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.
- Ziad Majed
J.A. 0:00:01.3 S1: On the second of June 2005, I was having some friends over to celebrate my 14th 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 second 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 2nd 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,
0:01:54.2 S1: 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. As usual, you can follow the podcast on Twitter @firethesetimes, and if you like what I do, please consider supporting this project with only $1 months on Patreon or buymeacoffee dot com, and you can also do so directly on paypal… If you refer patiently papers for one us and buy me a coffee, has both options, and if you cannot donate, you can still help by havering… This podcast on Apple Podcast or wherever you get your podcast. Thank you for your time.
Z.M. 0:02:43.2 S2: 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.
J.A. 0:02:56.5 S1: So this episode will be released tomorrow, the second of June, which would be exactly 15 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 the contact about the party that you were both part of your, your respective roles, and what your positions were?
Z.M. 0:03:19.2 S2: 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, 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 Annahar – the Lebanese newspaper – where he had a weekly column evoking issues related to Lebanon and Syria, Palestine, International affairs, etcetera. And he was ambitious in a sense that he wanted to create as well a review – a cultural review – that would be in French, but will 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.
0:04:57.8 S2: 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 diplomatic 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.
0:06:31.6 S2: 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, that 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 freedoms, 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 or 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 and the attempt at creating such a party will 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 in which we were all including Elias Khoury and with 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.
0:09:02.2 S2: Some of them unfortunately left later for different reasons, but many stayed and a third component was much more individuals and smaller groups, either coming from action or the communist action organization – Munazamit el-’Amal al-Shuyu’i – or from different civil society movements or just individuals who define themselves as leftists and 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.
0:11:08.0 S2: Now, if you allow me just to say a few words about that specific moment, because I think we did not at the time, 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. They were and they might continue as corrupt elites or as elites involved in all kinds of confessional sectarian politics. We did not have an illusion about it. We thought that there are some other 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 the Syrian hegemony so that we can go into a different approach related to alliances and to the Lebanese politics. Now, some people might not approve 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…
0:12:42.7 S2: So we consider this as a kind of a historical opportunity in which we can get rid of the Syrian regime in Lebanese 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 in April 26, 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
0:14:01.7 S2: 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 in June 2nd 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 in the ambition of – 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 this project that could have an influence in Syria itself among many young people and leftist people, and 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
0:15:39.1 S2: 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 the Lebanon 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 in the way at least we were hoping it will evolve. So Samir was assassinated on June 2nd 15 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 Lebanse 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
0:17:48.4 S2: when it comes to the Middle East and to other places and being at the same time attached to secularism and social justice.
J.A. 0:17:56.4 S1: 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.
Z. M. 0:18:16.4 S2: 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 Israeli condition 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, it assassinated Kamal Jumblatt, who was the head of the socialist party and the leader of the Lebanese left at the time. And controlled Lebanon or parts of Lebanon after that, with shifting alliances and with 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 Syria or the Syrian regime got an 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.
0:20:17.0 S2: 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 puts an end to the Lebanese civil war and brought some reforms. Some of them were implemented and the majority were not – that Hariri 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. Madrid Process. Syria and Lebanon had a common delegation led by the Syriam foreign Affairs minister Farouk El-Sharaa, so Syria managed politically when Hariri was a kind of a bridge or a connection with his friends in the west, Chiraq, Blair, Bush and later Clinton, and he was in charge of the reconstruction in Lebanon. The reconstruction, of course, was controversial, many people criticize that because they considered that it was not taking into consideration the social tissue of the hood, 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.
0:21:54.0 S2: So there were lots of critics for Hariri, his reconstruction plan, plus the fact that it was not a balanced reconstruction in different areas. Most of the reconstruction was in Beirut plus that 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 would that cost. There will 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 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, creation of new political parties were banned in Lebanon. They were not allowed even. What usually used to manage the civil society in terms of 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 informed the authorities that you have created your organization, even that as a law was related and everything needed an approval by the Ministry of Interior that was directly connected to the Syrian regime and they were in Lebanon, Syrian officers who were in charge of managing the political questions of connecting people, manipulating others, they were censorship on the press, and many journalists used to self censor themselves as well to avoid problems.
0:23:48.4 S2: Some leaders of the Christian right-wing parties were in jail, others were in exile. There was a serious political problem in the country and that problem got worse after 1998 because in 1998, to prepare Bachar el-Assad succession in Syria when Hafiz was getting sick and tired, Bachar was in charge the management of the Lebanese political scene, and he wanted to weaken Hariri and Jumblatt other heavy weights in deliveries 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 strong man 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 they were more and more articles about Syria itself, and then in 2000, the father died, Bachar became president, and this is what was called at the time The Damascus spring from September 2000 until February 2001.
