Calling for Lebanon’s Third Battle for Freedom

El Machnouk: National Front to Back Patriarch’s Initiative
MP Nohad El Machnouk (Supplied)
Protesters gather at Martyrs' Square and march towards Beirut Port where a massive explosion took place on the 4th of August, on the first anniversary of the Oct. 17 Lebanese protests over the deterioration of the country's economic situation in Beirut, Lebanon on October 17, 2020. (Getty)

Nohad El Machnouk, the Lebanese member of parliament and former minister of interior and municipalities, spoke to Majalla about Lebanon’s government formation deadlock and its causes. He explained why he doesn’t believe the new judge assigned to investigate Beirut’s explosion could finalize the probe, and suggested that an international investigation should be conducted without the U.S.

He revealed that a national front will see the light within a month, where he called for the Lebanese people to shoulder their country’s responsibility in what he described as a third battle to free Lebanon from Iran’s political occupation represented in Hezbollah. He confirmed his support of the Patriarch al-Rahi’s initiative for an international conference on Lebanon, which he considered the only available solution.

“I told Saad Hariri that his appointment is a trap, but unfortunately he didn’t ask me why,” said El Machnouk in an interview with Majalla.

He explained that Iran has not decided yet to approve a cabinet formation in Lebanon. We are familiar with this, having seen the fate of Najib Mikati’s government as well as Tammam Salam and the second government formed by Saad Hariri.

“Iran believes Lebanon’s government formation is a card to play with against the United States,” he remarked.

“Aoun and Bassil are just a façade; they are not the main reason for the freeze, because if Hezbollah wanted to form a government, it would have been able to do so anyway.”

He also added that another point of debate is the independent ministers to be named by Hezbollah. The party is the only side that has not submitted their list yet.

El Machnouk pointed out that third obstacle is related to the Russian Foreign minister, who met with Jawad Zarif few weeks ago. They disagree on the blocked third, as the Russians disapprove of giving it to Gebran Bassil.

“All these events confirm that there is no government in Iran until Iranian presidential elections are held in June,” he concluded, “The first serious negotiations between the U.S. and Iran will only take place after the elections, maybe between July and August.”

He believed that Biden’s administration encouraged Tehran’s extremism, as he said, “If Trump was there, he would have taken a different and tougher note with Iran, despite being accused of causing chaos.”

Recalling the Democratic administrations’ legacy with Iran in 8 years of Bill Clinton and another 8 of Barack Obama, he said, “It was only a nuclear deal that led to nothing, but emboldened Iran’s aggression against the region, and caused repeated attacks on Saudi Arabia by Iranian-backed militias of Houthis.”

Asked about the Lebanese president’s insistence on keeping the interior ministry, he answered, “Because it is one of the most important institutions in Lebanon. Practically speaking from my five-year experience as Interior Minister, every single citizen is in one way or another linked to the ministries of interior and finance. The President’s team thinks that the ministry of interior will enable him to keep a firm grip on all security services, and strengthen his position.”

President Aoun spoke repeatedly to the media about fighting corruption, but he keeps refusing to endorse the judicial formations approved by the Higher Judicial Council. Nohad El Machnouk viewed this as disrespect of the judiciary.

“This is evidence that the post of the president is vacant,” the MP remarked, “because Aoun is representing a side in the Lebanese conflict. The main issue is that Lebanon is under Iranian political occupation. We need free decision.”

Do you believe the new judge investigating Beirut Explosion would be able to finalize the probe, we asked.

He replied, “I doubt it would happen due to many reasons: First, what took place in the port was under a protected system. There were 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate, only 500 tons exploded. Where did the remaining 2250 tons go? It is either by sea or land. By sea, it would go to countries that uncovered Hezbollah’s networks as in Kuwait, Britain, Germany, Hungary, and Lagos in 2020.”

“Secondly, anything can be transported on land. We should know how come a truck is allowed in and out of the port without any documents. Thus, it can be said that those who control the port and the country oversaw the operation.”

