As Lebanon deals with political extremism and an economy on the brink of collapse, Christian leaders should take the road to Damascus en masse, according to Phalange Party president Karim Pakradouni.
“Few politicians here have a vision and most of them don’t know what they want or where the country is headed,” said Pakradouni in an interview with The Daily Star at his home in Ghadras, Kesrouan.
Discussing a hot summer in Lebanon, where sectarianism, sovereignty, privatization and events from Ain al-Hilweh to Los Angeles have grabbed the headlines, Pakradouni said that regional conditions were too delicate to allow further deterioration, while Christian politicians were wasting a golden opportunity regarding one of the divisive issues, namely ties with Syria.
“In the end, there must be a moderate option, because an extremist Christian option will only give rise to an extremist Muslim one,” he said.
Two trends, Pakradouni continued, had arisen among Christian politicians the “pro-sovereignty, anti-Syria” stance of the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, and the “pro-sovereignty, pro-Syria” line espoused by a range of other politicians who are now discussing the possibility of forming a front or gathering to promote this view.
Asked about whether Qornet Shehwan should be considered hostile to Syria, Pakradouni said they had raised the items of sovereignty and Syria as being mutually exclusive “you can’t have sovereignty with Syria; that’s what they’re saying.”
Individual members of Qornet Shehwan, Pakradouni said, might have good ties with Syria, “but as a group, they can’t ‘open the way’ to Damascus.
“They’ve ruined their relations with Walid Jumblatt, and they haven’t been able to engage in dialogue with the president. And they can’t engage in dialogue with Syria, either,” Pakradouni said.
“Christians have reached an impasse. We need to get out of it, and most Christian politicians are following the (extremism of the) street, rather than leading it. We need dialogue with Syria,” he said emphatically. “The easiest thing is to curse Syria, but it takes courage to engage Syria in dialogue.”
The Phalange Party president and his politburo went to the Syrian capital on Aug. 17 for a meeting with Bashar Assad, the first such meeting in 12 years between the party’s leader and a Syrian president.
“Bashar Assad is extremely upset,” Pakradouni said. “He kept asking why (Christian) politicians were putting down so many conditions for dialogue and why they’re so hostile.”
Pakradouni described a Syrian president who says openly that he wants bilateral relations to be improved and is incredulous that recent moves, like a Syrian military redeployment and a historic visit to Lebanon, have failed to break the ice.
“The response here by Christians,” Pakradouni said, “was the military redeployment didn’t go far enough, or that instead of a visit, we need full diplomatic ties. We need to take it easy a bit.
“We need to take advantage of having a Syrian president who is open to dialogue. He admits that there are problems, but the way to solve them is through dialogue.”
Calling Assad a flexible person who wants to solve matters and not put them off until later, Pakradouni said Damascus “has a ‘Lebanon’ policy and a ‘Christian’ policy. Isn’t it time that Lebanese Christians have a ‘Syria’ policy?”
“All we have today is a dichotomy: if you’re with Syria you’re a traitor, and if you’re not, you’re pro-sovereignty. It reminds me of Bush and his policy of ‘you’re either with us or against on terrorism,’” he said. “And this is what Qornet Shehwan is doing it’s not politics.”
Pakradouni said he supported the formation of a pro-Syrian Christian front to counter Qornet Shehwan, on the condition that it includes non-Maronites and non-MPs, after initial talks to form such a group took place at Nijmeh Square and included only Maronite legislators.
“Some people want it to be Maronites only. We suggest that it be Christian, and include parties and prominent figures but such a group must have a common basis and vision for getting together, such as feasible working paper.”
As for the domestic scene, Pakradouni said a change of government would have to come by the end of the year, to give the country some much-needed “political oxygen.”
“There are no alternatives to Emile Lahoud or Rafik Hariri. They don’t get along but they’re forced to. There’s no divorce allowed in this marriage,” he said.
The government, he said, had ceased to exist, consisting of either “absent” ministers or those who spent time disagreeing with each other.
“As much as Hariri tried to take the place of the government, it didn’t work it’s not a real coalition, it doesn’t have a program, and it’s not representative,” he said.
The handling of selling off two cellular phone licenses, Pakradouni continued, was nothing short of “scandalous, for a sector in which the conservative figures say the companies make $60 million a month that’s twice as much as the annual US aid to Lebanon!
“It’s the sign that there is no government and or (economic) program. Will we have a crisis every time we privatize something?” he said.
Pakradouni said he did not fully understand Hariri’s latest harangue on the cellular issue, when he appeared to say last week that neither the state nor private companies were trustworthy when it came to running public utilities.
“He was agitated when he spoke, a sign that he is bothered by the whole cellular issue and wants it to go away,” said Pakradouni, confident that Speaker Nabih Berri would soon engineer a compromise satisfactory to all sides.
But the government’s general economic drift, he continued, had taken the country to the edge of the precipice.
“There’s no economic policy, only a case-by-case approach, taking the economy ‘day-by-day,’” Pakradouni said, describing Hariri and Finance Minister Fouad Siniora as a kind of good-cop/bad-cop team.
“You can’t get anywhere with Siniora. If you tell him that this project should be implemented, he says ‘we don’t have the money.’ If you ask why he did something, he says ‘we need money.’ He leaves Hariri with the good role, and does the dirty work,” Pakradouni said, urging the adoption of an economic program that supports items like balanced development and changing the tax system.
When the government did seek to settle outstanding tax payments by self-employed professionals, the results were disastrous, said Pakradouni, a lawyer.
“The people who declared their taxes and paid on time were then asked to pay more than those who didn’t. Amazing!”
Nonetheless, the Hariri camp, Pakradouni said, was aware that the country stands on the edge of economic collapse, “and they’re the ones who know the real figures, and how negative they are.
“I think even Hariri knows that there is no external economic solution; I think he’s now betting on foreign assistance, but not an economic solution that comes from abroad.”
No government change is likely until the October Francophone Summit takes place, “but by the end of the year, we have to have a new government, to provide confidence.
“The other alternative is economic collapse. We’ll just get by through August and September, with some tourist revenues. The Francophone Summit will give us a boost, along with the “Paris II” donors conference. But even if Paris II takes place, and gives us some results, I don’t think that these will reach $2 billion.”
As for the party’s own fortunes, Pakradouni was upbeat, “relieved” that the Amin Gemayel affair was behind it.
The party formally expelled the ex-president for refusing to recognize the leadership’s legitimacy, and Pakradouni played down the idea that Gemayel would gain more stature as a “victim.”
“Let him benefit; but we haven’t lost anyone. Anyone who’s with him won’t be with us. We just want to take our decisions and retain our members.
“Gemayel’s presence in the party was obstructing our work. Now that he’s out, we can move on.”