“Our Government worked, and keeps on working, to keep Lebanon’s foreign policy under the umbrella of its internal laws, that of the United Nations and the Arab league, as far as it respects the country’s internal policy and keeps its internal stability as a priority.
As for the combination of its population, which has a very special make up, the Lebanese people think in an open way, are very accepting, understanding and respectful, live in harmony with others, and this affects their lives wherever they go and whatever their circumstances may lead them to.”
GDL: The cultural identity of the Lebanese people is a blend of both indigenous elements and the foreign cultures that came to rule the land and its people over the course of thousands of years. What role does this social diversity play toward a unified and prosperous Lebanon?
MK: Lebanon is a country of multiple origins, shaped by 10,000 years of history. From the earliest times, its natural beauty and privileged geographical position attracted conquerors and occupiers who left behind traces of their civilizations, each added an indelible imprint to the makeup of what would become modern Lebanon.
The legacy of the past is clear from the extraordinary variety of archaeological sites in every corner of the country, from the Kenaanite Phoenician sarcophagi to Roman temples, to Crusader castles and Mamlouk mosques. Wherever you go, evidence of this country’s rich and tormented past comes to light. This gave the country richness and the ability of people to develop and go forward very easily.
The history of Lebanon plays a positive role in developing a well-known culture despite its small size. This small geographical site of Lebanon, where the mountain meets the sea, gives it a charming touristic destination. For example you can go water skiing and snow skiing during spring time on the same day!
GDL: The geographic position and the composition of the population of Lebanon have reflected heavily on its foreign policy. What are the main aspects of your foreign policy and how do you cope in such a dire regional environment?
MK: At the heart of the Middle East and cross road of three continents, Lebanon is where the East meets the West. As defined in its Constitution, Lebanon is Arab in its identity and in its affiliation. It is a member of the Arab League, and also a founder and active member of the United Nations organisation, abiding by its covenants and the universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Geographically, and since it is a country in the heart of an area of crisis, it is affected by all that is going on in the region nowadays. But our Government worked, and keeps on working, to keep Lebanon’s foreign policy under the umbrella of its internal laws, that of the United Nations and the Arab league, as far as it respects the country’s internal policy and keeps its internal stability as a priority.
As for the combination of its population, which has a very special make up, the Lebanese people think in an open way, are very accepting, understanding and respectful, live in harmony with others, and this affects their lives wherever they go and whatever their circumstances may lead them to.
“After five years of conflict in Syria, Lebanon continues to generously host 1.5 million displaced Syrians. The country has so far successfully navigated the tide in maintaining stability. This has been possible due to a shared culture of pluralism, openness and co-existence. Lebanon is persistently bearing the brunt of the Syrian crisis, with increasing economic, social, demographic, political and security challenges.”
GDL: Nearly a million and a half Syrians have sought asylum in Lebanon making it the country with the highest numbers of refugees per capita in the world. The current situation is completely unsustainable. How does your Government plan to proceed from now on?
MK: Lebanon is not a party to the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees and it essentially lacks any meaningful national legislation dealing with refugees.
After five years of conflict in Syria, Lebanon continues to generously host 1.5 million displaced Syrians. The country has so far successfully navigated the tide in maintaining stability. This has been possible due to a shared culture of pluralism, openness and co-existence. Lebanon is persistently bearing the brunt of the Syrian crisis, with increasing economic, social, demographic, political and security challenges. While the Government, in all its sectors, and the Lebanese host communities continue to provide support and basic services, mainly health care, education and shelter despite their own growing needs and deteriorating resources. One third of Lebanese residents are made up of the displaced; half the new-born children are foreigners and the number of foreign students in our schools and universities is double the number of the Lebanese.
Lebanon is taking part in the international effort aimed at reaching a peaceful solution in Syria that preserves its unity and pluralism. Lebanon succeeded in including the safe return of displaced Syrians to their country as an item in the international road map in Vienna, based on our conviction that the return of the displaced is conductive to the political solution track and can proceed to the achievement of a final solution determined by the Syrians alone.
GDL: There have been many intense efforts by leading Lebanese political figures recently, stressing the importance of ending the stagnation and inertia that surrounded the Presidential election, especially after two and a half years of vacancy. Now that the new President has been elected, what does this mean for the political establishment of Lebanon?