0:25:42.7 S2: And in Lebanon, there were many articles in Annahar and the cultural supplement that Elias Khoury was editing. Lots of articles by Syrian intellectuals and by Lebanese intellectuals supporting them in their attempts at ending with the state of emergency, they demanded the liberation of political prisoners, the return of those 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 to cooperate or coordinate with the Lebanese Christian opposition that was formed around Kornet Shihwan and the Maronite Patriarch and what that 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 the 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 group before Hezbullah
0:27:14.9 S2: that was born in 1983, that 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, and the Communist Party was excluded from the resistance after the end of the war. That was due to a series of assassinations that targeted its intellectuals and many of its leaders, and it was also because the Syria regime wanted to control the military resistance and to have the monopoly of Hezbullah 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, by saying that 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 leftist to play a role against them directly or indirectly.
0:28:50.8 S1: The last one 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 majority people who are from the South who were also assassinated during the war.
0:29:11.3 S2: The assassinations of many of the Marxist and communist intellectuals started between 86. In fact, it started in 86 and would continue throughout the 80s until 88, and there will be other incidents at the end of the war. At the time, the context was of the rise of Hezbullah. It wanted to impose itself on the Shi’a scene, which led to clashes between the Communists and Hezbullah and later between 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 Mehdi Amel, was assassinated in May 18, 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.
0:30:44.1 S2: He was assassinated at home, after being kidnapped in Beirut as well. There would Khalil Naous and others. So at the time, the Communist Party used to talk about obscure forces behind the assassinations, hence he was talking about indirect Hezbullah as being behind the assassinations and there would be many clashes between the Communist party and Hezbullah and between a group that would later defect from Hezbullah and create its own movement. Most of the assassinations took place while Hezbullah was rising and imposing itself when it comes to the military resistance or when it comes to the control of the Shia regions, let’s say, geographically speaking, in the 80s. 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 Shia exactly at the time there were 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 Shia’, Iran was pushing for Hezbollah. And finally, in 1991, they agreed to share or to have a power sharing formula in which the Amal movement will be feeding the state institutions in the sense that it will feed it with employees, it will have the quota for the Shia employees based on the Lebanese sectarian system that Amal will nominate them while Hezbullah 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, and that allowed Iran and Syria to agree on those terms and Hezbullah leadership changed after that.
0:32:48.4 S2: And that was the final compromise. So 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 of the way the Syrians used to manage the Lebanese political scene because he dealt with them directly. He fought them in the early 70s, in the mid-70s, 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 Israeies before they are carried before the attacks happened. And George Hawi told him he cannot do that, because we were given the order to act whenever that is possible, without even asking us or returning to Beirut to brief us about what they are going to do, so you’re asking me something impossible. And 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 will be on two different occasions, clashes between the Syrian army or Amal Movement and communist groups who were returning…
0:34:20.0 S2: After attacking the 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 to 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 and 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 labors 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, and that I think position was very important.
0:35:50.8 S2: And how George Hawi after that, and on many occasions we met with him, and the day when he was assassination, he was assassinated on June 21st 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, 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 the Lebanese politics themselves and the way they would run and the way the alliance will impose on Elias Atallah our deputy to be just 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: 0:37:11.8 S1: On that topic, can you talk about… You had mentioned on the episode of The Beirut Banyan, which I would 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 Hezbullah and Amal than independent Shi’a voices for that matter, because that would mean that if they dealt with independent Shi’a voices and that would mean that they would have to also deal with independent Christina, Sunni, and Druze Voices.
ZM: 0:37:39.9 S2: Exactly. In fact, what happened is that in May 2005 and after the withdrawal of the Syrians and while preparing for the elections, the heavy weights of the March 14, meaning Hariri and Jumblatt, but also the Christian components of the movement or 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, just any form of alliance without respecting the sacrifices and the courage of many independent and small groups who challenged Hezbullah among the Shi’a community, 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 illusion 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, like people like Sayed Hassan El-Amine, for people like Hani Fahs, for many of the figures, whether intellectuals or even coming from religious backgrounds, but with a secular and open, clearly secular discourse and leftist discourse to be represented and to be respected regardless of their let’s say size and clientalist networks within the Shi’a community.
0:39:18.3 S2: But for many of the March 14 leaders, it was much easier to deal with Hezbullah, to deal with Amal, with blocks and with those who are considered as representative of the Shi’a community exactly as they wanted Amal and Hezbullah to deal with them as the only representatives of the Sunni or of the Druze or of the Christian communities, so they prefer to have blocks sharing the quotas and sharing the lists and sharing power rather than accepting, of course, to dialogue with Amal and Hezbullah. They do represent the reality in the country and the large part of the Lebanse, and everyone had to deal with them, but to deal with them on clear stances based on principles and without fearing 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 blocks and parties and sometimes leaders were monopolizing the representations of their communities, and while doing that, any clash between them and any rivalry between them and the representatives of another community was leading to clash between communities, making the confessional system itself working even more efficiently – efficiently, of course, between brackets – in bringing people against each other or turning people against each other whenever their representatives that 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, and we saw it later with many of the crises, whether related to the electricity to the garbage to many other crisis. 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.
