Corruption, Economic Crises, and Peace Agreements in the MENA

The Take of the Arab League's Secretary General on the Current Political Turmoil
Feature02.10.2020
Aboul Gheit

In a short 30-minute e-talk, as part of the Free Connected Minds conference, Ms. Giselle Khoury, a renowned French-Lebanese Journalist, interviews Mr. Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Arab League's Secretary General, about the most recent political and economic events sweeping the region. The interview begins with two interventions, one by Dr. May Chidiac, former Journalist, Former Lebanese Minister of State for Administrative Development, and Founder of the May Chidiac Foundation and another by Mr. Dirk Kunze, Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom's Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Office. In the remainder of the interview, Mr. Aboul Gheit answers questions regarding the Beirut Port blast and its political repercussions and his opinion regarding the recent peace agreements between Israel and Arab countries.

May Chidiac: I am pleased to welcome all attendees who follow the seminars and dialogues of Free Connected Minds conference. The conference held by the May Chidiac Foundation for the ninth consecutive year, and I am pleased that this year we are partnering with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. We have started with successive episodes that extend from September 15 to October 1, 2020.

These episodes deal with various security, political, economic, financial and social topics, by starting dialogues with leaders and opinion makers, as well as thinkers and writers.

So our journey for this year starts in a somewhat different framework because it is a hybrid formula, meaning it would be conducted through Zoom and inside the studios of the foundation.

We welcome you once again and we are also pleased to announce that we have with us today H.E Secretary-General of the Arab League. Greetings to you, Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and thank you for being here with us. I would also like to welcome our friend Giselle Khoury, who came to Lebanon to conduct this interview with the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Dr. Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

Giselle Khoury:

Good evening, as part of the Free Connected Minds Conference organized by the May Chidiac Foundation and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, I am, as always, pleased to meet H.E Secretary General of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, as he is with us from Cairo. The interview will start in just a minute as we would also like to introduce another friend, Dirk Kunze, the Middle East and North Africa Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.

Dirk Kunze:

Thank you very much for your time Mr. Aboul Gheit. I am pleased to see you. My name is Dirk Kunze from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. We are a German educational institute and we have offices worldwide, but the offices in Lebanon and Egypt are the closest to my heart: the Lebanon office because I spent the last three years there, and in Egypt I spent four years, and my children were born there. So I know a lot about your part of the world. So, as Regional Director for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, I want to thank you for this talk today, and we are very much interested in intensifying the cooperation that we have with the Arab League, in fact we had some talks a few weeks ago with Dr. Fadia Kiwan from the Arab Women Organization as well. So whatever is possible in the future in terms of furthering the project of peace and cooperation carried out by the Arab League, I am hopeful that we can arrange something and I would look forward to that, and thank you very much for your time today for this talk and for being available for us, thank you very much.

Giselle Khoury:

Thank you, Dirk Kunze! You are joining us from Cairo Secretary General, and we would like to thank you for accepting our invitation to meet us via Zoom in this very important conference for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and the May Chidiac Foundation, and to all those dealing with civil society who are trying in some countries, specially Lebanon, to bear the brunt of the absence of the state. You have been in Beirut several times, but the most important visit was the one after the explosion, which was considered the third strongest explosion in the world. You visited the officials but also for the first time you visited the location of this terrorist event because what happened is irresponsible for whatever reason, so you were on the site as a high level official.

My question is, first of all, what did you see when you visited the port of Beirut, which I think you used to pass by before the explosion?

Ahmed Aboul Gheit:

Thank you very much, Ms. Giselle, and thank you Dirk whom I would also be pleased to host at the headquarters of the Arab League to talk about the concepts presented and issues of education. In the Arab League, we have a great interest in the issue of education, and when there is an organization concerned with education, I would be very pleased to receive you at our headquarters. With regard to your question Ms. Giselle, the truth is that I visited Beirut after the port explosion on August 8, 2020, and I was terrified to see the port as if it was bombed by a nuclear bomb.

