This is an in-depth conversation with Ziad Majed, a Lebanese-French writer and Program Coordinator for Middle East Pluralities at the American University of Paris.
Ziad was one of the founders of the Democratic Left Movement (DLM) in Lebanon, one of the few independent and leftwing groups that came out of the anti-Assad mobilisation that followed the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005.
The DLM soon found two of its prominent figures and allies assassinated: George Hawi, former secretary general of the Lebanese Communist Party, and Samir Kassir, the man we’ll be talking about in this episode.
Samir Kassir was assassinated on this day 15 years ago, June 2nd 2005, with a car bomb just outside of his house in Beirut. Born to a Palestinian father and a Syrian mother, Kassir brought together his multiple identities with his principled opposition against both Israeli and Syrian occupations of Lebanon to create a unique persona.
I wanted to have Ziad on because he was ‘there’. He saw first-hand some of the major events that defined Lebanon in the past three decades, and he saw his friends pay the ultimate price for their principled stances. He himself also had to pay a price due to the increasing threats made against him.
Naturally, we also spoke about what Samir represented, about Syria, Lebanon and Palestine and how and why they are interrelated, and about why it’s two prominent anti-Assad leftists Samir Kassir and, later, George Hawi who were assassinated first after Hariri’s assassination.
We spoke about the Syrian revolution, the role of the Assad regime in Syria and Lebanon, the intsrumentalisation of the Palestinian cause by authoritarian regimes and groups, the difficulties in dealing with Hezbollah and the recent October uprising in Lebanon.
There was a particular focus on the Syrian occupation of Lebanon since it is linked to the assassination of Samir Kassir, and George Hawi. We spoke about how Hezbollah took over the Assad regime’s role in Lebanon and its relationship with the Iranian regime’s foreign policy.
We also spoke about how the sectarian groups within March 14 preferred to deal with Hezbollah and Amal rather than deal with independent Shia voices, as that would have meant dealing with independent Christian, Druze and Sunni voices, and thus feeling threatened ‘from within’.
This is a long conversation but one which I think will stand the test of time. I wanted us to do justice to Samir Kassir’s legacy and I hope we succeeded.
If it is not available wherever you get your podcasts, please drop me a message!
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Resources relevant to our conversation:
- Beirut Banyan’s reflection on Samir Kassir and the interview with Ziad Majed
- Ziad Majed’s talk on Syria and Lebanon on the occasion of the 6th year commemoration of Samir Kassir’s assassination
- A lot of videos with Ziad Majed available on YouTube, mainly in French and Arabic. Focused on Lebanon, Syria and Palestine.
- Ziad Majed’s Arabic website and English/French website
Music by Tarabeat. Photo by Syrian Banksy in Idlib.
Transcription, thanks to Yusra Bitar for this.
Joey Ayoub: On the second of June 2005, I was having some friends over to celebrate my fourteenth birthday. Within a couple of hours, we were told that something happened, so we turned on the television as one would, and we discovered that someone was assassinated. This was a bit of a shock because at the time, we were just recovering as a country from a major assassination – that of then prime minister Rafik Hariri. His assassination led to what we now call the Cedar Revolution, which itself ousted the Syrian army and thus ended the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, but that particular assassination, the one on June 2, marked me in a different way. On that day, the journalist Samir Kassir was killed. He was assassinated with a car bomb. I, like many others of my generation, did not fully understand back then the significance of what was happening.
I keep on going back to June 2 and the assassination of Samir Kassir. Samir was not just an excellent Lebanese writer, historian, and journalist, but he was also someone of multiple identities. He was not just Lebanese, but Palestinian and Syrian as well as a French citizen. He was able to navigate those identities in a way that I think symbolizes the best of that time. When he was killed in an assassination, which was followed by the assassination of George Hawi just a few weeks later, Hawi being the former secretary of the Lebanese communist party–when these two men were killed, it felt maybe later on that nothing would ever be the same anymore.
So, to commemorate the date of his assassination, I sat down with Ziad Majed, a friend of Samir, to talk about the leftist movement that they were trying to build, about their opposition to the Assad regime’s occupation, and about what it meant for Ziad to see his close friends pay the ultimate price for their principled positions. So that’s it for me. Thank you for sticking around, and I hope you enjoy it.
Ziad Majed: I’m Ziad Majed, associate professor at the American University of Paris and coordinator of the Middle Eastern Studies Program, author of two books on Syria and one book on Lebanon.
JA: So this episode will be released tomorrow, June 2, which would be exactly fifteen years to the day since Samir Kassir was assassinated. Can you give a bit of context about the assassination, for those who don’t know, first of all, and then if you can also give a wider context about the party that you were both part of, your respective roles, and what your positions were?
ZM: Sure. I met Samir Kassir in Beirut in 1994. At the time, he was settling down in the city after spending many years in Paris, where he did his PhD in history, and he wrote on the Lebanese civil war, especially the first part of the war, the one from 1975 until 1982 and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. He returned to Lebanon after that. He started teaching at the Universite Saint Joseph (USJ) and he started writing in An-Nahar – the Lebanese newspaper – where he had a weekly column evoking issues related to Lebanon and Syria, Palestine, international affairs, etcetera.
He was ambitious in a sense that he wanted to create a cultural review that would be in French, but would show that you can write in French while being leftist, that you can write in French while being concerned with Arabity, with an Arab renaissance project, with causes that usually the French-speaking newspapers or historically Francophone people in Lebanon were not always writing about or dealing with in French. There was a connotation for the French-speaking journalists or intellectuals, whether it was true or wrong, but it was there that they were much more into Lebanese identity, into centrist or right-wing ideas, etcetera.
So his ambition was to write in French while thinking as a leftist and as someone who has always been involved politically and intellectually for the Palestinian cause, because while in Paris used to write in Lyom El-Sabi’ which was a newspaper related to the PLO. He was also very much active in the Journal for Palestine Studies in French as well, and he used to write in Le Monde and Le Monde diplomatique mainly about Palestine and the Palestinian cause. So he was preparing for that review to start, and in fact, he started it in 1995. It was called L’orient Express, and it lived for three years. It was probably one of the best experiences in publishing in French in Lebanon, cultural and political articles and papers on different issues, then Samir was also – as most Lebanese at the time – involved in dynamics and initiatives related to the Lebanese civil society, to the roles of intellectuals. When it comes to, at the same time, confronting corruption and the political elite, Lebanese political elite business as usual in power, but also concerned with public and private freedoms in front of the Syrian regime, hegemony and the security service apparatus and the way of controlling and manipulating the different scenes in Lebanon.
So as of 1998, we got involved in many political initiatives, most of them did not succeed in creating a party, but the idea of having a political party that could at the same time incarnate a certain left in Lebanon. Left in the sense that social justice, financial and economic reforms, that a secular project with that socio-economic project and a political one, connecting Lebanon to Syria, to Palestine and to the Arab world in general, in terms of freedom and in terms of liberation and not disconnecting them as it has been in many leftist circles, the tradition of considering the liberation and the anti-Israeli/anti-imperialist stances as the priority while public and private freedoms and the confrontation with Arab regimes was not at all a priority if we don’t want to talk about complicity, in some cases, with the Syrian regime specifically.
So we wanted to try a political experience, to see if we can found a party that could reconcile our leftist identity with democratic practices, with an understanding of the struggle for freedom in Syria and for liberation in Palestine, and connecting all that to the Lebanese context and to what we were going through in Lebanon. The attempt at creating such a party would continue in 2000 and then in 2002, but we were never able to have this as a concrete project with concrete people and to enlarge at least the small circle we were all in, including Elias Khoury and others.
And finally in 2004, we succeeded in founding the Democratic Left Movement that was composed of people, most of them, or let’s say more than half of them coming from the Lebanese Communist Party. They left the party either because they had some disputes about the organizational structure and their freedom within the party, or because of the position when it comes to the Syrian regime. They wanted a clear stance about the Syrian regime, as the party at the time was not involved in any opposition to the Syrian regime. So that was one component of the Democratic Left Movement, another one was made of students: many of the independent student organizations in universities were part of the experience at the beginning. Some of them unfortunately left later for different reasons, but many stayed.
A third component was much more individuals and smaller groups, either coming from the communist action organization – Munazamit el-’Amal al-Shuyu’i – or from different civil society movements or just individuals who define themselves as leftists. What was common between us was a will or a desire at least to have a new movement, a new party that would accept inside proportional representation of its different components that we can be Marxist or non-Marxist, but leftist. We can be young, old, feminist, concerned with the environment. We’re coming from different backgrounds, and the idea was to have an experience where all those backgrounds would be part of the political laboratory and would express themselves differently with of course, a priority that is to confront the Syrian regime.
