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08BEIRUT1247
LEBANON: AOUNIST SOCIAL AFFAIRS MINISTER SEEKS BIGGER ROLE;
Mon Aug 25 00:00:00 +0200 2008
UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY
Embassy Beirut
VZCZCXRO7985
RR RUEHAG RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHDF RUEHIK RUEHKUK RUEHLZ RUEHROV
DE RUEHLB #1247/01 2381506
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 251506Z AUG 08
FM AMEMBASSY BEIRUT
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 2842
INFO RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE
RUCNMEM/EU MEMBER STATES COLLECTIVE
RHEHAAA/NSC WASHDCUNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 BEIRUT 001247
SENSITIVE
SIPDIS
STATE FOR NEA/ELA
NSC FOR ABRAMS/SINGH/YERGER/MCDERMOTT
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: ECON SOCI PREL PGOV LE
SUBJECT: LEBANON: AOUNIST SOCIAL AFFAIRS MINISTER SEEKS BIGGER ROLE;
TALKS OF NEW ALLIANCES IN 2009
SUMMARY
-------
¶1. (SBU) During a visit by Charge Grant, newly appointed Minister of
Social Affairs Dr. Mario Aoun explained that the Ministry of Social
Affairs' (MOSA) main challenges in implementing social reform were
overlapping responsibilities with other ministries and a small
budget. Aoun said he hoped to revitalize the role of MOSA's Social
Development Centers, to be better able to provide for those in need.
Politically, Aoun, a long-time of the Free Patriotic Movement
(FPM), welcomed the establishment of bilateral relations with Syria
and defended the FPM's MOU with Hizballah as the only way to prevent
civil strife. End summary.
MINISTRY CHALLENGED BY OVERLAPPING RESPONSIBILITIES,
--------------------
¶2. (SBU) On August 20, Charge Grant, accompanied by LES Economic
Specialist, paid a courtesy call on newly appointed Minister of
Social Affairs Dr. Mario Aoun, along with his advisor Dr. Khalil
Hamade. Aoun expressed his support for the social and health
components of the Paris III agreement, most of which were included
in the GOL's recent ministerial policy statement, although he hoped
that his ministry would be more involved that in the past in
implementing the GOL's social policies.
¶3. (SBU) In Aoun's view, the main challenges faced by the Ministry
of Social Affairs (MOSA) stem from the wide range of sectors that
MOSA covers, including regional development, social protection,
health, and education services, as well as the fact that many of its
responsibilities overlap with those of other ministries. With the
government having no strategy in place to deal with coordination
among ministries, finding and implementing solutions to issues such
as child labor (which involves MOSA, and the ministries of Public
Health, Justice, Interior, and Labor) is problematic, he said. He
complained that MOSA suffers from an insufficient budget relative to
the scope and importance of its responsibilities.
¶4. (SBU) Commenting on ongoing UNDP and World Bank projects aimed at
assisting with social sector reforms, Aoun expressed his frustration
that money allocated for such projects was wasted on studies, rather
than on implementation. "We don't need more studies to tell us
there are poor people in Lebanon!" he argued, saying that funds
should be used instead for services. He estimated that $200,000
has been spent so far on such studies.
REVITALIZING SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT CENTERS
--------------------
¶5. (SBU) Although Aoun had not yet fully familiarized himself with
the ministry or developed a clear strategy on how to implement
social reform, he emphasized the importance of MOSA's Social
Development Centers (SDC) located across Lebanon. He made a pitch
for assistance to help equip these centers, and thus increase and
improve the services they provide to citizens (free medical
consultations and medication, food rations, and distributing basic
necessities). He also asked that the USG continue providing
assistance to combat child labor, as it has done in the past through
USDOL-funded projects.
HIGHER RELIEF COMMISSION NEEDS
TO BE BROUGHT BACK TO MOSA
--------------------
¶6. (SBU) As part of his way to increase MOSA's role and available
resources, Aoun mentioned the need to reintegrate the Higher Relief
Commission (HRC) to MOSA. Aoun said that in 1996, former PM Rafiq
Hariri had detached it from MOSA, so that it now answers directly to
the PM's Office. Since then, it has enjoyed a bigger budget and, in
Aoun's view, has been used to benefit a selected number of people
based on political considerations. Aoun has recently brought this
to the attention of PM Siniora, who said he was considering
abolishing the HRC altogether. But Aoun believes that it would be
important to maintain the HRC, and as part of MOSA.
DEFENDING THE AOUNIST LINE
--------------------
¶7. (SBU) A long time member of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM),
Aoun (who is not related to FPM leader General Michel Aoun) said
that although the cabinet does and will have differences of opinion
on certain issues (such as high-level nominations and the electoral
law), it would work as an unified cabinet. He welcomed the
establishment of diplomatic relations with Syria, adding that it is
the best framework in which to solve bilateral problems, such as
BEIRUT 00001247 002 OF 002
amending agreements ratified in the 1990s, as well as addressing the
issue of the Lebanese detained in Syrian prisons.
¶8. (SBU) Aoun reiterated the FPM's belief in the need to deal with
Syria and not continue to criticize it after its withdrawal from
Lebanon. "We were against Syria when it was present in Lebanon," he
said, "and would be their toughest opponents if they were to come
back, but we cannot aim at changing their regime. If the U.S. wants
to do so, fine." Aoun explained the FPM's rationale for what its
members insist on calling its memorandum of understanding with
Hizballah, saying that reaching agreement with Hizballah was the
only way of preventing sectarian strife, and was not aimed against
the U.S. Hizballah is too powerful militarily to ignore, he argued,
and the MOU managed to "reintegrate" Hizballah into Lebanese
society. Aoun suggested that the USG pressure Israel to withdraw
from the Sheba'a farms, removing a major excuse used by Hizballah to
keep its weapons.
WEAK CHRISTIAN LEADERS
--------------------
¶9. (SBU) Aoun believed that General Michel Aoun should have been
elected as Lebanon's president, saying he is the most popular and
representative of all Christian candidates. He said that positions
that are filled by Christians (such as the presidency) are
traditionally given to "weak Christian candidates," as opposed to
the Speaker of Parliament and Prime Minister, both of which are the
most popular figures within their religious communities (Shia and
Sunni, respectively). Regarding the 2009 parliamentary elections,
Aoun hinted that he may be running for the Maronite seat in the
Chouf district, where he ran and lost in 2005. He also did not
completely reject the idea of an alliance between the FPM and Walid
Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party, a key player in the
majority, in that region.
COMMENT
-------
¶10. (SBU) In the previous cabinet, MOSA was headed by March 14 MP
Nayla Mouawad. Minister Aoun's appointment in the new cabinet
shifted the seat to the opposition camp. Rumors abound about
corruption and political favoritism in its work. Although Aoun
seemed committed to leaving his mark on improving some of the
services, mainly health services, he seemed to realize that his
short term in office, until the parliamentary elections next spring,
will not give him enough time to implement significant reform. End
comment.
GRANT