There are major explosions that humanity has suffered, and many man-made explosions, the most infamous would be the explosions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the 2750 tons of Nitrate obliterated the whole port, and it made me very sad to see Beirut in this situation that everyone has suffered from, but on the other hand, and this is a very important point that I must mention, I noticed the civilized Lebanese people who are ready to do anything to restore Beirut's glory to what it once was. We saw young girls, elderly women and men, children ... everyone is working in the streets that were hit, and this is, in fact, one of the Lebanese characteristics, which is the ability to face difficulties and bring back life again. Beirut went through terrible events from 1975, which were very sad. This tragedy continued until the Taif Agreement in 1989. Nevertheless, the explosion of the martyr [Rafiq] Hariri was something very harmful to the soul, but Beirut is always able to restore itself and its splendor.

Giselle Khoury:

In God’s will!

Ahmed Aboul Gheit:

It will happen with time Ms. Giselle.

Giselle Khoury:

I agree that it is only a matter of time. However, like you said, I saw on the ground that women, girls, youth, and children of Lebanon are holding each other's hands and trying to rebuild what has been destroyed, and this is a very difficult thing. The Lebanese today, about a month and a half after the explosion, as yesterday was the 40th day following the Beirut Great Explosion, are convinced that the neighborhoods will not return as they once were unless through a large workshop, just like what happened in Beirut Souks when they were demolished between 1975 and 1977. My question is more about the officials you’ve met, as you did not always meet the public. Honestly, if I wanted to give you the first, second and third names of the officials from the President to the Speaker of the Parliament, to the Prime Minister, how did you feel when meeting with the Lebanese officials?

Ahmed Aboul Gheit:

First of all, I felt the shock of the event itself, I mean, we must admit that all of these officials are characterized by a great deal of patriotism, from a sense of the tragedy that this society entered as a result of the port blast, but also a recognition of the difficulty of the challenge because the explosion was unfortunately associated with a very difficult economic situation and a thorny political situation. With the demands of the Lebanese people, which are legitimate demands, how can an official respond to all these challenges except through joint and integrated action between the authorities, officials, politicians, parties, and sects, as everyone realizes Lebanon’s need to overcome this stage.

Giselle Khoury:

Were they aware of the magnitude of the shock?

Ahmed Aboul Gheit:

Of course, I mean the thing that I have observed among everyone is that they feel the need to discuss how to deal with this situation because they are Lebanese first and foremost.

Giselle Khoury:

To be frank, you launched a unique initiative, as you are among the first people who said that you are ready to present an Arab investigation for what happened at the port. Honestly, what was the response of the Lebanese President on this issue?

Ahmed Aboul Gheit:

This is not a secret. President Aoun reacted by saying, "I don't mind this at all." It is a question of the amount of confidence that exists within the Lebanese leadership. Some people think that a Lebanese-Arab investigation will not lead to a full disclosure. Ms. Giselle, in your speech, you said “the terrorist act,” and of course a terrorist act from my point of view must be carried out by someone deliberately, a deliberate act. This situation will be revealed by the investigation itself, was there really an outside hand interfering?

Giselle Khoury:

No, I said it on purpose, but I believe that in international law, a person who cannot manage dangerous and explosive materials, is negligent and acts against humanity!

Ahmed Aboul Gheit:

Yes, neglect, certainly neglect.

Giselle Khoury:

Neglect is an act of terrorism. If they do not have the ability to know how to store these materials, then they are terrorists. They are considered the same from our perspective because we witnessed the same result.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit:

I want to tell you something else, Ms. Giselle. Many Arab ports and Arab utilities, following this event, rushed to discuss the issue and ask if they had something similar like the substance that exploded in Lebanon or not. And there is information with some officials that the owner of this material stored and restored it, meaning that people in their nature sometimes do not take full care when they behave. Unfortunately, the port in Lebanon is being asked about 7 years of storing a flammable and explosive substance. It was left for 7 years on the dockside! This is really frightening!