Samir was one of the spokesmen of the movement. I was the vice president of that movement as well. Elias Khoury was with us as a member of the political bureau and Elias Attallah was the Secretary General. Nadim AbdelSamad was the summer president and Hikmat Eid was the other vice president, plus other people like Ziad Saab. I think in 2004 and in 2005, we managed to attract different groups in different regions, and then with the assassination of Hariri and with the establishment of a large political camp in Lebanon against the Syrian regime that we were part of, we lost some support among some leftist groups because they accused us of cooperating with part of the corrupt political elite of the country that turned against the Syrian Regime after the assassination of Hariri, and we at the same time attracted other groups who are very much concerned by the fight against the Syrian regime and who considered that finally they can find a leftist group involved in that fight.
Now, if you allow me just to say a few words about that specific moment and take some time to clarify how we went into an alliance with groups with whom we share very few things when it comes to social justice, to the secular system, to the equality between men and women, to ending corrupt practices, etcetera. What we said at the time is that we have no illusion that this will be a temporary alliance. We have no illusion that most of our allies were before, and probably will continue after a possible withdrawal of the Syrian regime, corrupt elites or elites involved in all kinds of confessional sectarian politics. We did not have an illusion about it. We thought that there are some others among the allies who might be interested, like us, in a project of reconstructing the state in the country, of having a new political contract, maybe a new social contract, and there were some secular groups and non-corrupt groups within that 14 March Alliance, and we want to just end Syrian hegemony so that we can go into a different approach related to alliances and to Lebanese politics. Now, some people might not approve of that, which is also very legitimate, but that was our point of view of the time, and we couldn’t afford the possibility of being on our own opposed to the Syrian regime and not connected to any large group in the country.
So we considered this as a kind of a historical opportunity in which we can get rid of the Syrian regime in Lebanon and that will weaken it in Syria itself, allowing democrats and people who resemble us in Syria to start their own experience as well, maybe, and to try to benefit or to seek a project that would build on what we have done or started to do in Lebanon.
Except that while we were still in the momentum that just followed the withdrawal of the Syrian regime on 26 April 2005, the fact that parliamentary elections were to be organized in late May, and the fact that we thought that having for the first time a deputy coming from an organized movement of the left (because in the past in Lebanon, there were leftists in the parliament, like Habib Sadek, but never a candidate of the communist party, for instance, made it because of different reasons, and no other leftists were able to reach the parliament) so having a deputy there, trying to show through that deputy that we can do politics differently, that we can present legislations, this projects for legislation, even if they fail in the votes, but at least to say that we can do something different, that a parliamentarian is not to be just someone dealing with his clientelist network, that he can be honest and someone who will show that there are possibilities of being officially a politician without being part of the system itself–in the middle of all that, and on June 2 just before the elections in Mount Lebanon and then in the north (it was after the elections in Beirut in fact), Samir got assassinated.
And two weeks after, three weeks after his assassination, George Hawi, the former Secretary General of the Communist Party, with whom we started to coordinate and to cooperate with the ambition of having a larger leftist camp, was also assassinated. And both of them, in my opinion, and with many proofs in fact, were assassinated by the Syrian regime and its Lebanese allies because they were considered as two pillars in such a leftist project that could have an influence in Syria itself among many young people and leftist people. Many of us were put under security pressure and we had to go underground, and we were at the same time criticized by many groups, and assassinations continued in Lebanon and many of us had to leave the country. I left for Paris six months after. Elias Khoury stayed in Lebanon, but he went teaching in the US and then returned. Elias Attallah went underground and became a deputy in the parliament, but when he became a deputy we started diverging, in fact, politically with him.
When I’m saying we, I mean myself, many of the young comrades, Elias Khoury and others, because we thought that he was not doing, let’s say, what we hoped he would have been able to do. Many internal disputes started to appear, and then many episodes related to Lebanese politics (and then related to the July war in 2006) led to a split in the movement and then led to a kind of clinical death of the movement as of 2007-2008 and since that time. Unfortunately, this experience ended the way at least we were hoping it will evolve.
So Samir was assassinated on June 2 fifteen years ago, and he incarnated this kind of reconciliation between the fact that he was born into a Christian family where his father is Palestinian and his mother is Syrian, and he is himself a Lebanese from Achrafieh and Beirut. In the Civil War, at least in the first years of the Civil War, while living in Achrafieh, he was politically much more influenced by the discourse of the Lebanese left in the other other part of the city, in Western Beirut. And then in Paris, he discovered friendships and he built friendships with Syrian dissidents, intellectuals living in Paris like Farouk Mardambey. He started his friendships with Palestinian intellectuals Elie Sambar and others, and he discovered his Arab identity here in Paris, and that’s why, when he returned to Lebanon, he was very much concerned with translating all that into concrete cultural and political projects, and I believe that this was mainly the reason why he was assassinated: because he incarnated all what the Syrian regime hated the most, being pro-Palestinian and pro-democracy, reconciled with the Western culture (without approving Western policies and approaches when it comes to the Middle East and to other places) and being at the same time attached to secularism and social justice.
JA: To understand the context of Samir’s assassination and then as you say, also George Hawi’s assassination, can you sort of paint a picture for those who don’t know of what Lebanon was like under the Syrian regime’s hegemony? So from the initial invasion in ’76 during the war, until its withdrawal in 2005?
ZM: Yes. The Syrian regime invaded Lebanon in 1976, and the pretext was to stop the Lebanese civil war and to impose a ceasefire, following an Arab summit meeting–and also following (and this is no secret) negotiations between Hafez el-Assad the father of Bashar and Henry Kissinger the secretary of state of the US at the time, who also got the approval of Israel for the invasion with one or two Israeli conditions: one not to use the Syrian Air Force, and the second not to deploy to the south of the Ouwali River, which is the river in south Lebanon that crosses the city of Saida, the entrance of south Lebanon. And the Syrian regime did respect those two Israeli conditions, invaded the country, defeated the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Lebanese left, contrary to what it was saying about intervening to save the Palestinians and to protect Lebanon, etcetera.
It defeated the Lebanese Left aligned with the PLO, and then, it’s not a secret either, it assassinated Kamal Jumblatt, who was the head of the socialist party and the leader of the Lebanese left at the time. And it controlled Lebanon or parts of Lebanon after that, with shifting alliances and playing one group against the other in order to keep justifying its occupation of the country. And then when the war ended in 1990 and the Syrian regime got international recognition of its role in Lebanon as a sponsor of the post-war era, that coincided with the Gulf War – the Desert Storm operation – the American attack on Iraq after Iraq invaded Kuwait, in which the Syrian army was sent under the American flag to fight the Iraqi Ba’athist rival along with Egyptian army as well.
And in return, Syrian got the approval of Saudi Arabia and of the United States to manage Lebanon in the postwar. The agreement between Saudia Arabia and Syria that the Americans approved was to have Rafiq Hariri, who is a Lebanese billionaire, a businessman working in Saudi Arabia (and he was a mediator in the Taif Accord that put an end to the Lebanese civil war and brought some reforms – some of them were implemented and the majority were not), will be in charge of the reconstruction, while Syria will keep managing the foreign policy and the political scene in Lebanon.
This was also the time of Arab-Israeli negotiations, the Madrid Process. Syria and Lebanon had a common delegation led by the Syrian foreign affairs minister Farouk El-Sharaa. So Syria managed politically while Hariri was kind of a bridge or a connection with his friends in the west (Chirac, Blair, Bush and later Clinton), and he was in charge of the reconstruction in Lebanon. The reconstruction, of course, was controversial, many people criticized it because they considered that it was not taking into consideration the social tissue of Beirut, the social fabric. It was aiming at designing a city or downtown that will exclude part of its population and part of the middle and popular classes, and to make it an area of investment and deluxe shops and foreign tourism.
So there were lots of critics for Hariri and his reconstruction plan, plus the fact that it was not a balanced reconstruction in different areas. Most of the reconstruction was in Beirut, plus he didn’t take into consideration the size of the Lebanese economy, so there would be lots of debts, and there will be a policy to keep the currency stable, whatever the cost. There would be lots of controversies about the reconstruction plan, but that plan anyway took off, and he was accused by many of his opponents of bribing (or sometimes buying) politicians, while the corruption of course existed before him and continued through his reign from ’92 on and off until his assassination. He was excluded from power for two years between ’98 and 2000.