0:41:50.9 S2: So finally, in 2005, March 14th preferred to sacrifice many of those who worked with the opposition to the Syrian regime in order to make a deal with Amal and Hezbullah 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 mentality, clientalist and sectarian mentality and not something else.
JA: 0:42:22.4 S1: This would happen again and again and again, even after 2005, whenever there is a broadly independent alternative, like the, I guess the most well-known case is Beirut Madinati, you would have the entirety of the establishment basically going against them.
0:42:37.6 S2: 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, they will, in many cases, they will be in confrontations, but they finally make governments together, make the decisions together, share the power and share the quota 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, and each time there is a group or the force that is trying to emerge and to 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, and they are all obsessed with this idea of change and unless the change is targeting only one group or one camp. So Hezbullah 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 will not have a problem if there is one group that will only target Hezbullah for different reasons. However, if they consider when the elections will happen, that this will not be useful
0:44:19.8 S2: they will, once again sacrifice and try to find a deal or contract, and this is related to the nature and to the 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 right wing with Bashir Gemayel and the whole idea of unifying the militias and unifying the Christian ranks, it continued with Amal and Hezbuallah in the Shi’a community then Hariri brought through the economy and through his network of relations, Harir father 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 for Hariri, Saad was not in the civil war, but Berry was in civil war, Hezbullah was in the civil war, Jumblatt in the civil war, Geagea in the civil war, Aoun in the civil war, the Gemayel 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 it and it has been the same political elite changing
0:45:44.4 S2: 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 counter revolution or the counter-attack and it has consolidated the government and weakened dramatically the revolutionary momentum and attempts at modifying things.
J.A. 0:46:21.3 S1: And supporting it, you mentioned that, but I’ll just expand a bit for those who don’t know that the names that we’re talking of names that most of them… I do come from the 70s, in the 80s, some of them come from the early 90s, so Walid Jumblatt and Nabih Berri all of those late 70s, Nasrallah from the late 80s, early 90s, the Gemayels if not them then their entire clan, the family, the Gemayels go back to the 30s and the 40s. Michel Aoun from the 80s, Samir Geagea also from the 80s. These are names that have basically – 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 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 kind of, as we call it, a power sharing agreement of tolerating each other, they don’t like each other, none of them, even though they’re each other’s allies like 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 or another, because at the end of the day, it’s easier to deal with one another and it has to deal with any kind of serious alternative, however, that alternative can look like.
J.A. 0:47:38.3 S1: I wanted to switch a bit to Syria because 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 write it only two months before he was killed, which is “When the Arab spring blooms in a Beirut, it announces the time of roses in Damascus”, and this is a quote that was just a few months ago, had been redrawn — and for people who want to know, it’s my cover photo on Twitter — it was redrawn as a graffiti in Idlib, which is one of the most difficult places to be right in Syrian and with Samir Kassir’s name and someone who calls himself the Syrian banksy. It shows that there is a legacy with the Lebanese of course, of part Syrian and Palestinian intellectual, but he was very active in Lebanon first and foremost when he came back from Paris, the legacy that he has among Syrians is something that we don’t often see among Lebanese as far as I’m aware, no?
Z.M. 0:48:50.1 S2: You’re right, absolutely. In fact, in Lebanon, there is a tendency among majority not to evoke Syria either out of fear or because this is a divisive issue. Some people among the Aounist and Hezbullah 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 any more their priority. So unfortunately in Lebanon, yes, there is the tendency at avoiding the Syrian issue, even though we have around a million refugees in the country added to the 250,000 Palestinian refugees and ens 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 flows and legislations and lots of practices full of racism and discrimination against them. This has been the case of the Palestinians. It’s now the case on 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 again in Syria.
