In June, Lebanon holds its first parliamentary elections since the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005.The poll will be fiercely contested and in the run up to the election euronews is talking to various of the country’s political heavyweights. Michel Aoun is the head of the Free Patriotic Movement and leads the main Christian parliamentary group in the current parliament. euronews Your slogan is change and reform; how long do you think Lebanon will be governed under a system of sectarian quotas. How can that be changed to create a non-sectarian Lebanon? Aoun Abolishing sectarianism will help bring change and reform in the same way that change and reform will help to abolish sectarianism. Today a lot of corruption occurs under the cover of sectarianism. And every time we criticise someone in a position of power in the Lebanese administration, he immediately responds that we’re attacking his religion, his ethnicity. To that we say: among the objectives we’ve set ourselves is building a civil state where we’re not talking about sectarian rights anymore and where the Lebanese people just enjoy the rights of citizenship. euronews In the 2005 election you got 70 percent of the Christian vote, which some compared to an electoral tsunami. Do you think you can repeat that tsunami in the June elections? Aoun I think that we are well established on the political scene and liked by the people in our country. We give the Lebanese people hope of building a nation state that will listen to their concerns and which will look out for them and will satisfy their needs. Until now Lebanon has only had political groups that have exploited the country. There’s been a lot of neglect – in production, of social services and even on improving security. There’s been a series of terrorist attacks – bombings and assassinations – and the authorities haven’t found who is responsible for any of those crimes. euronews There are those who say that Michel Aoun is much less popular since his alliance with Hezbollah. Aoun Why don’t they discuss with me my ideas, my political convictions and what I’m trying to achieve? But they are using the issue of my popularity to try to influence public opinion. Our people are more interested in my reform programmes than my popularity. euronews It’s been said that you played a role in the British government establishing contacts with Hezbollah’s political wing, what can you say about that? Aoun There wasn’t any direct mediation, but my political position was that I very much favoured the attempts by Britain and certain European countries to understand Hezbollah’s position. And even the Americans, when they understood that they were not going to drive us and Hezbollah apart, that there is a national unity which is deeply rooted in our politics. Obviously, I helped and supported the position of the resistance – Hezbollah’s armed wing – and I defended Hezbollah with assurances that it’s not a terrorist group as some would have you believe. Hezbollah hasn’t carried out any terrorist attacks around the world, neither abroad or in Lebanon. It has just resisted an occupying force, which is a right recognised under international law and the UN Human Rights Charter. For that reason we refuse to label Hezbollah a terrorist group. euronews You went to Iran, was that visit a recognition on your part of the decisive role Iran plays as a force in the region? Aoun Iran is a major country in the Middle East, between the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean and China. It is a very important regional force that obviously enjoys a certain degree of stability and power. But the purpose of my visit was to thank the Iranians for having supported us during the war with Israel in 2006. Because we only two Middle East countries on our side – Syria and Iran – the European media made out that we belong to the Syria-Iranian axis. It did not say that this axis supported the resistance and Lebanon in a general way. In fact, what happened was the opposite. They helped us and we thanked them. Because when we were under siege from the sea and the air, there was only Syria which opened its doors to us. euronews It is possible that Lebanon would sign a peace agreement with Israel if the Shebaa farms issue was sorted out and even if there was no progress in peace talks between Israel and Syria? Aoun The key to peace with Israel is to settle the question of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and not the Shebaa farms …. euronews Are you saying that if the Palestinian refugees question is settled, there’s no further obstacle to peace with Israel? Aoun Of course not, we are all looking for a fair solution… euronews But Hezbollah, your ally, refuses and says it will never sign a peace accord with Israel and threatens to wipe it off the map! Aoun Hezbollah’s declarations are in response to the western accusations that they’re terrorists. If there are positive proposals then things will change. euronews With the extreme right now part of the coalition government in Israel, do you think that there will be a new war with Lebanon? Aoun Since 2006, Israel’s said goodbye to war in Lebanon. And as things are now, its army is not going to gain any more victories after the 2006 war in Lebanon, and I think that an extremist government is more inclined to peace than a moderate government. euronews What kind of relations would you like to see between Lebanon and the European Union. Do you think Lebanon has gained from its relationship with Europe? Aoun No, I don’t think so. Lebanon has still not got what it should have from Europe. It is true that there are cultural and commercial relations, all that’s good but there is a major role that the EU should play: that is to help to settle the question of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Up till now Europe has moved forward very cautiously in this area, but there can’t be a solution in the Middle East without a settlement of the question of the Palestinian refugees, that is fundamental for the Lebanese. euronews Your relations with France were not very warm when Chirac was president, has that changed with President Sarkozy? Aoun Any change in government can bring changes. Changes in domestic policy can lead to changes in foreign policy. Up till now French policy has been pragmatic, but not enough I think. euronews It has been 20 years since you left the Presidential palace. Are you hoping to return to it? Aoun That’s the last of my concerns. What’s important to me is carrying out a programme of reform and change in Lebanon, because since 1920 right up until now, we’ve lived within a system that hasn’t changed, which has created a kind of political tendencies, or rather of political dynasties, which has exploited the country and haven’t built it up!
Aoun looks ahead to Lebanon election