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime kept controlling the political scene: demonstrations, sit-ins, and the creation of new political parties were banned in Lebanon, were not allowed. Even what usually used to manage the civil society, what we call the 1905 Association Law, which is an Ottoman law where you can create your own organization and you don’t need an approval, you just inform the authorities that you have created your organization–even that as a law was violated, and everything needed an approval by the Ministry of Interior that was directly connected to the Syrian regime. And there were in Lebanon Syrian officers who were in charge of managing political questions, connecting people, manipulating others. There was censorship on the press, and many journalists used to self-censor themselves as well to avoid problems. Some leaders of the Christian rightwing parties were in jail, others were in exile.
So there was a serious political problem in the country, and that problem got worse after 1998 because in 1998, to prepare Bashar al-Assad for succession in Syria while Hafez was getting sick and tired, Bashar was in charge of the management of the Lebanese political scene, and he wanted to weaken Hariri and Jumblatt and other heavyweights in the Lebanese scene, and to bring his own people, what he called his “own generation” of politicians, to replace them. So Emile Lahoud, who was the head of the Lebanese army, was elected president while constitutionally, this was a violation of the constitution because he was the head of the army. He should have resigned at least six months before the elections. This didn’t happen, so they did an amendment: they modified a clause in the constitution allowing him to become president. And under Lahoud, the security general director Jamil El-Sayed became the strongman of the country. He was into controlling public freedoms, into interfering in newspapers’ affairs, and he had a very conflictual relation with Samir because he criticized him on many occasions. He even confiscated Samir’s passport at the Beirut airport.
And this is the moment where in Lebanon also there were more and more articles about Syria itself. And then in 2000, Assad the father died, Bashar became president, Syria witnessed what was called at the time the “Damascus Spring” from September 2000 until February 2001.And in Lebanon, there were many articles in An-Nahar and its cultural supplement that Elias Khoury was editing: lots of articles by Syrian intellectuals and by Lebanese intellectuals supporting them in their attempts at ending the state of emergency. They demanded the liberation of political prisoners and the return of those who were in exile. And this is a period where at the same time, George Hawi was leaving the communist party and becoming critical of the leadership of the party.
Then things developed: Hariri returned as a prime minister. He was accused in 2003 and 2004 of coordinating with the Lebanese Christian opposition that was formed around Kornet Shihwan and the Maronite Patriarch. And what did change or modify the political situation was the liberation of south Lebanon from the Israeli occupation–because Lebanon was not only invaded by the Syrian regime, it was invaded twice by Israel: in 1975 and then in 1982, where the Israeli forces reached Beirut and destroyed part of Beirut, and that Israeli invasion killed 34,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians in addition to the occupation of large parts of the country, until Israel started to withdraw gradually following a military operation, military resistance that was at the time launched by the communist party and leftist groups, before Hezbollah (that was born in 1983) would start imposing itself on the resistance scene as of 1987-88 and then after the end of the Civil War, because Israel continued to occupy Lebanon until 2000.
The communist party was excluded from the resistance after the end of the war, due to a series of assassinations that targeted its intellectuals and many of its leaders, and it was also because the Syrian regime wanted to control the military resistance and to have the monopoly of Hezbollah allowing Syria and Iran to decide on the momentum of the resistance, and the moment where it’s military acts could take place, and when this was not beneficial for what Syria considered to be the negotiations with Israelis that were taking place.
So within that context and after the withdrawal of Israel, the opposition against the Syrian regime took a new momentum. It was easy now to directly discredit the Syrian argument and discourse justifying its occupation of Lebanon (“Israel also occupies the country, so our presence here depends on the Israeli occupation“). That allowed the opposition to grow against the Syrian regime and to develop until 2005 and later. The assassination of Samir and George was not a coincidence. They targeted at the beginning the leftists who played a role against them directly or indirectly.
JA: The last point is very important, because it’s very important to understand that after Hariri’s assassination, the first two people who were killed were Samir Kassir and George Hawi. Can you expand a bit on the communist intellectuals, especially the majority of people who were from the South who were also assassinated during the war?
ZM: The assassinations of many of the Marxist and communist intellectuals started in ’86 and would continue throughout the eighties until ’88, and there would be other incidents at the end of the war. At the time, the context was of the rise of Hezbollah. It wanted to impose itself on the Shi’a scene, which led to clashes between the communists and Hezbollah and later between the Amal movement and Hezbollah. To talk briefly about that era is also to say that most of the communists who were assassinated were Shi’a themselves or were from Shi’a families. Hussein Mroue, Marxist philosopher who was in his 80s and was killed in his bed–he was not even able to move when the killer entered his apartment and assassinated him. Mehdi Amel (Hassan Hamdan, who used to write under the name Mehdi Amel) was assassinated on 18 May 1987 in Beirut close to his house after being underground for some time following the assassination of Hussein Mroueh. There were also other younger intellectuals and activists who were assassinated in the southern suburb of Beirut and in the South. And there were people like Suhail Tawileh, who is not from a Shi’a family, who was leading Al-Tareek magazine (that was the magazine of the communist party), who was assassinated at home after being kidnapped in Beirut as well. There would be Khalil Naous and others.
So at the time, the communist party used to talk about obscurantist forces behind the assassinations, hence he was talking indirectly about Hezbollah as being behind the assassinations, and there would be many clashes between the communist party and Hezbollah, and between a group that would later defect from Hezbollah and create its own movement. Most of the assassinations took place while Hezbollah was rising and imposing itself when it comes to the military resistance, or when it comes to the control of the Shi’a regions, let’s say, geographically speaking, in the eighties. Then Iran and Syria were also competing, even if they were allies–but they were rivals when it comes to who controlled the Shi’a of Lebanon. Amal and Hezbollah was the second episode of that internal fight between the Shi’a, exactly at the time where also among the Christians, Aoun and Geagea were fighting each other and Hezbullah as well. And while Syria wanted Amal to be the most important and central representatives of the Shi’a, Iran was pushing for Hezbollah. And finally, in 1991, they agreed to have a power sharing formula in which the Amal movement would be feeding the state institutions (in the sense that it will feed it with employees), would have a quota for Shi’a employees based on the Lebanese sectarian system, and that Amal will nominate them while Hezbollah will remain the only military force in the country after the war, and the pretext is to keep fighting the Israelis until the liberation of south Lebanon. That allowed Iran and Syria to agree on those terms and Hezbollah leadership changed after that.That was the final compromise.
George Hawi was himself a witness of all those things, and he had lots of information about those episodes of the Civil War and of the assassination era, and then about the way the Syrians used to manage the Lebanese political scene because he dealt with them directly. He fought them in the early seventies and mid-seventies, and then he allied with them in other episodes of the war. And he was himself once in a meeting with Ghazi Kanaan, the Syrian officer who was in charge of Lebanon with Elias Atallah as well in that meeting, where Kanaan asked George Hawi to give him, regularly, the program of the military operations against the Israelis before attacks happened. And George Hawi told him he cannot do that, because we were given the order to act whenever that is possible without asking us or returning to Beirut to brief us about what they are going to do, so you’re asking something impossible. At that moment, Ghazi Kanaan ended the meeting, and following that, there would be a series of assassinations of communists in the South, and even there would be, on two different occasions, clashes between the Syrian army or Amal Movement and communist groups who were returning after attacking Israelis in the occupied zone in south Lebanon.
So Hawi was an important witness in that, and Samir was a very brave voice against the Syrain regime. And to the contrary of many Lebanese who were opposed to the Syrian regime, he made lots of nuances and he was very clear about his opposition to the regime and not to the Syrian people and not to the Syrian intellectuals, and that he was opposed to the Syrian regime also from a Syrian point of view and not only a Lebanese one, and from a Palestinian point of view and not only a Lebanese one, in the sense that the Syrian regime was the enemy for Samir and for many people among us of the Lebanese, the Syrian, and the Palestinian peoples, regardless of the discourses that it used for its propaganda and for political consumption. That nuance and that difference with the other opponents of the Syrian regime in Lebanon was crucial, and was part of the credibility that we wanted to build while distinguishing between Syrian laborers who are abused and who were exploited in Lebanon, and the Syrian army and the Syrian regime. Samir even read one statement by Syrian intellectuals in the Martyr’s Square in Beirut in March 2005, and he was insulted by many of the demonstrators who were there who didn’t want to hear anything related to Syria and to the Syrians.