J.A.0:50:34.8 S1: 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 at 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, the Beirut Spring and just only six years later, obviously we had the widespread uprisings throughout the region, including the Syrian revolution, and since then, so 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 of just six, 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 to our generation to what has been happening, what has started happening in October 2019. How would you, 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 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,
J.A. 0:52:04.4 S1: she couldn’t obviously use her real name then as someone who – she’s based in Beirut and she 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. So when she talks, she has a visibly Syrian accent, let’s say, and in Beirut itself, in Riad El Solh especially, because there’s this weird dynamic for those who don’t know. Well, you have in Beirut Martyr’s Square kind of the general population maybe centrist, liberals and others. And then on Riad El-Solh square, you have the communists and the more secular-oriented and then kind of like more politicized, let’s say a segment. So I would be with the latter, and you might see some Palestinian flags sometimes and everything, 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 Syrian, anti-Assad Syrians who are in Beirut that 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 is, 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 of course they just couldn’t take that risk, I guess, because they didn’t even know if there were people among us among the protestors, as it was the case, of course, in the beginning, that weren’t necessarily anti-Hezbollah in the beginning, especially in the first few weeks.
J.A. 0:53:31.5 S1: There was a mix of everyone. We had the Lebanese forces, we had Hezbullah, Everyone with us among the secular and the communists and the leftists and so on, so how would you reflect on this contradictions, of course, 15 years on after the quote itself and of course after assassination.
Z.M. 0:53:47.6 S2: The quote came in a moment where 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 and secure and a peaceful Lebanon, because the whole ideology of the Syrian regime was 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 itself its own legitimacy and the reason of its existence, because Assad did everything, Assad father once again did everything to erase the Syrian society, not to allow it to appear. To Bomb it if necessary and to use the 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 f 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 the American leadership against Iraq
0:55:19.2 S2: So Assad used Lebanon as a place where he could bargain, where he could negotiate and 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 in between the two countries under the Assad regime, and Samir already published in 2004, a book that gathered many of his articles in Annahar. The book was entitled The Independence of Lebanon and the freedom of Syria, considering that Istiqlal Lubnan wa huryat Surya – or independence and the freedom in the two countries are very much interdependent, are very much connected. That 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 formal political prisoners inside Syria was part of the 1998-2000 experience in the cultural supplement of Annahar. And then after 2000, during the Damascus spring, there were lots of connections and friendships that were built, and that tendency continue 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 Syria loses the most important scene for it.
0:57:05.0 S2: When you talk about Syria, of course, here I need the regime that is Lebanon, and of course, one can analyze the reasons of Arab revolutions that might not be related or inspired by the Lebanese 2005 event, and that’s, in my opinion, there was no influence of what happened in 2005 in Lebanon, and what will happen in Tunisia or Egypt, or even later in Syria. We’re talking about even if it’s only six years, but the context is different and the dynamics are very different, even if the pictures and the images of the crowds just defying fear and challenging authority, they do create some similarities and allow us a few comparisons, but there were different reasons. However, what you just said about the 2019 uprising in Lebanon, after the 2015 former 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 were lots of sufferings after that. There were counter revolutions, 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 Assad’s regimes barbaric repression and crimes against humanity that were committed, but also the Russian occupation now, with 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 2011 first important waves of Arab revolutions, and if in Lebanon some were part of the March 14th of the 2005, let’s say, political moment with its huge mobilization, the reasons in 2019 were really different
0:59:40.7 S2: and what I can say is that in 2005, we were at the time, 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 code that is always used that Samir used in 2005, which is ‘Oudu Illa Al-Shari’ or “return to the streets”, and many of the articles that I published in Annahar and many others published as well, were about the necessity now of moving from the independence Intifada, as we call it, through the reform and change Intifada. And to bring some ideas, I did summarize many of them in a book that was called the Rabi’ Beirut wal Dawla Al-Naqeesa published in 2006, the spring of Beirut and the unachieved state with some ideas of reforms, and then I published a small booklet called An Takouna Yasariyyan or “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 fade in a way in modifying the balance of power, not only the assassinations, but also some of the mistakes that we committed, some of the maybe…
1:01:24.4 S2: I don’t wanna say illusions, but we probably underestimated also the strength of the system itself. It was not naive at the time to underestimate not at all, because there was 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 blocks that were mobilized by this political class and remain loyal to it, but there was also what we called the citizen pole or the citizen campe with 14 March that was, unfortunately, was last because we did not build something that could have gathered all those who were secular, who want to reform after the Syrian regime was thrown. We got dispersed and we did not build the momentum, and we lost the opportunity. After that, it was a bit late due to the assassination, but also due to the new cleavage in the country that did drag us all and it was a kind of a situation of a dilemma in which you cannot withdraw when assassinations continue and you cannot approve at the same time what your supposedly allies were doing and your 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 assassination, meaning the Syrian regime and its allies in Lebanon.
1:02:59.1 S2: 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 as 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 severe disputes and Hezbullah orchestrated a coup and remove 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 block can never pretend that they were not, so it was a completely different dynamic that finally led to 2019 rising.