Giselle Khoury:

It is true. Let us not discuss only the port, as we want to benefit from you and your political vision. How about we use the same question asked by Mr. Walid Jumblatt "Where is Lebanon going?" Where do you see Lebanon going with the existence of this French initiative and the American-Iranian conflicts, meaning everything that is happening?

Ahmed Aboul Gheit:

The Lebanese situation has historically been a thorny, difficult, and complex one, and it needs scholars in economics, sociology and politics to explain it.

The other point is that this equation was based on the understanding of the year 1943, and this consensus was destroyed in 1975, and I think I understand the reason for it. It was caused by an external element, meaning that the equation stood until 1975 and then exploded, and when it did, the Taif accord was agreed upon. Taif is also complex and has many sides. If you want to ask me, “what can we do?” What needs to happen is the removal of foreign interference from Lebanon, and the leaders and politicians of Lebanon speak clearly and build trust among themselves that leads to the consensus that paves the way to settling this situation.

Giselle Khoury:

You mean a new social and political contract?

Ahmed Aboul Gheit:

Having a new social and political contract is very possible. My proposal is that Lebanon’s neutrality is very much needed because Lebanon is under regional, international, and internal pressures, and to save it, we must lift these pressures so that the people of Lebanon can work, and we should not expect that this will be achieved overnight.

Giselle Khoury:

What does the Arab League offer in this sense? I mean, is there a French initiative, have the French informed you about it? Are you in the picture?

Ahmed Aboul Gheit:

No, the French are pressuring. France has major interests in Lebanon, historically for 1000 years, and not only with President Macron or other presidents. President Chirac, for example, I remember, had extreme interests in Lebanon and so did other French presidents. The amendment must be implemented and resolved and dealt with by the people of Lebanon and the leaderships of Lebanon. We cannot create a new leadership, and we cannot summon new leaderships from outer space.

They are leaders that must bear their responsibilities and confront the Lebanese people, who have demands and have a very difficult economic situation. It saddens and hurts me to sense that the citizens of Lebanon are going through this very disheartening economic hardship, but the leaders, parties, sects, and the different movements must meet, have a conference and talk, and maybe conduct something similar to a regular event held by the Afghans, a concept called “loya Jirga” or grand assembly where all parties of 2000-3000 would gather for a week or a month to reach an agreement.

Giselle Khoury:

A second Taif you mean.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit:

And why not, if the current situation is not satisfactory, why not?

Giselle Khoury:

True, but my question is: Will you work on this initiative? Apart from Lebanon, I have two questions that concern the Arab League. First, how much are you in touch with the civil society, with people, with the public? We know that you are in constant contact and in constant dialogue with leaders of countries, but with the people too?

Ahmed Aboul Gheit:

I want to tell you something. Federations and unions communicate with the Arab league, and we have departments that interact with them, and when they ask to hold meetings at the headquarters of the Arab League, we host them. We do not charge them anything, meaning when a women's union or youth or sports union, or basically any of the unions that are considered non-governmental organizations, requests a meeting at the Arab League and uses its offices, if we are sure that it is not for profit and does not target political action in a way that affects the activities of the league towards this party, we host them and without cost; they do not pay any fees. We handle everything except what is called “catering costs” for food or drinks. We interact fully, and anyone can experience what I am talking about.

Giselle Khoury:

Yes. If I assumed – and I believe that I am wrong –that you are in agreement with country leaders and not with the peoples; have these leaders coordinated with you the agreements that took place yesterday, which I honestly do not know if they are called bilateral or tripartite?

Ahmed Aboul Gheit:

Let me tell you something Ms. Giselle: The United Nations Charter begins with a sentence or in general it mentions, we are the leaders of countries and peoples at the United Nations. The Arab League is for governments. Nevertheless, the work has been developed over recent decades in a way that, as I have told you before, allows interaction between civil society organizations and NGOs and the Arab League.

