A waiting game until the volatile regional situation is sorted out means the opposition should take a step back and re-evaluate its performance of the last two years and strategy for the future.
This is the view of Carlos Edde, the leader of the National Bloc, who last week pulled his party out of the Qornet Shehwan Gathering of Christian opposition politicians.
As its reason for withdrawing, the bloc cited the authorities’ determination to derail any progress on resolving divisive national issues, and Edde said that amid this political stalemate, it was time to review if Qornet Shehwan was the proper mechanism to seek reform.
“It’s a depressing situation,” he told The Daily Star in an interview at his family residence in Sanayeh. “I think we’re in a deadlocked situation, I think that this deadlock will remain until there’s a better definition of what’s going to happen in Iraq … It’s terrible to always be in a waiting mode, and I think it’s irresponsible … to not have a realistic reading of the possibilities.”
Edde indicated that pulling back and re-evaluating was as much a political option as continuing efforts in a direction.
“The definition of politics,” he said, “is the appreciation of the balance of power, and not only that, but the appreciation of the intent to use that power and the intent to escalate.”
Qornet Shehwan was formed in April 2001 and received a tremendous boost that August, when the Maronite patriarch made a historic trip to Mount Lebanon and a hugely successful welcome organized by Walid Jumblatt prompted talk of a Maronite-Druze reconciliation.
Days later, a security crackdown saw one member of Qornet Shehwan, Tawfiq Hindi, arrested on collaboration charges, in what many saw as the first phase of a crackdown against the pro-sovereignty opposition.
The major event of 2002, meanwhile, was June’s Metn by-election, when Qornet Shehwan survived a split in its ranks and saw opposition figure Gabriel Murr emerge victorious ? a win that was nullified last week by the Constitutional Council.
“For us, Qornet Shehwan was a transitional phase,” Edde said. “With time, as the government refused to respond to a serious invitation to discuss certain taboo issues, there was a deadlock.
“Despite this deadlock, there was a positive phase, namely last August’s visit by the Maronite patriarch to the Chouf. That success … was followed by the Aug. 7 arrests and a clear signal what would be allowed.”
The Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, Edde continued, meant a reshuffling of the balance of power in the Middle East: The United States now needed Syria for the “war on terrorism,” meaning that a review of its role in Lebanon was “put on the shelf,” as Edde put it.
Damascus is not necessarily more comfortable in Lebanon, but at the same time, it has been made clear to Lebanon that nothing important can change for the time being.
Qornet Shehwan was divided into two schools of thought regarding this, Edde recalled.
“One was that there is ‘no solution without a Syrian solution,’ meaning that first you solve the Syrian problem and then all the other problems will be then solved consequently.
“The other is that since the Syrian withdrawal issue is a taboo, effort should be spent on solving other problems as an intermediate step.”
For Edde, Qornet Shehwan had nothing to be ashamed of regarding its track record, as the opposition group’s statements were realistic and plausible, without being confessional.
The National Bloc’s decision to withdraw, he said, had been made earlier and put off repeatedly. It was based on ideas about the very nature of Qornet Shehwan, and Edde said a majority of bloc members opposed the decision to join in the first place.
Another problem in Qornet Shehwan, Edde said, was that “different participants had a different reading of the nature” of the gathering.
“As far the National Bloc was concerned, it was a forum for discussion and a temporary instrument to be able to launch a national dialogue that would help raise issues that are considered problems by Lebanese.
“But there was a difference between what Qornet Shehwan decided and the declarations of independent members of Qornet Shehwan. But in the perception of public opinion, they were one and the same.
“We spent a lot of time, energy trying to explain things, instead of using it on other issues.”
Certain members of Qornet Shehwan, Edde said, sought to turn it into a “front,” an idea the bloc steadfastly opposed.
“For example, Dory Chamoun and the National Liberal Party have always been asking for Qornet Shehwan to be a rebirth of the war-time Lebanese Front grouping of Christian parties. This was a constant point of disagreement.”
“We weren’t convinced in 1975 about the efficacy of a front, and we’re definitely much less convinced today.”
As for the three gathering members who resigned from the bloc in protest at pulling out (Salim Salhab, Shakib Qortbawi and Samir Abdel-Malak), Edde said he was “sorry” to see them go, but downplayed the move.
This, he said, was because they had resigned once before, prior to Edde’s taking over the party’s top post in 2000 after the death of his uncle Raymond.
“They think that energy can be spent better in a heterogenous group like Qornet Shehwan, and we think that it’s better in a homogenous group, like the National Bloc.”
Another gathering member, Gabriel Murr, lost his parliamentary seat last week when the Constitutional Council found his campaign guilty of violations in the Metn poll. It named Ghassan Mokheiber, the distant third-place finisher, to succeed Murr, in what many opposition figures saw as a political arrangement orchestrated by the authorities.
Edde reiterated the bloc’s call on Mokheiber to consider resigning, saying the Constitutional Council’s decision “hurt the credibility of the judiciary.”
Whatever the problems inside Qornet Shehwan, Edde said the country’s security apparatus has made it clear that it will respond to any move by the opposition, meaning it is time “to start focusing on other issues, while waiting for a more appropriate time to make the next step.”
“When you’re weak, you don’t carry out a war of attrition. When you’re weak, you go for a kind of guerrilla war, where you have the privilege of choosing the time and place of your attacks.
“Lebanese parties cannot solve the Middle East conflict or globalization, so at least try to work on administrative reform, the economic crisis and the differences between the communities,” he said.
Edde named issues like decentralization and the election law, in addition to administrative reform, as targets.
And while the opposition might consider the authorities to be fanning sectarianism, he said it was “not surprising” to see a such a phenomenon.
Lebanese suffer from three kinds of problems, he continued, namely those inherent to the country, those that are a spill-over from the Arab-Israeli conflict, and those in common with workers, for example from Indonesia and Latin America, namely the growing pressures of competitiveness in an age of globalization.
As for the government’s performance, particularly on the economy, Edde gave credit for steps taken this year, like the value-added tax and other unpopular measures that are aimed at reducing the deficit. “About a year-and-a-half ago, there was no recognition by the government that there was a serious economic problem. Now there is. But let’s not fool ourselves. Whatever solution comes, it will come at a heavy price for the population,” he said.
Edde played down expectations by observers who expect a Cabinet change after the “Paris II” donors’ conference, saying that “a change of policy is more important than a change of government.”
He said the bloc had two conditions for joining a future Cabinet: It must be a government of national unity, meaning consultations with the opposition to bring in satisfactory representatives; and it must be able to address the concerns of this opposition, such as discussing Syria’s role in Lebanon in a positive way.
As for whether the bloc would field candidates for Parliament in 2005, Edde said all political parties aim to help correct the system from within the system, “but in the changing Middle East of today, two years is a very, very long time.”
And he was circumspect about the bloc’s criteria for contesting parliamentary elections for the first time since after the war. Asked whether he could disclose the party’s criteria for taking part in elections, Edde said “not for the time being,” refusing to confirm or deny whether any developments were afoot.
Despite his firm position on national sovereignty and the Lebanese-Syria issue, Edde has avoided much of the criticism directed at other opposition figures, some of whom are called traitors to Lebanon for supposedly seeking foreign help to pressure Damascus.
“I was branded a traitor only once, about two years ago, by the Baath Party,” Edde recalled. “There’s no way I can deny that I do have links to a foreign power ? Brazil,” he quipped, referring to where he spent most of his adult life.