J.A. 1:03:58.5 S1: I saw video of you from July 2011, which I would also link in, which you spoke about the silence, the deafening science we just mention of Lebanese society and activists of what’s happening in Syria, and that was in the early days of the revolution when it was still mostly peaceful and non-violent. Not peaceful in the sense of – the regime was cracking down, but the revolution itself was not armed as much yet at the time. By the time I personally started paying attention, which was on 2012, 2013. The same hesitation would happen. And then since then, I remember, I bit in 2015 a bit in 2016, then 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 have 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 was still feel threatened, 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 that they can do if they are too visibly Palestinian, so to speak.
1:05:17.9 S1: I’m not going to reask the question of how have you seen the Lebanese response to the Syrian revolution, because you’ve already answered this, but I wonder if we can talk a bit about… Right now, when we speak about the Lebanese government, what we mean in effect is essentially Hezbullah, the Free Patriotic Movement and Amal, those are three big blocks, and then you have the other blocks aligning themselves in a sort of opportunistic way however it pleases them. But we’ve also seen a much more open, at least since the big big clash of 2008, which was an exception to the rule because Hezbullah up until then, up until 2018, usually did not openly target other Lebanese, at least not since the Civil War. Now, it was part of the myth of Hezbullah. We are only here to fight Israel. This is our role, etcetera, etcetera. Putting aside 2008, which I said was quite the exception in a sense, but since in October, I was personally beaten up by Hezbullah people. You had Amal and Hezbollah openly saying that they are with Amal and Hezbullah with flags, with tattoos were very, very visibly partizan and sectarian. Beating up protesters, torching tents, not just in Beirut, but especially in the Nabatiyeh and in other places, but we’ve also seen – which for me is the extraordinary bit, people, for the most part, sometimes the fear would be a bit to great so it would take a bit more time. But people after this events, sometimes just like an hour or two hours after the event, going back down on the streets, rebuilding the tens and maintaining an anti-sectarian chant, and 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, so I wonder if you, as someone who, especially witnessed 2005, and then I know that you still visit Lebanon quite a lot since then. How would you interpret – let’s use it in a vague way – 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?
Z. M. 1:07:39.1 S2: Well, exactly as you said, when it comes to Hezbullah, there is a myth about Hezbullah not being involved in internal Lebanese fights or clashes. Other than Hezbullah was part of the Civil War after – it was created after 1983. So there were still seven years of civil war in which Hezbullah 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, Hezbullah 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 grassroot, not only as a political and military organisation, but with all kind of social institutions, hospitals, schools, dispensaries, charity networks, scouts, cultural institutions, media, newspapers, so Hezbullah was not concerned about the macro politics and was getting more and more involved in managing municipalities in having a large block with its allies in the parliament and of keeping Amal movement managing the government not being directly involved. After 2005 what is that while Syria or 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 as the foreign policy and the security situation in the country
1:09:43.6 S2: Exactly as the Syrian regime was doing, and whatever Hariri or the other camp was threatening that control – You can talk when it comes to the security about Feri’ El-Ma’loumeit that was 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 as well to see when it comes to the ambassadors who’s who, what kind of position will be taken and when in 2008 Hezbullah could not control the situation as it wished, because at the time it’s clash with Hariri and Jumblatt and the other camp, they invaded Beirut and by force. They took over the government. Seniora had to resign. And new negotiations happened in Qatar with France also being a mediator, starting a new page or a new phase in the history of relations between Hezbullah and its rivals on the Lebanese scene. Then you have in 2011, when Arab revolution started and when there were some talks about a possible uprising in Syria, Hezbollah also did not invade this time Beirut, but they deployed thousands of young man in black shirts to send the message that we are ready to take over and are led later to the resignation of Hariri when Jumblatt changed or shifted a bit his camp out of fear of Hezbullah’s objectives and that moment led to Hezbullah taking over, but due to the confessional system, they have to bring a Prime Minister who is Sunni so Mikati was brought, etcetera, etcetera.
1:11:28.2 S2: You have permanently moments where Hezbullah does attack and imposes itself, and that’s what happened again now, when there was a threat with a new revolution, with the uprising of October 2019, Hezbullah did orchestrate the whole situation by taking over, and the government today is controlled by Hezbullah as well as its foreign policy. 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 et cetera. They were not concerned with the cleavages, the divisions of 2005. Many of them were born also, 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 an old – it’s old history. They had other dynamics. They are part of also, their consciousness is much more related to human rights and social justice, and not any more into a 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.
1:13:18.7 S2: But I think that whenever they are into the human rights and the social justice and the freedom, a kind of terminology and discourse, they cannot be opposed to the aspirations of other people around them, whether they announce that or not for similar cases, whether in Syria or in any of the other places that witness Arab uprisings, so what changed today is that they are not any more concerned with March 14 versus March 8. They are not obsessed by Syria and Lebanon, the Syrian regime in Lebanon as we were, the generation of the 80s and 90s, and 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, as I saw it, at least in the demonstration and the slogans. They are much more creative now with social media, allowing them as well 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 it here. However, what is missing – so the potential for the change is there, is there are definitely leaders that are emerging and would continue to emerge, we’re talking about just a few months of uprising, including two months or so of Corona and of lockdown, etcetera.