In response to your question regarding coordination, we, at the Arab League, do not interfere in the decisions issued by countries, but when a topic is raised to us, then interaction, communication, and understanding take place, like the special issue of the Emirati-Israeli-American trio. At the beginning of this announcement, when the Palestinian reaction came, the Arab league reacted right away and has put this issue on the meeting agenda, and there were 20 days from the 13th or 14th of August to the 9th of September, meaning about 25 days full of interaction and understanding between the Emirati, Palestinian, Saudi, Egyptian, Moroccan, and Algerian sides.

There were many talks that needed to be addressed in a unified Arab stance that ensures that Arabs do not clash with each other, because this is one of the tasks of the Arab League: to coordinate Arab positions in a way that secures conscious Arab action capable of achieving Arab goals based on experiences and collective management.

Giselle Khoury:

What happened? Did you pick up the phone and call one, or did someone call you?

Have you talked to Abu Mazen? Have you spoken to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, the Crown Prince of Bahrain, or all the people?

Ahmed Aboul Gheit:

I spoke with Abu Mazen of course, and I spoke to all parties.

Giselle Khoury:

Where do you see the region heading? Are we opening a new page regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict? Is there a change in speech? Is there a new stage? You can answer me in two words so that you are relieved of me and my questions, and in order not to take more of your time.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit:

We will have a meeting on the 27th.

Giselle Khoury:

Yes, I leave many things for the 27th.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit:

I will tell you something very briefly. The Arab meetings revealed that Arabs are committed to basic rights included in the Arab initiative, the concept of two states, the concept of Israel’s withdrawal, and the concept of peace as a strategic requirement for Arabs. Here, not a single Arab deviated from this context. This is a first point that I want to make to you.

The second point, which is very important, and what we must all understand, is that the Palestinian issue was not resolved yesterday. The Palestinian issue exists and is represented by the people whose land was dispossessed and is living under occupation. This is a second essential point in the sense that no one said that the Palestinian issue was solved. Perhaps the Israelis and Americans imagine this issue is resolved, but for the Palestinians and Arab people, the Secretary General of the Arab League and the Arab government, the Palestinian issue is still the crown of issues. This is the second point.

The third very important point, from my perspective at least and not from the viewpoint of the UAE, is that freezing the Israeli goal of adding 30% of the west bank lands is in my opinion a very good thing. It is very good that Israel has recognized this freeze and is not seeking to execute it.

The fourth and final point in this talk is going to be a brief one because I am not equipped with perfect responses right now. The fourth and final point is that the Emirati and Bahraini positions in this pursuit and the Arab situation in dealing with the issue on September 9 force America and Israel to take a new curve, meaning if you, Israeli Prime Minister, thought that the issue is only a matter of economic interests and economic peace, then you are not aware that the Palestinian issue exists.

Yesterday I was reading in one of the articles, Israeli articles talking about the population of the West Bank: 3 million Palestinians, Gaza: 2 million which add up to 5 million Palestinians, and there are 2 million Palestinians with Israeli nationalities, or 7 million Arab Palestinians in the area from the sea to the river. A number that is exactly equivalent to the number of the population of Israel, including Jews and others, which creates a problem for Israel. This problem is either resolved through the concept of two states and giving Palestinians the right to compete and to exercise full rule and full will on their land, or they do something that neither the Arabs nor the Palestinians agreed to, which is, a country with two nationalities. This solution did not work in the end, just like it did not work with Czechoslovakia and many countries with two nationalities, that are suffering from difficulties.

I want to say that Israel should be aware of the realities of the Palestinian situation.

The Palestinians have their land occupied. If you acknowledge this occupation and return their country to them, I am sure that all Arabs, not 2 or 4, will come to you with many concepts of peace, but if you say that peace is in exchange for peace and tell me that you will take the land and you will give me peace, sir, I do not want this peace because your peace without the land has no value. This is what I care for.

Giselle Khoury:

You mean the choice between land in exchange for peace and peace in exchange for peace, which is currently happening. Your idea is clear Secretary-General. Thank you for your time.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit:

Thank you.