That position was very important. George Hawi, after that, and on many occasions we met with him, and the day when he was assassinated, on 21 June 2005, we were going to have a meeting with him in order also to see how to consolidate a leftist front that would bring more communists who were disappointed by the official position of their party, more former communists who left the party but remained in touch with Hawi, and that young democratic left movement that we represented, and that was receiving lots of sympathy and having lots of solidarity after the assassination of Samir. The assassination of Hawi also killed that second attempt at enlarging the leftist front in Lebanon. And then unfortunately in the elections, we committed mistakes, and we went into the elections without realizing to which extent we might be dragged into Lebanese politics themselves and the way they were run and the way the alliance will impose on Elias Atallah our deputy to be part of the March 14 camp without really incarnating the leftist values that we want to defend after the withdrawal of the Syrian regime.
JA: On that topic, can you talk about–you had mentioned the episode of The Beirut Banyan, which I will link on the blog post. You had mentioned that the March 14 camp at the time, the ones that the parties that were dominated actually preferred to deal with groups like Hezbollah and Amal rather than independent Shi’a voices for that matter, because if they dealt with independent Shi’a voices that woud mean they would have to also deal with independent Christian, Sunni, and Druze voices.
ZM: Exactly. In fact, what happened is that in May 2005 and after the withdrawal of the Syrians, and while preparing for the elections, the heavyweights of March 14, meaning Hariri and Jumblatt but also the Christian components of that alliance, started to deal with politics exactly as if the Syrians were still there, in the sense that you make deals, you try to negotiate with other groups, any form of alliance, without respecting the sacrifices and the courage of many independent and small groups who challenged Hezbollah inside the Shi’a community, and without respecting the diversity of what could have been the March 14 front. Once again, we did not have illusions about their non-interest in political reforms and in political changes. But we hoped, at the time at least, to make it possible for people in south Lebanon like Habib Sadiq, people like Sayed Hassan El-Amine, people like Hani Fahs and for many of the figures (whether intellectuals or even coming from religious backgrounds but with an open, clearly secular and leftist discourse) to be represented and to be respected regardless of their size and clientelist networks within the Shi’a community.
But for many of the March 14 leaders, it was much easier to deal with Hezbollah, to deal with Amal–with blocs and with those who are considered as representative of the Shi’a community, exactly as they wanted Amal and Hezbollah to deal with them as the only representatives of the Sunni or of the Druze or of the Christian communities. They preferred to have blocks sharing the quotas and sharing the lists and sharing power rather than accepting, of course, to dialogue with Amal and Hezbollah. They do represent the reality in the country and a large part of the Lebanese, and everyone had to deal with them, but to deal with them on clear stances based on principles and without feeling the necessity and without avoiding the alliance with other voices, accepting a new electoral system that would allow those diversities to emerge.
Because what happened in Lebanon under the Syrian regime and continued after the Syrian regime left is that more and more blocs and parties and sometimes leaders were monopolizing the representations of their communities, and while doing that, any clash between them, any rivalry between them and the representatives of another community, was leading to clash between communities, making the confessional system itself work even more “efficiently” in bringing people against each other or turning people against each other whenever their representatives (who were more and more imposing themselves and monopolizing the representations of the community) were clashing with each other on questions that were not always political. They might be about who will put whom in which position, what kind of project will be implemented in which area, who will take that contract and who will obtain that privilege in getting a commission for another project.
We saw it later with many of the crises, whether related to the electricity or to the garbage, or to many other crises. It was about sharing the administration, the economy, and most leaders in Lebanon, whether from March 14 or from March 8, prefer that on dealing with political reforms, on dealing with groups that might be minorities in their communities, but they do have their own representative legitimacy, and of course, without a proportional system in the elections, having those people was impossible.
So finally, in 2005, March 14 preferred to sacrifice many of those who worked with the opposition to the Syrian regime in order to make a deal with Amal and Hezbollah and to share power. Again, their argument was to avoid civil strife, to avoid conflict, while in reality even if avoiding conflict is of course demanded and is a priority, it was much more about their own clientelist and sectarian mentality and not something else.
JA: This would happen again and again and again, even after 2005, whenever there is a broadly independent alternative. I guess the most well-known case is Beirut Madinati: you would have the entirety of the establishment basically going against them.
ZM: Absolutely. This is typical, in fact: they can accuse each other of having loyalty to Iran, to Saudi Arabia; they accuse each other of being pro-Western, pro-Syrian regime…until the elections happen. There will, in many cases, be in confrontations, but they finally make governments together, make the decisions together, share the power and share the quotas within the administration. And whenever they are in a mood of reconciliation and harmony, you have more corruption and you have more deals and you have much more agreements on most of the questions that will lead, in fact, to spending money in different ways and without regulations and without control. Each time there is a group or a force that is trying to emerge and create a new language in politics and new practices and a new culture, they will all be allied against it because they consider that it will threaten them regardless of which region and how. They are all obsessed with this idea of change–unless the change is targeting only one group or one camp.
So Hezbollah would not mind having a new experience, if it will only target Hariri or Geagea or Jumblatt, let’s say, and they might also, in reciprocity, not have a problem if there is one group that will only target Hezbollah for different reasons. However, if they consider when the elections will happen, that this will not be useful, they will once again sacrifice and try to find a deal or contract, and this is related to the nature and characteristics of the consociational system in Lebanon, the way it has evolved and developed since the Civil War and since the rise first of the Christian rightwing with Bashir Gemayel and the whole idea of unifying the militias and unifying the Christian ranks. It continued with Amal and Hezbollah in the Shi’a community, then Hariri brought it through the economy and through his network of relations to the Sunni community.
And since that time, you have monopolies. Of course, Jumblatt is also the heavyweight in the Druze community. You have those representatives who have been sharing power since the Taif Accord until today. And if you look at all of them, they were all in the Civil War (except Saad Hariri). Berri was in the Civil War, Hezbollah was in the Civil War, Jumblatt was in the Civil War, Geagea was in the Civil War, Aoun was in the Civil War, Gemayel was in the civil war (Amine Gemayel, not his son). So all of them were part of the Civil War, and then some were excluded in the post-war by the Syrian regime for some time; they returned after, and it has been the same political elite. Changing it is not an easy task; confronting it is of course not easy either, but at any moment, there are attempts at doing something. We see that directly or indirectly, they will have ways of containing that and being opposed to it. And now with the current situation, Hezbollah is leading the counterrevolution or the counter-attack and it has consolidated the government and weakened, dramatically, the revolutionary momentum and attempts at modifying things.
JA: I’ll just expand a bit for those who don’t know that the names that we’re talking of are names that come from the seventies and eighties; some of them come from the early nineties. Walid Jumblatt and Nabih Berri are late seventies; Nasrallah is from the late eighties and early nineties, the Gemayels as a family go back to the thirties and the forties. Michel Aoun is from the eighties, Samir Geagea also from the eighties. Elias Khoury was interviewed by Megaphone like two years ago, and he described the current regime as the “Civil War regime.” At the end of the day, they are not fighting each other anymore in the sense that they’re killing each other. There was a brief moment where this could have erupted again in 2008, of course–the May conflict of 2008–but by and large they seem to have a kind of power sharing agreement of tolerating each other. They don’t like each other, none of them, even though they’re each other’s allies. The Free Patriotic Movement, or Aounieh, and the Amal movement are notoriously antagonistic towards one another, but they agree to form this alliance with one another, because at the end of the day, it’s easier than to deal with any kind of serious alternative, however that alternative might look like.
I wanted to switch a bit to Syria–one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is that you’re actually one of the few Lebanese (and as a Lebanese this frustrates me very, very much) that thinks as well about Syria and that actually engages with Syrian civil society. In your case you’ve even written books on that. There is a quote by Samir which is extraordinary when one reads it today, because I think he wrote it only two months before he was killed, which is: “When the Arab spring blooms in Beirut, it announces the time of roses in Damascus,” and this is a quote that just a few months ago had been redrawn as a graffiti in Idlib, which is one of the most difficult places to be right in Syria, with Samir Kassir’s name, by someone who calls himself the “Syrian Banksy.” It shows that there is a legacy with this Lebanese (and of course part Syrian and Palestinian) intellectual. He was very active in Lebanon first and foremost when he came back from Paris, but the legacy that he has among Syrians is something that we don’t often see among Lebanese as far as I’m aware, no?
ZM: You’re right, absolutely. In fact, in Lebanon there is a tendency among a majority not to evoke Syria, either out of fear or because this is a divisive issue. Some people among the Aounists and Hezbollah and Amal movement support the Syrian regime. Some others would prefer not to be categorized or considered in one camp or the other. And some, of course, are opposed to the Syrian regime, but as I said, either out of fear or they do not consider that it’s their priority. So unfortunately in Lebanon, yes, there is the tendency of avoiding the Syrian issue, even though we have around a million refugees in the country added to the 250,000 Palestinian refugees and tens of thousands of Iraqi and Sudanese and other refugees. While Lebanon is not a country that signed the 1951 agreement on refugees, so they are not legally refugees, they are considered just guests or people who are there. UNHCR is dealing with them, and there are lots of laws and legislation and lots of practices full of racism and discrimination against them. This has been the case for the Palestinians; it’s now the case for the Syrians and all the others. This is very unfortunate, but there are also many Lebanese who kept supporting the Syrian revolution and the Syrian civil society regardless of the balance of power and regardless of the tragic development of the events of the war and of the balance of power in Syria.