1:15:00.0 S2: What is missing, however, is a coordination is… I don’t wanna say like leadership in the sense that you have a camp with a porte-parole, with spokesman/women, no, but something that would coordinate and would keep the diversity and would keep the leftists and the independent and the liberals and those who just want to get thread of corruption with those who want more things when it comes to feminist approach, when it comes to social justice, to racism against foreignlaborers and refugees. We can have all of those together, including even some part of the bourgeoisie that are opposed to corruption, those diversity. This diversity should be tolerated and is useful, however, something that could find what is common and keep what is different to struggle for it and to fight for it peacefully, but to have a coordination that will put all energies efforts together in order to modify the balance of power, that is today once again, because of violence that Hezbullah directly deployed through 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 order of a government that is itself under the order of Hezbullah, so they don’t need to send their militant or their members to attack people in Kfar Rumman or in Nabatieh or in Sour or in Beirut.
1:16:34.8 S2: Now, the army and the security forces can – differently of course – but can impose curfews, can request to dismantle tents, and they did this matter some of it, some of them themselves can attack the demonstrators who are trying to be on the ring, blocking the access to — they can now use the repressive measures of the state institutions in order to impose, once again, their order and their control and to make any change extremely difficult. However, there are still resilience so far, and we saw that recently many demonstrations took place that sit-ins are once again organized. We saw in Tripoli a mix of anger and frustration because of poverty and because of the terrible financial and economic crisis that was even made worse with Corona, and the political, once again, desire to change things and to confront the political rule in 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 to — let’s agree that it’s extremely difficult and that Hezbullah does hold to power with its allies, and they do have their own power, and they do have as well the power of the state institutions of the army, and they might be held indirectly by by creating a new dilemma related to the World bank
1:18:17.6 S2: sorry, 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.
J.A. 1:18:39.6 S1: I have a final question about Samir Kassir, but I wanted to kind of squeeze in a parenthesis in a sense. 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, but can you talk a bit about the role of someone like Jamil El-Sayyed and the entire structure, let’s say of the security forces and Amn El-’Am. At the time, and because I know that there was even a personal antagonism between Jamil El-Sayyed as you said and Samir Kassir and since then, because as you mentioned Hezbullah sort of took over the whole of the Syrian regime, in some ways it’s even stronger than the Syrian regime at some point, and since then you have people who were even in prison, like Jamil El-Sayyed who were seen as almost like persona non-grata, We won’t see them for a while now he’s surfacing and almost feeling more comfortable about themselves and even being comfortable enough to run for elections and win one.
Z.M. 1:19:41.1 S2: Yes. In fact, between 1998, when Emile Lahoud became the president of the republic, something changed in the internal structure of the Lebanese state. Under the Hariri father, the control of Hariri was very strong and he managed to have deal with the Syrian regime, keep me working, doing my economic and other stuff and I will let you do the regional international compromises and records. You will manage the rest through your relation directly with the Lebanese security apparatus. So Hariri was much more into an economic role, and then from time to time, due to his international connections and to his Arab connections, he was allowed or he played a role in agreement with Hafez El-Assad to represent both Lebanon and Syria in some connections and some relations, and that formula that Hariri found with the Syrian regime functioned for a while. When Bachar came to power, it was the end. Bachar wanted to impose himself on everything in a way 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 not any more Prime Minister. He became in the opposition, and this is the moment where the role of Jamil El-Sayyed along with the role of…
1:21:14.6 S2: The one who would replace gradually as I can, Ghazi Kanaan, Rustom Ghazali and the aid of Rustom Ghazali Jami’ Jami’, another officer, by the way.
J.A. 1:21:24.3 S1: Of… Yeah, can you say who the men are – the last one?
1:21:28.6 S2: Rustom Ghazali, the Syria officer managing the Lebanese affairs exactly as Ghazi Kanaan, who was also a general did before. Ghazi Kanaan, he officially, he committed suicide in late 2005 in his office. While there are of course, information and rumors about himself 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-Zhor and both of them, Jami’ Jami’ and Rustom Ghazali their names came in many reports when it comes to the assassination of Hariri and their presumed role in assassination. So it was as if the Syrian regime kept cleaning its own ranks from 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 father and Jamil El-Sayyed became in a way, 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 a journalist, he had lots of connections within the media in 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 and the political system, whether against or sometimes in understanding, let’s say with Hariri, he remained one important person, and this is when his relation with — his conflictual relation with Samir — appeared. Samir criticized him directly on many occasions, wrote articles about the role of the security apparatus and in the Lebanese politics, his passport was confiscated as I mentioned, and then 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.
