this crisis and create miracles. The new government to be established in the future may be successful in managing and eliminating the financial crisis in the country by cooperating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other major institutions, as well as with countries with strong economies.
Abdennour Toumi: What remains of the secret of the Lebanese exception? What are the roles of the major sectarian parties in Lebanon?
Prof. Khattar Abou Diab: As it is in Iraq and Syria, there is also an ethnic group problem in Lebanon. Ethnic groups and sectarian differences have some advantages and disadvantages. From an advantageous point of view, the presence of ethnic groups in Lebanon could be a good factor in strengthening democratic elections in the country. On the downside, the separation of sectarian and ethnic groups could be an important factor in destroying patriotism and Lebanese nationalism. However, no matter what, it will be important for Lebanon’s future to give up ethnic group discrimination in order to restore unity in the country and to re-establish the belonging of living under a single flag, as it was in Lebanese history. If Lebanon manages its ethnic diversity well enough, it could have a chance to rise against Israel and win the title of the most democratic country in the region.
Abdennour Toumi: Recent developments in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have witnessed new turns in the conflict equation and the emergence of new indicators on Lebanon’s border with Israel. How do you evaluate these developments?
Prof. Khattar Abou Diab: Of course, the attacks on Gaza in May deeply saddened us all. The Gaza case concerns all Islamic countries, especially the Palestinians. Israel thought that by entering into a normalization process with some Arab countries, it could take Gaza and the West Bank within its borders. However, the Palestinian resistance in Gaza was a harsh response to Israel. We, as the Islamic world, are currently under a crucial test. We need to be united so that the Palestinian cause can be resolved, and Palestine regains its territorial integrity. On the other hand, if we look at Lebanon’s relations with Israel, Lebanon had some important bilateral agreements with Israel dating back to the pre-establishment of Palestine. There have been significant conflicts between Lebanon and Israel over time. These conflicts took place in 1978, 1982, 1996, and 2006. Even today, there are serious problems due to the annexation of land on the border between Lebanon and Israel. Israel wants to annex the region known as the Shebaa Farms, located within the borders of Lebanon. Syria’s stance on this issue will be very important. If Bashar al-Assad’s administration makes an official application to the United Nations expressing that these lands belong to Lebanon, it will help Lebanon and the issue will be resolved immediately. However, the Assad administration does not make such a move and intends to use these lands to intervene in Lebanon’s internal affairs. In conclusion, it is true that Lebanon has come under the influence of Hezbollah. It will be important for Lebanon to establish its own defense system so that it can resolve the situation and the chaos it is in as soon as possible and protect its own existence.
Abdennour Toumi: How do you evaluate the reflections of the normalization of Arab countries with Israel on Arab relations, in light of the policies of major and regional powers in the region?
Prof. Khattar Abou Diab: In 2003, the US intervention in Iraq caused fixed stones in the region to reposition themselves. The collapse of Baghdad in 2003, unfortunately, led to the blood loss of Arab diplomacy. The loss of influence by some Arab countries in the region as of 2003 caused new powers such as Turkey, Iran, and Israel to emerge in the region. The fact that these three countries have started to play an active role in the region has caused many Gulf countries to act hesitantly towards them. Ultimately, it has been observed that Turkey, Iran, and Israel have begun to play a role in the Gulf at the same level. On the other hand, it has also become apparent that many Gulf countries today act in line with their own interests. Some countries, such as Morocco and the UAE, have normalized their relations with Israel in line with their own interests, and the effect of this has started to emerge in the wider region.
Abdennour Toumi: How would you describe US President Joe Biden’s policy in the Middle East and North Africa? Would you describe it as a continuation of classical democratic politics (between realism and neorealism) in the region?
Prof. Khattar Abou Diab: When we look at the big picture, it can be seen that the US has started to take a step back from the Middle East and North Africa. In order to best understand this, it is necessary to take a look at Israel’s relationship with the United States. Throughout history, Democrats in the United States have always supported Israel more than Republicans. However, when we look at the relationship between the former Republican President Donald Trump and Israel, we can see that this situation has turned upside down. In other words, this situation can be considered as an important clue showing the change in US policy in the Middle East. Likewise, the fact that Israel could not get the support it wanted from the US during its attack on Gaza can be shown as another vital clue showing that the US has started to take a step back from the region. On the other hand, as of the early 21st century, there have been changes in the balance of power in global politics. In the international arena, besides the US, Russia, and China can be considered as great powers, we can clearly see that many Arab countries in the Middle East region have also started to make decisions on their own. Consequently, it is also apparent that European countries are not as strong as they once were.
Abdennour Toumi: Specifically, what remains of France’s policy towards Lebanon and its Arab policy in general, determined by General Charles De Gaulle in the 1960s?
Prof. Khattar Abou Diab: It would not be right to equate France’s endeavors in the past with its current initiatives. However, it should be well known that France has never been behind in its intervention in the Middle East countries. Today, it is very possible to see France taking part in many international issues. In addition to taking an effective role in the Eastern Mediterranean, France has also played an active role in the latest Gaza attack. French intervention in Lebanon has changed, but it has never disappeared. France has always seen Lebanon as a gateway to the Middle East. Thus, it wanted to evaluate Lebanon as a route to the region itself. In line with this, it was possible to come across the definition of “loving mother” by old Lebanese people when referring to France. On the other hand, we can currently see that France has established good relations with US President Joe Biden. It is probable that these positive relations will reflect positively on Lebanon.
Abdennour Toumi: How do you evaluate Turkey’s proactive policy in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean region? Does Turkey’s deep geostrategic presence worry France and Israel?
Prof. Khattar Abou Diab: Turkey has undoubtedly been one of the most important actors in the region in the last 10 years. As a result of being affected by the Arab Spring, Turkey was pursuing the dream of adopting a “zero problem” policy and becoming the “Japan of the Middle East” under the leadership of former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. However, today, Turkey has followed a different strategy and started to show its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya, Syria, and Azerbaijan, and has succeeded in demonstrating its presence in international politics. Although Turkey has problems with France and Israel, its place in international politics has never been denied by any country. Despite all the conflicts, France and Israel will always need Turkey.