JA: So we had something called the Damascus Spring in 2000. It was very small, it was limited to intellectuals, but it kind of was part of this – we can call it planting the seeds, in a sense, for what was to come later. But when Samir wrote this specifically, let’s use this metaphor, a “spring” had happened in Beirut, the Cedar revolution, and only six years later we had the widespread uprisings throughout the region, including the Syrian revolution. And since then–that’s now nine years–we’ve seen ups and downs for the region, a lot of disasters, a lot of horror stories, especially in Syria, of course. And in October, just six or seven months ago, we had another uprising in Lebanon, which for my generation was really the first of its kind. We did have the 2015 #YouStink movement, I was involved in that as well, but there’s really nothing that compares in our generation to what has been happening since October 2019.
As a reflection, how would you interpret that quote and how would you reflect on the links between Lebanon and Syria which, as you said, are not talked about as much as they should br in Lebanon?
As a small anecdote, just to link it to the present, I recently co-wrote an essay on the Syrian Jumhuriya, not the other one, with a Syrian friend who had to write under a pseudonym for security reasons. She couldn’t use her real name: she’s based in Beirut and was participating in the protest with us–and then at some point she felt that she couldn’t, because it was becoming a bit too much for someone who’s visibly Syrian. When she talks, she has a perceptibly Syrian accent.
There’s this weird dynamic in Beirut, for those who don’t know: on Martyr’s Square, the general population is maybe centrist, liberals and others; on Riad El-Solh square, you have the communists and the more secular-oriented–the more politicized segment. So I would be with the latter, and you might see some Palestinian flags sometimes, but it is utterly impossible to find any kind of Syrian opposition flag, or a Kurdish flag for that matter. We don’t even think about it, and there is a genuine fear among anti-Assad Syrians who are in Beirut (those I know personally and others) that if they are too visible, if they try to link up what’s happening in Lebanon with the 2011 uprisings for example (not to mention everything that has happened since), that there won’t to be a reception for that. At the very least there will be some complications ahead of them, and they just can’t take that risk because they didn’t know if there were people among us, even among the protesters, who weren’t necessarily anti-Hezbollah. In the beginning, especially in the first few weeks, there was a mix of everyone. We had the Lebanese Forces, we had Hezbollah, everyone with us among the secularists and the communists and the leftists and so on.
So how would you reflect on these contradictions fifteen years on, after the quote itself and of course after the assassination?
ZM: The quote came in a moment when, in Lebanon, we were more and more convinced that as long as the Syrian regime exists, it would be extremely difficult to have a sovereign, secure, and peaceful Lebanon. Because the whole ideology of the Syrian regime, as developed by Hafez El-Assad, was related to controlling Lebanon on the one hand and to try to control the Palestinian question on the other, in order to make regional and Middle Eastern politics what will give the Syrian regime its legitimacy and the reason of its existence. Because Assad (the father) did everything to erase Syrian society, not to allow it to appear, to bomb it if necessary, and to use regional policies and politics and Syria’s position as a way of getting legitimacy while negotiating with the Americans, with France, with the Soviet Union, and with Arab actors, especially the Gulf actors (being at the same time an ally of Saudi Arabia and the only ally of Iran, offering himself as a possible mediator with Iran, being an ally of the Soviet Union), and then also communicating and coordinating regularly with the Americans, and then finally, while the Soviet Union was collapsing, sending his own army to fight under American leadership against Iraq.
So Assad used Lebanon as a place where he could bargain, where he could negotiate. Controlling Lebanon was an obsession, and assassinating anyone who could threaten that control happened on many occasions in Beirut, in Tripoli, in different places. So the idea of connecting Lebanon to Syria in that sense was a kind of realistic acceptance of how politics function between the two countries under the Assad regime. Samir had already published, in 2004, a book that gathered many of his articles in An-Nahar. The book was entitled The Independence of Lebanon and the Freedom of Syria [Istiqlal Lubnan wa Huryat Surya] considering that the independence and the freedom in the two countries are very much interdependent, very much connected. There is an interdependence between the two questions, and the whole relation and friendship with many of the Syrian dissidents, whether outside Syria or opponents and former political prisoners inside Syria, was part of the 1998-2000 experience in the cultural supplement of An-Nahar. And then after 2000, during the Damascus Spring, there were lots of connections and friendships that were built, and that tendency continued until 2005 when Samir wrote that article in which he considered that the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon will weaken the Syrian regime in Syria and hopefully will allow for a change in Syria itself after the Syrian regime loses the most important scene for it–that is, Lebanon.
And of course, one can analyze the reasons for Arab revolutions that might not be related to or inspired by the Lebanese 2005 event–in my opinion, there was no influence from what happened in 2005 in Lebanon, on what will happen in Tunisia or Egypt, or even later in Syria. Even if it’s only six years, the context is different and the dynamics are very different. Even if the images of the crowds defying fear and challenging authority do create some similarities and allow us a few comparisons, there were different reasons. However, what you just said about the 2019 uprising in Lebanon, after the previous 2015 uprising that was related to the garbage crisis: definitely here we have a second moment of Arab revolutions, because in Lebanon as well as in Sudan, in Iraq and in Algeria, millions of people went to the street again–and went to the streets knowing that what happened in 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria was not always a success story, there was a lot of suffering after that. There were counterrevolutions, there were defeats, there were terrible wars with interventions as in Yemen and in Libya. There was all sorts of disasters in Syria, not only the Assad regime’s barbaric repression and crimes against humanity that were committed, but also the Russian occupation now, the Iranian intervention, ISIS or Daesh, then the Americans, the Turks–everyone got involved in that terrible conflict, and in the wrong way in most cases, and the country today is fragmented and more than half of its population are either refugees or internally displaced.
So I think there was an awareness among the new generations in Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, and Sudan to avoid some of the failures of the first important waves of Arab revolutions in 2011, and if in Lebanon some were part of March 14th or the political moment, let’s say, with its huge mobilization in 2005, the reasons in 2019 were really different. What I can say is that in 2005, our dream and our hope and what we were trying to work for was to have something similar to what happened in 2019, just immediately after the withdrawal of the Syrian regime, and we did write many articles in that sense. In fact, one other quote that is always used, that Samir used in 2005, is ‘Oudu Illa Al-Shari’ or “return to the streets,” and many of the articles that I published in An-Nahar (and that many others published as well) were about the necessity now of moving from the Independence Intifada, as we called it, to the Reform and Change Intifada and to bring some ideas. I did summarize many of them in a book that was called Rabi’ Beirut wal Dawla Al-Naqeesa (The Spring of Beirut and the Unachieved State), published in 2006, with some ideas of reforms, and then I published a small booklet called “An Takouna Yasariyyan” (“Being a Leftist in Lebanon”) with some ideas also for reforms.
But unfortunately all that, and all that many others did from different positions and different backgrounds, was digested by the Lebanese confessional system, by the leading political elite and by the political class, and we failed in modifying the balance of power. Not only the assassinations, but also some of the mistakes that we committed, some of the–I don’t wanna say illusions, but we probably underestimated the strength of the system itself. It was not naive at the time to underestimate, not at all, because there were one million people in the street and many of those people were not really fond of the whole political class. Some were, of course; there were blocs that were mobilized by this political class and remained loyal to it. But there was also what we called the citizen pole or the citizen camp within 14 March that was lost, unfortunately, because we did not build something that could have gathered all those who were secular, who wanted reforms after the withdrawal of the Syrian regime. We got dispersed, and we did not build the momentum, and we lost the opportunity.
After that, it was a bit late, and due to the assassinations, and also due to the new cleavage in the country that did drag us all, it was a kind of dilemma in which you cannot withdraw when assassinations continue and you cannot approve of what your supposed allies and comrades are doing, so you feel trapped between criticizing them and at the same time keeping your position very clear and sharp against those who were committing the assassinations, meaning the Syrian regime and its allies in Lebanon.
