Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Sunday that he supports calls for Lebanon to become a “secular state,” Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.
“I call for the proclamation of Lebanon as a secular state,” Aoun said during a televised speech to mark the Lebanese state’s upcoming centenary. He said creating a secular state was the only way “of protecting and preserving pluralism” and creating unity in the struggling nation.
“Lebanon’s youth are calling for change … for them and for their future,” the president said. Since last October, anti-government protesters in Lebanon have accused Aoun, 85, of being out of touch with the nation’s youth and its popular demands.
“I say yes, the time has come,” Aoun declared. “There is a need to develop, modify, change the system.”
The president called for a dialogue to devise “a formula that is accepted by everyone and that would be embodied in the appropriate constitutional amendments.” Such a dialogue would need to include both religious authorities and political leaders, according to Aoun.
The president failed to elaborate on how Lebanon’s ruling system could be changed in terms of secularization. Such a transition would involve tremendous adjustment for Lebanon, which has been ruled along sectarian lines for over three decades.
“Lebanon boasts 18 different [religious] sects and has been governed by the Taif Agreement which allocates key government positions to a particular religious group, since 1989,” the Middle East Monitor notes. “Under the agreement, which ended the 15-year civil war, Lebanon’s president must be Maronite Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament Shia Muslim.”
Aoun did not mention in his speech anything about removing the Taif mandate that each office must be held by a member of a specific religion.
Lebanon’s government resigned almost in its entirety — Aoun the glaring exception — following a devastating port explosion in the nation’s capital, Beirut, on August 4. The major blast killed at least 220 people, injured thousands, and left several thousand homeless.
Former Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the blast was caused by a large cargo of ammonium nitrate stored carelessly for nearly a decade near the Port of Beirut. Lebanon’s government reportedly knew the highly combustible cargo was warehoused near the country’s main port for years but made no attempt to move it to a safer location. Many in Lebanon blamed government corruption and negligence for the explosion, and several government officials resigned in the wake of the blast, including Diab.
Much of Lebanon’s government corruption may be traced to Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy terrorist group that operates as a political party in Lebanon and has planted agents within the nation’s coalition government. Hezbollah leader and Aoun ally Hassan Nasrallah claimed on Sunday that the terrorist organization was “open to a new political contract for Lebanon,” Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya reported.
“On his latest visit to Lebanon, we heard a call from the French president for a new political pact in Lebanon … today we are open to a constructive discussion in this regard,” Nasrallah said. “But we have one condition: this discussion should be carried out … with the will and consent of the various Lebanese factions.”