The ammonium nitrate is a seven-year old story, he explained, so its network inside and outside the port facilitated transportation of the nitrates between 2015 and 2016 after the Syrian regime ran out of ammunition to crush its opponents and revolutionaries.

Another reason he provided was his belief that it is not internationally allowed to seriously investigate into the assumption that it was an Israeli strike. He recounts, “An Israeli newspaper was the first to break the news, then Trump spoke about it. An hour later both reports were removed.  Also, where are the satellite images that can help to know what happened?”

He also wondered where the report of the FBI team which participated in initial investigations was.

“What will the judge’s investigation be based on? Even if he has serious and detailed information about Hezbollah or the security system, would he dare to announce it? That’s why since day one I I called to hold international investigation into the explosion, without the United States.”

Battle for Independence

The former minister recently talked about a third battle of independence to free Lebanon from Iran’s political occupation.

Does this come in line with the Patriarch’s initiative?

He noted, “Yes, I call for supporting the Patriarch. It is the only available opportunity for the Lebanese. We don’t have another initiative. In particular, he’s calling for a defensive strategy, that I have been speaking about for years.”

El Machnouk believed that the Patriarch demanded a peaceful solution without inciting or calling for military action. “His approach maintains the constitution and Taif agreement through a strategy to lift the siege on legitimacy,” he said.

He described the Patriarch’s approach as accumulative, noting that time was in his favor. “The Beirut explosion turned the Christians against Hezbollah, which is no more considered their protector or safeguard from ISIS Sunni extremism as Aoun and Bassil used to say,” he remarked, adding that, “When the port exploded, it was a destruction of Christian economy and one-third of the city.”

He advocated that it is the Patriarch’s chance to take the initiative.

In a clear support of the move, he confirmed, “Anyone who is free and keen about Lebanon’s interests will of course support this initiative. A serious diligent Lebanese team should be formed, that’s why I called for a national front.”

He proclaimed, “I consulted with some people, but won’t reveal names. I expect it will be announced within a month.”

Knot of Rights

Coinciding with every crisis, Gebran Bassil calls for restoring Christian rights, apparently to challenge the Taif Agreement which ended the war and assigned presidency to the Maronite sect, Majalla asked El Machnouk about the truth of these rights, given that the President belongs to the Maronite sect.

He explained, “The Taif Agreement has enabled equal shares. His proposal is going nowhere, because no sect has rights outside the constitution. Bassil is using this card due to his loss in the Christian street. He’s trying to restore his popularity, but I doubt he could.”

Some politicians and experts with partisan alignments repeat that the country’s crisis is attributed to thirty-year-old policies. However, El Machnouk, conceding that Lebanon’s current problem is not the first, stressed that it is the first time that none is helping the country.

He explained, “In 2002, there was not enough treasury cover for public wages, so Rafic Hariri got a loan from Indonesia’s Mahathir Mohamad. Now we are under siege, and neither international nor Arab communities want to help us, because they believe we are occupied. If Lebanon wants liberation, we should resist. Lebanon is part of a siege that starts from Iran and ends in Syria.”

“Now is the time for a national front to call for our freedom and third independence. We should not wait for an outside help; nobody wants to help us.”

Asked if this is an outcome of Bassil Foreign policies, he noted that he severely criticised Bassil’s statements against Arab unanimity.

He added, “Saudi Arabia has always helped and supported Lebanon, but how can it help now while Hezbollah’s officials criticize it and other Gulf countries, and back Houthi attacks against the kingdom.”

He acknowledged that Saudi Arabia helped Lebanon from 1992 to 2017, in addition to the help provided by Kuwait and UAE.

The current problem as he explained is much bigger.

“Beside economic and financial issues, our health and social systems collapsed. How could they help us while none in the government denounces or rejects Hezbollah’s rhetoric? Throughout five years, the president didn’t address the government’s stance on the rhetoric against countries that were supportive of Lebanon.”