So that situation was very difficult, and continued that way until at least 2009, because after 2009, in my opinion, there was nothing any more meaningful in talking about March 14. Saad el Hariri was forced by the Saudis to go to Syria; Jumblatt followed him; they reconciled with Hezbollah and formed a government that he led, and things kept like this, ups and downs, until 2019. In some moments, they have had severe disputes. Hezbollah orchestrated a coup and removed Hariri. Then there are mediations and agreements and Hariri returns. They all share the government, they share the administration, they all voted for the budget for the financial policy that led us to the current disaster. Aoun was part of it, and his bloc can never pretend that they were not. So it was a completely different dynamic that finally led to 2019 uprising.
JA: I saw video of you from July 2011 in which you spoke about the deafening silence we just mentioned of Lebanese society and activists around what’s happening in Syria. And that was in the early days of the revolution when it was still mostly peaceful and nonviolent. Not peaceful in the sense of – the regime was cracking down, but the revolution itself was not armed yet. By the time I personally started paying attention, which was in 2012, 2013, the same hesitation would happen. And since then, I remember, a bit in 2015, a bit in 2016, a bit in 2018, you might have some small movement among Lebanese civil society when it comes to Syria. There was even a small protest that I attended. I think it was around the fall of Eastern Ghouta a couple of years ago, where you had some people talking and everything, but as a small group.
More recently, as I said, this has not been resolved in the sense that the Syrian friend I mentioned would still feel threatened, would still feel unsafe to say I’m here as a Syrian in the same way that some Palestinians might be able to say I’m here as a Palestinian (but even with Palestinians I should emphasize there is also a lot of risk if they are too visibly Palestinian).
I’m not going to rehash the question of how you saw the Lebanese response to the Syrian revolution, because you’ve already answered this, but I wonder if we can talk a bit about how right now, when we speak about the Lebanese government, what we mean in effect is essentially Hezbollah, the Free Patriotic Movement, and Amal. Those are three big blocs, and then you have the other blocs aligning themselves in a sort of opportunistic way however it pleases them. But Hezbollah, up until 2018 (with the exception of the big big clash of 2008) usually did not openly target other Lebanese, at least not since the Civil War. It was part of the myth of Hezbollah: We are only here to fight Israel; this is our role, etcetera. Putting aside 2008, which was quite an exception in a sense–in October 2019, I was personally beaten up by Hezbollah people. You had Amal and Hezbollah openly saying that they are with Amal and Hezbollah, with flags and tattoos–very visibly partisan and sectarian, beating up protesters, torching tents. Not just in Beirut, but especially in the Nabatiyeh and in other places.
But this for me is the extraordinary bit: after these events, sometimes just like an hour or two after the event (sometimes the fear would be a bit too great so it would take a bit more time), people would go back down on the streets, rebuilding the tents and maintaining anti-sectarian chants. That’s important because in 2008, the fights were sectarian, the fights were between the two camps: one essentially Shi’a, one was Sunni, and Druze and some Christians in between, whatever. But since then, there is an open resistance to the idea that anything can be solved through sectarianism. As someone who witnessed 2005 (and I know that you still visit Lebanon quite a lot since then), how would you interpret the post-October moment and what do you think are some of its potentials and maybe even some of its risks?
ZM: Exactly as you said, when it comes to Hezbollah, there is a myth about Hezbollah not being involved in internal Lebanese fights or clashes–besides Hezbollah being part of the Civil War after it was created, after 1983. There were still seven years of civil war in which Hezbollah was involved either between the two Beiruts or against the communists or against Amal or against some other groups in the Bekaa, etcetera. In the aftermath of the war, yes, it’s true that from 1991 until 2005, Hezbollah was much more either into the resistance against the Israelis or into having a low profile in Lebanese politics, simply because Iran and Syria were managing the Lebanese political scene in a way that protected the party and allowed it to be consolidating itself as a grassroots–not only as a political and military organization, but with all kind of social institutions, hospitals, schools, dispensaries, charity networks, scouts, cultural institutions, media, newspapers. So Hezbollah was not concerned about the macro politics and was getting more and more involved in managing municipalities, in having a large bloc with its allies in the parliament, and in keeping the Amal movement managing the government but not being directly involved.
After 2005 what changed is that while the Syrian regime was expelled from Lebanon, Hezbollah started to act inside Lebanon as if it was replacing the Syrian regime, in the sense that they were not only now involved in the government directly, not only in the parliament and on the local level in the municipalities, but they have also controlled what can be considered the foreign policy and security situation in the country exactly as the Syrian regime had been doing. And whenever Hariri or the other camp was threatening that control – for example when it comes to security, you can talk about Feri’ El-Ma’loumeit, which Hezbollah opposed because it was not under its own control. Whenever the foreign minister was not directly from the Amal movement or Aounist, they will try to see, when it comes to the ambassadors, who’s who, what kind of position will be taken. And when in 2008 Hezbollah could not control the situation as it wished, because of its clash with Hariri and Jumblatt and the other camp, they invaded Beirut, and by force they took over the government. Siniora had to resign. New negotiations happened in Qatar, with France also being a mediator, starting a new phase in the history of relations between Hezbollah and its rivals on the Lebanese scene.
Then in 2011, when Arab revolution started and when there were some talks about a possible uprising in Syria, Hezbollah did not invade Beirut this time, but they deployed thousands of young men in black shirts to send the message that we are ready to take over. That led later to the resignation of Hariri when Jumblatt shifted his camp out of fear of Hezbollah’s objectives, and that moment led to Hezbollah taking over–but due to the confessional system they have to bring a Prime Minister who is Sunni, so Mikati was brought, etcetera.There are constantly moments where Hezbollah does attack and impose itself, and that’s what happened again now, when there was a threat of a new revolution, with the uprising of October 2019. Hezbollah did orchestrate the whole situation by taking over, and the government today as well as its foreign policy is controlled by Hezbollah.
Now what changed, however, is that we have a new generation: not only the old people (or the less young, let’s say) who are still involved in the uprising, but a new generation. They were not concerned politically in 2005. Let’s say they were born in 2000 or 1998. They were not concerned with the cleavages, the divisions of 2005. Many of them were born or at least became mature politically after the end of the Syrian era or during the Syrian revolution. So for them, Syrian control of Lebanon is old history. They had other dynamics. Their consciousness is much more related to human rights and social justice, and not any more about being pro or against the Syrian regime. Of course, some of them, and you know them quite well, were pro-Syrian revolution. And in many of their slogans, they saluted all Arab revolutions, including the Syrian one, but many maybe were considering that they are doing their own uprising, their own revolution, and they didn’t want to be trapped by any kind of classification whether they are pro or against the Syrian revolution. I think that whenever they are into the human rights and social justice and freedom discourse, they cannot be opposed to the aspirations of other people around them, whether they announce that or not, for similar causes, whether in Syria or in any of the other places that witnessed Arab uprisings.
So what changed today is that they are no longer concerned with March 14 versus March 8. They are not obsessed by the Syrian regime in Lebanon as we were in the generation of the eighties and nineties. They have a new discourse, they have new ideas, they are about personal freedoms as well, and personal choices–taboos in the past, in a way. There is a dose of feminism that is important; I saw it at least in the demonstrations and the slogans. They are much more creative now with social media allowing them to express all that through their videos, their documentation, their initiatives, their slogans, their sense of humor. There is something that developed after 2011 that we can also find here. So the potential for the change is there; there are definitely leaders who are emerging and will continue to emerge. We’re talking about just a few months of uprisings, including two months or so of Corona and lockdown.
What is missing, however, is coordination. I don’t want to say “leadership” in the sense that you have a camp with a porte-parole, with a spokesman/woman, no, but something that would coordinate and would keep the diversity and would keep the leftists and independents and liberals and those who just want to get rid of corruption with those who want more things when it comes to a feminist approach, when it comes to social justice, to racism against foreign laborers and refugees–we can have all of those together, including even some part of the bourgeoisie that are opposed to corruption. This diversity should be tolerated, and it is useful; it’s something that could find what is common and keep what is different, and struggle for it and fight for it peacefully–but to have coordination that would put all these energies and efforts together in order to modify the balance of power is today once again disrupted by violence that Hezbollah directly deployed through its ally the Amal movement and some of its members, and, since it formed the new government, through the security forces and the army that are now under the orders of Hezbollah.
They don’t need to send their militants or their members to attack people in Kfar Rumman or in Nabatieh or in Sour or in Beirut. Now the army and security forces – differently of course – can impose curfews, can request to dismantle tents (and they did dismantle some of them themselves), can attack demonstrators who are trying to be on the street blocking access. They can now use the repressive measures of state institutions in order to impose, once again, their order and their control and to make any change extremely difficult.
