Behind the Scenes with Emile Lahoud

Manuela Paraipan, May 19, 2010

Lebanese youths celebrate on Nov. 24, 2007, in Beirut following the departure of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud from the Presidential Palace at the end of his term. (Photo: Anwar Amro/ AFP-Getty Images)

Manuela Paraipan: What are the few crucial moments that you can recall during your time as president of Lebanon and are willing to speak of?

Emile Lahoud: There were more than a few such moments, during 18 years, because I was commander in chief for nine years and president for nine years. As a commander, there were many, but I will tell you the most important.

At the beginning, nobody wanted to mix the brigades that were organized according to religious sects. When I was appointed there was a Maronite brigade, a Sunni brigade, a Druze brigade and so on. There are 18 official sects in Lebanon, and there were 12 brigades.

From the start, I had problems with those who were politically responsible who said that we just went out of the civil war, and if we make the change they will kill each other. I said that if we treat them right, it would work. And it worked. And that's how the army became national. As president there were many important moments, but this time they were related more to international politics.

MP: How did it start?

EL: I was elected in 1998, and everyone wanted Rafiq Hariri to be the prime minister. I wanted that also. According to our constitution, we ask the members of parliament to come to the Presidential Palace to put forward the name of the prime minister. I helped them choose Prime Minister Hariri because he had very strong relations at the international level, and I thought this would be good for Lebanon.

When the members of parliament came with their proposals, Rafiq Hariri came and said that some MPs would like me to choose the prime minister. I said, fine. I choose you. There were maybe 86 votes for PM Hariri and 20 gave the votes to me, to give them to whomever I wanted, and I have gave them to Hariri. He refused to take the position. I was elected president with 117 out of 128 votes, and he also wanted to be elected with 117. I told him that he had been in power for six years already, and I said in French, "Le pouvoir use." When you get the power everyone is around you, but in time, a part of the support fades away. I told Hariri to think it over. It was Friday. I asked him to come back on Monday, and we would start. I was just elected and I wanted to start doing my job.

During the weekend, Hariri spoke on television and said that the president who had just been elected had wronged the Constitution. It was not right and everybody knew that. If he is accusing me from day one, I cannot work with him, and on Monday, I had to make a crucial decision, and it was the right one. If Hariri did not want the job, then I would ask Salim Hoss to take it. He is well known for his probity, and he is a national figure in the country.

Another important moment was during the summit of the Arab League. A week before the summit, in 2002, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Saud bin Faisal came to me with a paper that Prince Abdallah, now the King, had planned to put on the table, and everyone would agree with it. All the Arabs knew about it. That paper was supposed to bring peace. May I read it, I asked? It was one page. I noticed a crucial point for Lebanon. In our constitution, in the introduction, we say "no" to the partition of Lebanon and "no" to the implantation of Palestinians. These two go together, and if the two were not there, there would be civil war again. I told Faisal they had to support U.N. Resolution 194 that stipulates the Palestinians right to return. He said that there was nothing he could do. They agreed with the U.S., Europe and Israel. Faisal said that Prince Abdallah would come to Lebanon a week later and I should talk to him about it. But by then it would have been too late. The summit was only two days away. The first day they arrived, the second day was the opening and the speeches, and the third day they would leave.

I was at the airport to welcome the Arab presidents, and they all stayed for protocol only 5 minutes, with one exception: Prince Abdallah stayed for 15 minutes. No one asked why. I told him that we could not accept the agreement the way it was. Abdallah said that all countries agreed and they asked me to accept. I could not. Then he asked what he could do. I told him that he had to put the right to return in the document. I did not want to have surprises in the summit. He said that's fine, and that tomorrow morning Faisal would talk, Sultan bin Faisal. The next day I didn't see Faisal, and they said that Abu Ammar, Mr. Arafat, the president of Palestine, was going to give a speech live from his place in Palestine, through LBC television, to the summit, to say that we—all Arabs—welcomed the initiative of Prince Abdallah. Then by acclamation, the agreement was settled and they stood up and left and that was the resolution. This meant that I could no longer say anything if all the Arabs stood up according to the plan.

MP: They were disregarding you as president.

EL: Exactly. I said that Arafat could not give his speech. Maybe the Israelis would come on the screen, and we didn't want to spoil it. I did not say the exact reason. I did not want to say anything bad about any of the Arab leaders. I told the LBC that they could not transmit Arafat's speech.

I saw one of the ministers of the cabinet, Marwan Hamade, and in 2002 it was Hariri who became prime minister. He went to the Palestinian delegation and talked to them, and the Palestinian delegation went to the Syrian delegation, and then I saw one of the Syrian delegation members coming to me. Then I said to myself that the guy went to the Palestinians who went to the Syrians, who came to me, only to let Arafat speak. And that was true. The Syrians did not know why I did not agree to let Arafat speak directly, but I told the Saudis about it. I did not allow Arafat to speak knowing that this would have guaranteed the implantation of the Palestinians and I could not have that as president. I gave the floor to some other Arab president, not Arafat, and when this happened, the Palestinian delegation left, the Saudi, the Kuwaiti. There were five countries that left. I continued as if nothing had happened. At the official dinner, in the evening, they did not come and we had the official picture without five leaders.