MK: On October 31st, 2016, the Parliament in Lebanon elected General Michel Aoun as President of the Republic of Lebanon ending two years and five months of vacancy. With the new President, a new period will start, a period to work hard to regain the trust of the world. The President gives stability, trust and security for the people in Lebanon and to the international community. Security and trust will give more opportunity for investment, tourism, development of the economic sector, and we saw this directly after the President was elected.
GDL: The ratification of the National Reconciliation Accord or Taif Agreement, officially ended the civil war in 1989. Despite the 1989 agreement, the country’s politics remain characterised by sectarianism and violence. How do you foresee the future?
MK: The agreement signed in 1989 ended more than a decade of civil war and more than 50 years of political dispute and led to the beginning of a resolution of regional intervention (Israeli occupation).
Although it is has been applied since 1990 and has passed years of criticism, the new President, General Michel Aoun, in his swearing-in speech, insisted on implementing the Taif Agreement and developing it when needed, upon the approval of the Parliament.
“Lebanon is taking part in the international effort aimed at reaching a peaceful solution in Syria that preserves its unity and pluralism. Lebanon succeeded in including the safe return of displaced Syrians to their country as an item in the international road map in Vienna, based on our conviction that the return of the displaced is conductive to the political solution track and can proceed to the achievement of a final solution determined by the Syrians alone.”
GDL: Greece’s relations with Lebanon are traditionally very friendly. How is the bilateral cooperation in the political and diplomatic fields?
MK: Legend says that the relation between Lebanon and Greece goes back to Zeus kidnapping the daughter of the King of Tyr, Europa, and later the King of tyr told his son Cudmos to bring his sister back, he ended up staying in Greece after he found out that it was a love story between Zeus and Europa, and not a kidnapping.
Diplomatic relations with Greece go back to the period following the independence of Lebanon in 1943, and since then, Lebanon and Greece have very friendly and cooperative relations characterised by mutual respect and trust. Along with the historical nature between the two countries, in the diplomatic field there is a good cooperation and mutual support of their candidature in the international organisations. Greece always supports Lebanon’s political causes, it hosted Lebanese citizens during the Civil War and completed supporting them during the War in 2006 (Israel’s invasion of Lebanon).
Lebanon and Greece have signed many agreements in the field of trade, juridical, cultural, economic and tourism.
On the level of official visits, in July 2016 the Lebanese Minister of Defence, Samir Mokbel, visited Greece upon an invitation from his Greek counterpart, Minister Panos Kamenos, where they discussed relations between the two countries. The Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, Gebran Bassil, participated in the Rhodes Conference for Security and Stability on September 8th and 9th 2016.
More recently, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece, Nikos Kotzias, visited Lebanon on November 9th within the framework of a follow-up to the Rhodos Conference for Security and Stability and the Trilateral Meeting, upon the invitation of Minister Bassil. The meeting was held under the title of Like Inspired countries, to which the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Cyprus, Ioannis Kasalides, was also invited and in attendance. The Ministers discussed various common topics and stressed the importance of the EU-Lebanon Partnership Priorities for the period 2016-2020 within the framework of the ENP Review and the respective Compact Agreement, which will usher in a new page in EU-Lebanon relations. They also agreed to hold more meetings, including one in Cyprus concerning university issues and one in Greece concerning touristic and cultural issues.
“Lebanon and Greece share a history that goes back to the love story legend between Zeus and Europa. The geographical location of both countries helps in having tied relations and effects on each other. Lebanon and Greece share the Mediterranean Sea, which is a source of natural resources which both countries need to protect.”
GDL: In May 2016, the 1st Trilateral Political Consultations (Greece-Lebanon-Cyprus) by the respective Ministries of Foreign Affairs was hosted in Athens. How is this regional dialogue progressing and what tangible results can we anticipate in the near future?