However, there is still resilience so far, and we saw recently many demonstrations took place, and that sit-ins are once again organized. We saw in Tripoli a mixture of anger and frustration because of poverty and because of the terrible financial and economic crisis (that was made even worse with Corona), and the political desire to change things and to confront the political ruling class. So it’s an ongoing process. It will have ups and downs. It will continue. I don’t see that it will die or it will be defeated soon. But let’s also agree that it’s extremely difficult and that Hezbollah does hold power with its allies, and they do have their own power, and they do have as well the power of state institutions, of the army, and they might be held indirectly by by creating a new dilemma related to the IMF and to the collapse of the banking system with all the billions of losses for all households and for the majority of the Lebanese who will be confronted with more and more challenges in the future.
JA: I have a final question about Samir Kassir, but I wanted to squeeze in a parenthesis. We briefly mentioned him and he was mentioned in the past, but I only wanna talk about him now because he was recently revoted as an MP: can you talk a bit about the role of someone like Jamil El-Sayyed and the entire structure of the security forces and Amn El-’Am at the time–because I know that there was a personal antagonism between Jamil El-Sayyed, as you said, and Samir Kassir–and since then? Because as you mentioned, Hezbollah sort of took over the role of the Syrian regime, and in some ways it’s even stronger than the Syrian regime was at some point. And since then, you have people who were in prison, like Jamil El-Sayyed, who were seen as personae non-grata, now resurfacing and feeling more comfortable about themselves and even being comfortable enough to run for elections and win one.
ZM: Yes. In fact, in 1998, when Emile Lahoud became the president of the republic, something changed in the internal structure of the Lebanese state. Under Hariri the father, the control of Hariri was very strong and he managed to have deals with the Syrian regime: Keep me working and doing my economic and other stuff and I will let you do the regional international compromises and accords; you will manage the rest through your relations directly with the Lebanese security apparatus. So Hariri was much more in an economic role, and from time to time, due to his international connections and his Arab connections, he was allowed–he played a role, in agreement with Hafez El-Assad, to represent both Lebanon and Syria in some connections and some relations. That formula that Hariri found with the Syrian regime functioned for a while. When Bashar came to power, it was the end. Bashar wanted to impose himself on everything, and didn’t trust Hariri, so he started bringing his people, and among them was Emile Lahoud. He became president. Hariri had to withdraw at the time; he was no longer prime minister; he became in the opposition. and this is the moment where the role of Jamil El-Sayyed along with the role ofthe one who would replace Ghazi Kanaan, Rustom Ghazali, and the aide of Rustom Ghazali, Jami’ Jami’ (another officer, by the way)–
JA: Can you say who these men are?
ZM: Rustom Ghazali was the Syrian officer managing Lebanese affairs exactly as Ghazi Kanaan, who was also a general, did before. Ghazi Kanaan–officially, he committed suicide in late 2005 in his office. There are of course rumors about him being assassinated or eliminated by the Syrian regime after the assassination of Hariri because of what he represented, and because of the information he had. Rustom Ghazali replaced him, and then Rustom Ghazali himself was killed in Syria in 2015 after being beaten badly in 2014. Jami’ Jami’ was number two after Rustom Ghazali in Lebanon. He was skilled in Deir El-Zor, and both of them–Jami’ Jami’ and Rustom Ghazali–their names appear in many reports when it comes to the assassination of Hariri and their presumed role in the assassination. It was as if the Syrian regime kept cleaning its own ranks of those who were directly involved and who could lead to the top of the hierarchy in the accusation.
Anyway, they became, with Jamil El-Sayyed, more and more powerful in the absence of Hariri the father, and Jamil El-Sayyed became the architect of the political system at the time. He was a security man, so he had lots of information, many files in his hands, and he started to play political roles that are related to political mediations, to elections, to journalists; he had lots of connections within media outlets in Lebanon, and he appeared as a very strong man in the country. And this did not really change after Hariri returned to power in 2000 and until his assassination in 2005. Jamil El-Sayyed remained crucial in the political system, whether against or sometimes in understanding with Hariri, he remained an important person, and this is when his conflictual relation with Samir appeared.
Samir criticized him directly on many occasions, wrote articles about the role of the security apparatus in Lebanese politics. His passport was confiscated, as I mentioned, and there were two people working for the Securite General of Jamil El-Sayyed following him regularly, wherever he went, just to keep a pressure on him.So in 2005, after the assassination of Hariri, many believed that El-Sayyed himself, with the Syrian officers and with some other Lebanese officers, was connected to the assassination, and that’s why he was arrested. Now, legally, he was arrested in a controversial manner because he was only accused and not yet condemned, or there was no proof about the whole thing when he was arrested, but [Detlev] Mehlis, the international investigator who arrested him, considered that he has the right to arrest those who might threaten his own investigation for some time. And due to a Lebanese law that was passed under Emile Lahoud (and some people say it passed under the guidance of Jamil El-Sayyed himself), the period of arrest should expire, and if you do not prove that the person you arrested is really guilty, you should liberate him–that law was amended allowing for renewal of the arrest until you decide whether it’s necessary any more. So Mehlis, with the Lebanese investigation group, used that pretext to keep Jamil El-Sayyed and the other officers in jail. That of course created among some people, sympathy with them–among some others there was no sympathy at all; the opposite is quite the case.
And finally, I think it was in 2009, Jamil El-Sayyed was liberated by the new investigator who said, I don’t have enough proof to keep him in jail, and since that time he tried to appear as if he was the martyr, as if his rights were violated, that he was a political prisoner, that it was out of political revenge that he was put in jail. He became a deputy in the last election, plus many consider that he is very ambitious and he wants to be the speaker of the parliament, and that is creating lots of tensions with Nabih Berri, and Berri’s people keep criticizing Sayyed (and he responds regularly, criticizing their corruption). And in the current government, many of the ministers in fact are considered to be very close to Sayyed himself, so he was kind of the minister-maker in the current government, in alliance with Hezbollah. His role is definitely important today.
When it comes to Samir’s assassination, there was no clear proof leading to Jamil El-Sayyed, to be very clear about it, at least to my knowledge. But definitely the hostility that he had towards Samir, the pressure and the threats that he did against Samir, were obvious and were official in a way that he didn’t even hide them or deny them. He spoke about them in front of many journalists who repeated what he used to say, and he explained to what extent he used to hate Samir and wished to put more pressure on him, if possible.
JA: It’s extraordinary.
So this will be my final question, which is linked to this. Because at the end of the day, Samir was a writer. That was the main thing he did, even though obviously he was politically involved as a spokesperson for the movement and so on. But fundamentally, what he did with the vast majority of his time was write. He had a book on the history of Beirut. As you mentioned he wrote a book on the first part of the Civil War, and of course, was part of L’orient express and An-Nahar and so on and so forth.
So maybe this can wrap up this entire conversation, and thank you a lot for the time you’ve spent on this. Can we talk a bit more about the symbolism of Samir being part Palestinian and part Syrian? He was able to tie the Palestinian cause with the Syrian cause, and at the same time he was able to tie the Syrian cause with the Lebanese cause and the Palestinian cause with the Lebanese cause. Today we see Hezbollah is the only major sectarian political party in Lebanon that even pretends to “care about Palestinians,” it pays lip service to the cause. Of course, that doesn’t include the Palestinians in Syria, obviously. Even as it kills Syrians and Palestinian Syrians, Hezbollah takes credit for liberating Lebanon from one of its occupiers and now it’s allied with the other occupier.
Samir was killed before Hezbollah really showed its strength in 2008. It was even before the 2006 war. Why did it matter so much for him, personally and politically, to link the Palestinian cause to the Syrian causes the Lebanese cause, and why does it still matter today?
ZM: For the first part of the question: Samir being himself Lebanese but also Syrian and Palestinian, being from a Christian family and leftist and secular, was something that I think had lots of impact on his political profile and political culture and on his evolution. Paris did change Samir a lot when it comes to understanding what the Syrian regime is about, through the Syrian dissidents who were living in France and the intellectuals that he met, and to understand as well, how important the Palestinian propaganda in the Syrian regime’s discourse was to the legitimacy that the regime was trying to build among Arab nationalists and leftists who are not from the Levant, who we can see until today supporting the Syrian regime against the majority of its people, in the Maghreb and in Egypt, and in other places.