1:24:16.3 S2: So in 2005, after the assassination of Hariri, many believed that to say it himself, with the Syrian officers and with some other Lebanese officers were connected to the assassination, and that’s why he was arrested. Now, legally, he was arrested in a controversial manner because he was just 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, and that was passed under Emile Lahoud and some people say it passed under the guidance of Jamil El-Sayyed himself, is that period of arrest that should expire, and if you do not prove that the person that you arrested is really guilty, you should liberate him, that law was amended allowing to keep renewing the arrest until you decide whether it’s not necessarily any more. So Milice used that with the Lebanese investigation group, used that pretext to keep Jamil El-Sayyed and the other officers in jail and that of course created among some people, sympathy with them, amongst 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 that 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 he was…
1:26:03.8 S2: His rights were violated, that he was a political prisoner, that it was out of revenge, political revenge that he was put in jail. He became a deputy in the last elections, plus many consider that his 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 responded regularly also 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 ministers maker in the current government in alliance with Hezbollah. His role is definitely important today. When it comes to Samir’s assassination, there were no clear proof leading at Jamil El-Sayyed, to be very clear about it actually, at least to my knowledge, to my knowledge, but definitely the hostility between, 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, and he spoke about them in front of many journalists who repeated what he used to say and repeated and explained that what extent he used to hate Samir and to wish to, to put more pressure on him, if possible.
J.A. 1:27:38.8 S1: It’s extraordinary. So this will be my final question, which is linked on this, because at the end of the day, Samir was a writer. That was the main thing that even though obviously, he was then more politically involved as a spokesperson for the movement and so on, of course, but fundamentally, what he did the vast majority of his time, was write. He had a book on the history of Beirut, as you mentioned he wrote the book on the first part of the civil war being 75 and 82 and so on and so forth. And of course, as part of L’orient express and Annahar and so on and so forth, but… So maybe this can be a wrapping up of this entire conversation, and thank you a lot for the time you’ve spent on this. Can we talk a bit about the symbolism of having – or retalk because I know we mentioned this a bit, but I emphasize it even more, same 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 cars and the Palestinian cause and so on and so forth. Today we see the only major sectarian political party in Lebanon Hezbullah
J.A. 1:28:47.6 S1: Well, being basically the only party 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 killed Syrians and Palestinian Syrians on behalf of — basically one of Hezbullah takes credit for liberating Lebanon from one of its occupiers and now it’s allied with the other occupier, and Samir was killed before Hezbullah really showed its strength, which was 2008, and then obviously everything since then. It was even before the 2006 war, and as we said before, everything else. Why did it matter, according to you, so much for him personally and politically to link the Palestinian cause to the Syrian causes and to the Lebanese cause, and why does it still matter today?
1:29:38.9 S2: For the first part of the question, Samir being himself Lebanese, but also Syrian and Palestinian, being within the Lebanese context from a Christian family and leftist and secular was something that I think had lots of impact on his own 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 was the Palestinian propaganda in the Syrian regime’ discourse to the regime itself and to the legitimacy that it was trying to build among Arab nationalists and leftists who are not from the Levant or from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, that we can until today see in a way 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, the being Palestinian is by itself a reason for being opposed to the Syrian regime exactly as being Syrian opposed to the Syrian regime… Exactly, as being Lebanese opposed to the Syrian regime. In Lebanon, we suffered the regimes, hegemony and military occupation.
1:31:14.2 S2: In Palestine, we suffer a despotic regime and the brutal barbaric regime, using Palestine as a pretext to repress its own people and to impose itself in Lebanon and in regional politics. No, no, even for the Palestinians, they are use it in a way, they are used as if for their sake, the Syrian regime does everything else, among that, everything else is repressing its own people and occupying Lebanon and brutalizing the PLO and the 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 30 years, three decades, and now already 19 years under the son. So almost half a century. So for him connecting the Lebanese independence and sovereignty that would mean that the Syrian regime to the Palestinian identity, that should liberate the Palestinian struggle from all of those that use it as a pretext to impose themselves elsewhere and to repress their people and to impose all kinds of measures against their own people is important, and as a Syrian with his also friendship with Syrian intellectuals, and especially for Farouk and Omar Amiralia with many others, is to support the Syrian struggle against the regime, so that’s connectivity between the three causes for him was important.
