Trying to Find a Common Denominator

After the murder of Rafik al-Hariri in February 2005 the old coalition between the fractions al-Hariri, Walid Jumblat, and Syria broke down. Mona Sarkis interviewed Hussam Itani, a columnist for the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, about the new alliances

Protests against the Fuad Siniora's government in Beirut (photo: AP)
Hussam Itani :"Of course the whole system needs to be reformed, but in dialogue, and I'm skeptical as to whether Hezbollah is seriously seeking this"

​​Hezbollah is pushing for more participation in the government, while the government appears to be focusing mainly on disarming Hezbollah. Instead of the much promised reform agenda, corruption and deficit financing are still prevalent after the departure of the Syrian occupying power. Do any governing concepts exist in the current fight for government posts?

Hussam Itani: I wouldn't know where. As long as a pro-Syrian government was in power, Hezbollah was not interested in domestic affairs. Even after the withdrawal of the Syrian troops, its focus is still on resistance. This does not mean that the opposition does not have an economic or political concept to offer. Both sides are only looking for backing from foreign countries instead of what would be good for their country.

You talk about backing from foreign countries. But when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called Fuad Siniora's government the "Jeffrey Feltman government," alluding to the U.S. ambassador in Lebanon, there was an outcry throughout the country.

Itani: In my view, one of his biggest mistakes after the war was to demonize his internal opponents. The "Feltman" name was nothing other than that.

Isn't that absurd? Western media as well as politicians talk frankly and even matter-of-factly about the "Western-backed Siniora government."

Itani: What the West does and says is another story. But portraying the highest elected representative of the Lebanese state within the country as an Israeli-American agent is going too far. By doing so, Nasrallah was overtly adopting a confrontational course.

It was also a mistake to demand a "government of national unity" at a time when people had not even found their dead family members.

The majority of the dead were Shiites, who support or belong to Hezbollah, that is, the population segment that the party wants to represent better with more participation in the government…

Itani: Exactly this argumentation is the crux: If these people define themselves foremost as Hezbollah supporters and not as Lebanese citizens, we have a big problem. The question, however, is whether Hezbollah wants to govern alone or whether it is willing to accept fellow citizens.

Among whom are also Sunnis, to whom Hezbollah sent a bad signal when its ministers resigned in mid-November while the international Hariri tribunal was being discussed. In December 2005 Shiite ministers provisionally abdicated when a U.N. mandate was called for to investigate the series of car bombs.

At the same time the question remains of obtaining a fairer representation for Shiites. Their demographic growth is a factor that cannot be ignored in the long run.

Itani: Numbers in a country without statistics and a census are like explosives. Everyone can name their own. When we start talking about the growth of the Shiites and the decline of the Maronites, we find ourselves in the midst of a discussion about the proportional system laid out in the compromise concluded at the time of Lebanon's independence in 1943, which determined the distribution of political power between Sunnites and Maronites. This system was reconfirmed in the Taif Accord of 1989.

Of course the whole system needs to be reformed, but in dialogue, and I'm skeptical as to whether Hezbollah is seriously seeking this. At present it is not interested in changing the system, but in improving its position and quotas.

Do you fear a civil war?

Itani: I don't consider a civil war to be out of the question. Our whole structure, our professional as well as private privileges and relationships are based on our confessional identities. In the 1970s leftist and socialist parties appeared with a secular ideology, but they failed, and Lebanon went back to business as usual. Lebanese respond like Pavlovian dogs to the word 'confessionalism'. Although it is the father of our democracy, it is also the mother of our problems.

Civil war? Yes, many external factors could plunge the country into a civil war. From Iran's nuclear program to Israel's interests. But once again: I do not support the thesis of Ghassan Tueni (publisher of the Lebanese newspaper Al-Nahhar, Ed.) that portrays Lebanon as an arena exploited by foreign actors. We have ourselves to blame, for we have invited others in to misuse our soil for their strategies because we are incapable of building our own nation.

George W. Bush has initially rejected direct talks with Syrian and Iran despite Baker's recommendation. The Syrian regime has meanwhile consolidated. Do you still consider a rapprochement possible?

Itani: Baschar al-Assad is still only "the son." To receive legitimation, he has to achieve something. A confrontational course with the United States is thus more tempting for him. Even if he loses, he will be celebrated in the Arab world as a hero. At the same time he is waiting for the elections in the next few years in the United States and France and hoping for a radical change. If the socialists win in France, they will – according to his calculation – hardly be as interested as Chirac in Lebanon and the Hariri tribunal.

Your left-wing nationalist, pro-Palestinian newspaper "As-Safir" has also changed its tone toward Syria in the changed political climate since the Hariri assassination.

Itani: We find ourselves in a confusing situation given the formation of new fronts.

In the face of the call for national independence and the growing hostility toward Syria it seems politically incorrect for us to uphold our friendship with Syria, although "As-Safir" has traditionally been pro-Hezbollah and pro-Amal. Many of our readers come from the South and from the Shiite suburbs of Beirut and will not forgive us for that.

But we do not want to side totally with the government or with the opposition, but desire to find a balance. Instead of obstinately arguing pro-Hariri or pro-Hezbollah and suppressing everything else, we strive to consider every side carefully. It is important to find a common denominator for this country. At present, however, this seems hopeless.

Interview: Mona Sarkis

© 2006

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

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