For Samir, in that sense, being Palestinian is by itself a reason for being opposed to the Syrian regime, exactly as being a Syrian opposed to the Syrian regime and exactly as being a Lebanese opposed to the Syrian regime. In Lebanon, we suffered the regime’s hegemony and military occupation. In Palestine, we suffer the brutal, despotic, barbaric regime using Palestine as a pretext to repress its own people and to impose itself in Lebanon and in regional politics. Palestinians are used as if the Syrian regime does everything for their sake–repressing its own people and occupying Lebanon and brutalizing the PLO and Palestinian camps (in Lebanon and not only in Syria). And of course for the Syrians, it’s the worst thing that can happen to be under that regime–under the father for three decades, and now already nineteen years under the son. So almost half a century.
So for him connecting Lebanese independence and sovereignty would mean the withdrawal of the Syrian regime; to the Palestinian identity, liberating the Palestinian struggle from all those who use it as a pretext to impose themselves elsewhere and to repress their people is important; and as a Syrian (and with his friendship with Syrian intellectuals, especially Farouk and Omar Amiralia and many others), it is important to support the Syrian struggle against the regime. That connectivity between the three causes for him was important.
And since he was very much concerned with an Arab Renaissance Project that he wrote about in his small though important book called “Consideration de Maleuse Arab” (I think it was translated in English as Being Arab), he considered himself among those Arab intellectuals who should continue the discourse the Al-Nahda, the Renaissance, of talking about freedom, empowerment, emancipation of men and women, about secularism, about social justice. That’s what he said in the book: that our problem is not in our history, it was much more in our geography, so we should understand that and consider that we have all the potential to bring the Renaissance on track again, and at the same time, we should not keep a victimization discourse when it comes to the West–without denying that in the West there are imperialist projects, domination projects, Islamophobia, etcetera.
He wanted to find a kind of a synthesis that would put together many ideas and many principles related to his Arab identity within the Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian contexts, and also within a kind of Mediterranean or universal world of connections and cultural exchange and influence and metisage, or all kinds of relations that could exist in a healthy manner with the rest of the world. That’s why for him, the struggle for the liberation of Palestine or a Palestinian state should be connected to the struggle against all despotism, specifically the despotisms that use Palestine as a pretext to justify their practices, and as a Lebanese of course, liberating Lebanon from both Israel and the Syrian regime was an important question.
Now, as for Hezbollah, it’s true that Hezbollah in Lebanon pretends to always be defending Palestine and celebrating Jerusalem Day and preparing for the liberation of Palestine after the liberation of Lebanon, as the secretary general himself of Hezbollah, Hassan Nassrallah, repeats each year. But let’s not forget that even before getting involved in Syria in support of the regime that killed not only Syrians but also Palestinians in Syria in Yarmouk and in other places, Hezbollah evoked in Lebanon the question of Palestinian social and civil rights. We have refugees in Lebanon that have been there since 1949. They were at the beginning in fifteen or sixteen camps. They are still today in twelve camps. Some of the camps were devastated by war and by massacres. Some others are still there, and they have become even more crowded now with the arrival of Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees. Palestinians are not allowed to work in 77 career fields in Lebanon, which leaves almost nothing for them. They are not allowed to have property; they cannot move easily from one place to the other; there is a kind of embargo or a kind of siege around their camps–and never has Hezbollah presented legislation in the Parliament asking to modify those discriminatory laws.
Hezbollah’s perfect ally since 2005 and 2006, the Aounist or Free Patriotic Movement, is probably the most racist movement against the Palestinians, before even the Syrian refugees. They keep talking about them as if They are going to take our country and Those refugees, Lebanon cannot deal with them. They say, We are proud of being racist. And with all their measures against the Palestinians, Hezbollah has never so much as condemned Gebran Bassil’s statements, which if you used them in Europe, you might be attacked by SOS-Racisme and many different groups.
Hezbollah’s allies are racist against the Palestinians. The Syrian regime massacred the Palestinians, not only in Syria, but even in Lebanon during the Civil War–not only the PLO in ’76, but in Sabra and Shatila and Bourj El Barajneh in ’85/’86/’87, during the war of the camps between the Amal Movement, the Syrian allies, and the Palestinians. Most Hezbollah allies, as I said, are racist against Palestinians, and this reminds me of what some Palestinian and Lebanese friends used to say: that there are many groups and regimes in the region that love Palestine and hate the Palestinians. I’m not saying that Hezbollah is exactly in that configuration, but I mean when it comes to the Palestinians themselves, nothing has been done in Lebanon to make their life more decent, and in Syria, Hezbollah has intervened to support a regime that was massacring them.
Does this deny that has Hezbollah fought Israel with lots of efficiency in south Lebanon? Of course not. Hezbollah did fight Israel and contributed to the liberation of south Lebanon, and performed very well in the 2006 war with the Israelis. However, this does not give it any right to intervene in Syria and to contribute to the massacre of the Syrian people. It does not give it any right to impose its own will on all Lebanese, including those that disapprove the party when it comes to its policies and its regional alliance–and I’m not talking about its fight with Israel, but its alliance with Iran. Many consider today that Hezbollah implements Iranian policies, and we are not supposed to accept that implementation when it comes to our own sovereignty or to our own interests as a Lebanese nation or as a Lebanese society (or as a Syrian nation and society, since this Iranian policy imposed itself Syria as well).
So the problem with Hezbollah in that sense (and I tried to summarize it yesterday in an article) is that there is no solution with this party, and we also cannot reach any solution without the party. That’s our dilemma today. It’s such a strong party internally–and regionally now because of Iran–and it has such mediocre opponents in front of it, when it comes to other sectarian groups, allowing it to control the situation in the country. So you cannot change things as long as it controls the situation, because it’s powerful and it will not allow that to happen easily. And at the same time, you cannot have a long-term solution if Hezbollah and the popular basis of Hezbollah is not part of the solution.
We have been confronted with that now for at least fifteen years, and we continue to be confronted. Maybe because of the system that is confessional, that is sectarian; maybe because of the Iranian rise as a regional power; maybe because of the Israeli threat that pushes lots of people in south Lebanon to remain loyal to the party. This is a severe and serious challenge that we have to deal with in Lebanon, avoiding at the same time any possible clashes and violence, but also without just surrendering and accepting Hezbollah’s will and the way it wants to impose Iranian regional interests and internal power arrogance on all Lebanese, making the reforms and the change impossible and preserving a system that, even if some of its heavyweights are not part of it today, remains very much corrupt and very much responsible for the series of crises that we have been living through for decades.
And just if you allow me one final question that is related to what I believe is a key issue in the whole region, and that is also connected or related to Samir’s assassination: that is, impunity. The Middle East, the Arab World and Lebanon have been going through impunities for now at least a century, if not more. You have one state, Israel, that was created in ’47 and imposed itself in ’48, that has been violating international law, Geneva Conventions, United Nations resolutions, and it has not been sanctioned by any international body or by any powerful government up to today. And that impunity that allowed Israel to impose its violations and its will by by force and occupation and apartheid and settlement did give lots of arguments and justifications to many Arab regimes to do exactly the same against their own societies, and sometimes even to use more violence and more barbaric acts against their own societies.
We see it today in Syria. We saw it before in Iraq, we saw it in Libya, we see it today in Yemen. In many places, those regimes also benefited from this same question of impunity, because there were always deals with them, compromises, stability versus freedom, avoiding the rise of political Islam and accepting all kind of abuses, avoiding refugees and political opponents who might leave, etcetera. We see impunity of course in Syria; we’ve been seeing it since 2010 in a terrible manner. All kind of massacres, chemical weapons, torture, rape, abuses–and still up to today, there are vetoes protecting the Syrian regime as there are vetoes protecting Israel. There is no international tribunal when it comes to the Syrian case because of different legal questions and not only political ones–but it’s the key, this question of impunity.
And when it comes to assassinations, it’s the same. Samir’s killers are still, if not killed in Syria, they are still running free. By “killed in Syria” I mean after 2011 or in internal eliminations to ger rid of all those who might have proof of the Syrian involvement and that of its Lebanese allies. So this question of impunity goes from individual assassination to mass murder and genocidal crimes, to occupation and settlement and apartheid in our region, and is the poision that keeps on ipoisoning our lives for decades, and I think it should become a priority in all political agendas. Not because we believe in international justice, this is not the issue, but in a certain form of justice that should be built and imposed with international alliances, with international networks of jurists, of militants, of academics, of political fighters, etcetera.
So I think this is an extremely important question. otherwise it might continue, and we might have other assassinations and other repressive regimes and occupations.
JA: I guess the conclusion would be that impunity leads to impunity and there has to be accountability, which protestors in Lebanon would definitely agree with, as well as protestors everywhere in the world. And on that note, Ziad, thank you a lot, you were very generous with your time. Continue what you’re doing, and thanks again.
ZM: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it and I hope it was useful.