1:32:45.9 S2: And since he was very much concerned with an Arab Renaissance Project, that he wrote about in his book – his small book though important “Consideration de Maleuse Arab”, I think it was translated in English to “Being Arab”, he considered himself as well as part of 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 about… And 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 is sometimes imperialist projects, domination projects, Islamophobia, etc. So he wanted to find a kind of a synthesis that will put together many ideas and many principles related to his Arab identity within the Lebanese context, the Syrian and the Palestinian, but 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. So that’s why for him, the liberation of Palestine or a Palestinian state, the struggle for it should be connected to the struggle against all despotism, specifically the despotism 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 one important question.
1:34:56.4 S2: Now, for Hezbullah, it’s true that Hezbullah in Lebanon pretends to always be defending Palestine and celebrating the Jerusalem day and preparing for the liberation of Palestine after the liberation of Lebanon, as the secretary general himself of Hezbullah 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, Hezbullah evoked in Lebanon the question of the Palestinian social and civil rights. We have refugees in Lebanon that have been there since 1949. They were at the beginning in 15 or 16 camps. They are still today in 12 camps. Some of the camps were devastated by the war and by the massacres. Some others are still there, and they become even more crowded now with arrival of Syrian, Palestinian Syrians. All Palestinians are not allowed to work in 77 jobs in Lebanon, 77 fields, which live almost nothing for them, as they are not allowed to have property, they cannot move easily from one place to the other, there is a kind of a medical or a kind of sieges that are around their own camps, and never ever Hezbollah did present legislation in the Parliament asking to modify as always discriminatory laws, the Hezbullah’s
1:36:42.4 S2: Perfect allies since 2005 and so 2006 officially, the Aounist or the 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 that we are proud of being racist and all their measures against the Palestinians, Hezbullah has never just even condemned Gebran Bassil’s statements. That if you use them in Europe, you might be attacked in injustice by sos-racisme and by 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 even Sabra and Shatila and Bourj El Barajneh in 85/86/87, during the camps war between the Amal Movement, the Syrian allies, and the Palestinians. Most Hezbullah allies, as I said, are racist against the 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, and I’m not saying that Hezbullah 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.
1:38:29.0 S2: Does this deny that has Hezbullah 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 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 of Israel, but its alliance with Iran, because many do consider today that Hezbullah does implement Iranian policies, and we are not supposed to accept that implementation when it comes to our own sovereignty, or even if we forget the term sovereignty – to our own interests as a Lebanese nation or as a Lebanese society, or as a Syrian nation and society, since the Iranian policy, it was itself in Syria as well. So the problem with Hezbullah in that sense, and I try to summarize it yesterday in an article, that there is no solution with this party, and we are also — we cannot reach any solution without the party, and that’s our dilemma today. It’s such a strong Party internally and regional now, because of Iran, and it has in front of it, when it comes to the sectarian groups, such mediocre opponents 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.
1:40:16.5 S2: And at the same time, you cannot have a long-term solution if Hezbullah and if the popular basis of Hezbullah is not part of the solution, and who has been confronted to that now for at least 15 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, so this is a severe and serious challenge that we have to deal with in Lebanon, avoiding at the same time any possible not civil war, but I mean classes and violence, but without also just surrendering and accepting Hezbullah’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 heavy weights are not part of it today, remains very much corrupt and very much responsible of 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 do believe is a key issue in the whole region, and that is also connected or related to Samir’s assassination that is impunity.
1:41:53.1 S2: The Middle East, the Arab World and Lebanon have been going through impunities for now, at least essentially, if not more. You have one state that is 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 or by any powerful government until today, and that impunity that allowed Israel to impose its violations and it’s win by by force and by occupation and by apartheid and by 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. And 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 they were always deals with compromises, a stability versus freedom, avoiding the rise of partial Islam and accepting all kind of abusers, avoiding refugees and political opponents who might leave and etcetera. So impunity, and we see it of course in Syria, we’ve been seeing it since 2010 in a terrible manner all kind of massacres, chemical weapons, torture, rape, and still until 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 question and not only political ones, but it’s to keep this question of impunity, and when it comes to assassinations, it’s the same…
1:43:51.9 S2: Samir’s killers are still, if not kill in Syria, they are still running free anyway. Killed in Syria, I mean after 2011 or in internal eliminations to ger rid of all those who might be proofs of the Syrian involvement and its Lebanese allies. So this question of impunity that goes from individual assassination to mass murder and even genocidal kind of crimes to occupation and settlement and apartheid regime in our region is the poision that keep on ipoisoning our lives for decades, and I think it should remain or it should become one 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, etcetera. So I think this is an extremely important question, otherwise, it might continue and do, we might have other assassinations and other repressive regimes and occupation and etcetera.
J.A. 1:45:11.4 S1: 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, thank you a lot, you were very, very generous with your time and ycontinue what you’re doing and thanks again.
Z. M. 1:45:32.7 S2: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it and I hope it was useful.