MK: The trilateral meeting between Lebanon, Greece and Cyprus is a Greek initiative. The 1st meeting was held in Athens Greece on May 11th 2016 at the level of Secretary Generals of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs which will be followed by a Ministerial Meeting to be held in the coming future. The 1st meeting concentrated on the main fields that interest the three countries such as: security, terrorism, refugees, military, energy, economic cooperation, tourism, agriculture, maritime transport, cross-investment. The next meeting will develop further on the relationship between the three countries.
GDL: Despite some obstacles over the last two millennia, it appears that the Greek spirit, matched by the Arabic tenacity, is ensuring that Hellenism remains a presence in Lebanon. How can we build upon this bond and what can both communities do to further contribute towards this?
MK: As I mentioned before, Lebanon and Greece share a history that goes back to the love story legend between Zeus and Europa. The geographical location of both countries helps in having tied relations and effects on each other. Lebanon and Greece share the Mediterranean Sea, which is a source of natural resources which both countries need to protect. Plus the benefits of this Sea are trade, economic development and tourism. Indecently, Greece is a touristic destination for the Lebanese, not only for its beauty and history, but also for what they feel towards the Greek people.
The Embassy of Lebanon in Athens is also encouraging tourism developments that aim for Greek tourists to visit the wonderful country of Lebanon.
I want to highlight here that whenever someone mentions Lebanon, people will always tell you that the country has the best food. This is very true, but this is not the only thing that the country offers to visitors. As a touristic country and, as I mentioned before, due to the many crusades and conquests in the past, Lebanon has many very rich historical and ancient places to visit. I will mention the most popular sites:
– Beirut – City of Contrasts
Many times destroyed and rebuilt, Beirut is a city of many facets – all accented by a charming mix of East and West. Dynamic, congested, elegant and ostentatious, it shows a different aspect at every turn. Beirut is a busy, bustling capital with a major port serving the nation’s business and commercial interests. But when offices and shops close, Beirutis often go out on the town to enjoy the many restaurants and nightclubs of this cosmopolitan city.
– Byblos – Crossroads of Civilization
This town whose history goes back 7,000 years, is home to a major archaeological site that reveals one impressive ruin after another. The archaeological site includes several Canaanite and Phoenician temples, the foundations of Stone Age houses, ancient city walls and several Roman remains. Byblos is celebrated as the birthplace of the alphabet.
– Tripoli – Fragrance of the Orient
Capital of the North and the second largest city in Lebanon, Tripoli is always on the move. Yet it preserves its past more beautifully than any other of the country’s ancient towns. A wonderful oriental perfume comes from its famous souks, where you can lose yourself among the maze of tiny streets, investigate the tailor shops, soap-makers, potters and other traditional crafts and enjoy the smell of freshly ground coffee mixed in with the fragrance of spices. A visit to Tripoli’s souks is indeed a sensual experience. The oriental atmosphere of old Tripoli is also seen in its mosques. There mosques date mostly to the time of the Mamlouks.
– Baalbeck – City of the Gods
A very ancient site, Baalbeck came into its glory after the invasion of Alexander the Great, who elevated it to the rank of Heliopolis, City of the Sun. With the Roman conquest and the construction of major temples, the town developed into an important religious site. The masterpiece of Baalbeck is undoubtedly the Bacchus Temple. The temple was protected for centuries from the elements and from looting. Built in the 2nd Century AD and linked to the Temple of Jupiter, access to the temple was by an imposing staircase and a colossal door finely decorated with nymphs and mythological deities. A short distance away stands the Temple of Venus, built in the 3rd Century. A true jewel of Roman architecture, this temple was designed in an unusual circular form.
– Sidon – A Long and Glorious History
An ancient city mentioned in the famous ‘El-Amarna’ letters of the 14th Century BC, Sidon has known many upheavals in the course of its 6,000-year history. Like other Phoenician cities, Sidon submitted to the domination of Persia, as well as of Greece and Rome before the Arab conquests. These were followed by the Crusaders and the Mamlouks. Sidon retains a number of remains from the Mamlouk and Ottoman periods, notably the Grand Mosque and the Khan el Franj.
– Tyre – Queen of the Seas
Mentioned often in the Bible, Tyre was probably founded at the start of the 3rd Millennium BC. It was originally made up of two parts: the coastal city and some small islands.
Interview by Nicolas Boutsicos
Editor, Greek Diplomatic Life