The next day was the end of the summit, and I went down at 8:00. The summit was supposed to start at 10. I had a small room at the Phoenicia [Hotel] where the summit was held, and I saw the five foreign ministers of the countries that had walked out the previous day and the foreign affairs minister of Lebanon, together with Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League. I asked what was going on. They asked if I wanted the summit to go down in history as a complete failure under my leadership. I said I didn't care as long as Lebanon got its rights. They started to argue with me, and Faisal talked to U.S. Secretary of State Powell, who of course was talking to the Israelis, and gave us the feedback. I said that they have to put in that word or I would not accept the initiative. It went on until 11:00.

People were starting to ask what was going on, and if you go to archives you will find this information. In the end they accepted to have the right to return, but outside the initiative. I said that it had to be in the initiative, and this led to another half hour of arguments. At 11.30, after Powell talked to the other side, they agreed to put it in. I had the initiative as it was, and how it became. They just said that everyone accepted the Saudi initiative. I don't have anything against Saudi Arabia. I would have done the same with the Syrians, with anybody, as long as it was for the good of my country.

Another moment worth mentioning involves Mrs. Albright. It was when Israel was withdrawing from Lebanon. There were talks with Mr. Larsen, and they were afraid that massacres would follow, like when the Christians withdrew from the Chouf area. I knew that this would not be the case. These people were fighting for their country. They had no interest in creating religious dissensions or other trouble. Larsen said that if there were a massacre they would have a donor conference; they had $3 billion for Arafat, which of course they did not pay, and he said Lebanon would get $10 billion. I told him that we didn't want their money because nothing would happen.

I was in the south when the withdrawal started, and there was not one incident, which proved that what we were saying about the resistance was right. We began to talk about where the Blue Line should be. This was not the frontier. We did not have time to send teams to find the precise location. Around midnight, on my way to Baabda Palace, Mrs. Albright called. The cellular did not work back then even 200 meters before the palace entrance, and I was told that Mrs. Albright was on the line. I stopped the car on the roadside thinking that we would talk to each other for five or ten minutes. She said the Israelis withdrew already. I asked to have a minute to check it on the ground. I found out that this was not true and told her that they were still inside the Blue Line.

At first she said nicely that if she were in Lebanon she would have convinced me otherwise, and then she put me on a telephone conference with U.N. officials and others. After four hours of sitting in the car and discussing, at around 4 in the morning, she asked, do you know whom you are talking to? Yes, I know, I replied. She accused me of undermining the U.S. and the U.N. and asked, do you know what that means, Mr. Lahoud? That means, I am sleepy and I want to sleep. I shut off the phone and went to sleep. They did not like it.

They thought Lebanon is this small country that has always been used, and that we comply with whatever they say. And now, I can say that Lebanon is the only Arab country that Israel thinks twice about before attacking.

MP: Why not arm the national army?

EL: They will never give weapons to Lebanon. The proof is that when President Sulayman was in the United States and asked for the army to be better equipped, the Americans said they would give us a few helicopters worth $60 million. This is what we get while at the same time Israel receives more than $10 billion every year. The only way—and I learned this in the United States—to fight a strong, conventional army is to have a resistance, guerrilla warfare.

MP: Why not keep it inside the army and instead either include Hizballah's fighters or train the military for such operations? Why resort to a group outside the army?

EL: When you keep it inside the army, it will be known. You have operations, officers will know and it will be vulnerable. The only way to fight Israel is to be an unknown resistance. It happened to be the Shias because they have the land in the south; why shouldn't all Lebanese go to the resistance? When you have something working you scrap it and try something new that may not work?

MP: Would you say that the role of the army has been diminished because of Hizballah's armed wing?

EL: Hizballah talks very highly of the army. Furthermore, the army is complementary to the resistance. Instead of having it inside the army and weak, I left it outside, and it is strong. We did not have joint operations. We conducted our own, and they conducted theirs.

MP: No one is willing to help Lebanon with weaponry, military training, gear and so on?

EL: The gear needed and the weapons used, to this day, we don't know how Hizballah gets them. The Israelis would have hit them, provided they knew.

MP: Is it rational to assume that the gear and weapons come through Syria?

EL: They say so. Until now nothing has been proven. If it's inside the army, Israel has only to hit the army and the provisions. When the resistance has no more weapons, how can they fight? That's why they want to put it inside an institution. Once they hit the institution there is no more resistance.

MP: Isn't it important to have one commander in chief and not several from different parties, for all the military operations in one country? How is their struggle nationally?

EL: We are in a state of war with Israel. Inside the army they will know the leaders of the resistance. They will hit them to weaken the resistance. Now they don't know. They cannot work in known operations. In the army, you give an order—for example, to go through Beirut to Saida, up the mountain. With Hizballah, nobody knows what holes they are in. They are underground. They have their rockets hidden underground. This is their strength. I can understand why they say that it's important to have only one commander in chief, but in fact if you have only one of both, we are no stronger than Egypt, Jordan, etc. Israel defeated them all in 6 days. Here they stayed 30 days and they had to run away. This means that it worked. I can understand when foreigners like you ask why don't you make a commander for all, but for a Lebanese to say this it means that they have an outside agenda—one that goes through Europe, America to Israel.

MP: What about the foreign agenda that goes through Hizballah to Iran? What's the difference?

EL: The difference is—and I am using myself, a Maronite that has been in the West, as an example—that if until now they thought that I get some little personal interest from Hizballah or Syria, everybody would have put it in the newspaper. Here they say all they want, but they know that I did it because I saw that these people were ready to die for their country.

This is a condensed version of the full interview, which was first published by World Security Network in January 2009 and was also published by the Middle East Political and Economic Institute:

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