The answer to Lebanon’s fragmented opposition and heavy-handed state authorities is a centrist grouping based on political parties and not sects, according to George Hawi, the former secretary-general of the Communist Party (CP).
In an interview with The Daily Star at his Beirut home, Hawi discussed what might be a final chance for the Qornet Shehwan Gathering to right itself, the worrying rise of sectarian rhetoric, and the irony that the problems are coming together in September 2002, exactly two decades after the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the Sabra and Shatila massacres, and the start of the national, secular resistance to Israeli occupation.
“I really believe that the Qornet Shehwan Gathering ‘fell’ on August 7, 2001,” Hawi said, referring to the state’s crackdown on demonstrators after the Maronite patriarch’s historic trip to Mount Lebanon for a massive reception and reconciliation engineered by Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt.
The arrests of pro-sovereignty activists that followed prompted a “pro-public freedoms” conference at the Carlton Hotel, similar to the “pro-freedom” meeting this month at the Press Federation, which was aborted by pro-Syrian politicians who arrived in force and rejected any criticism of the judiciary’s decision to close opposition station MTV.
For Hawi, the first event was as much a failure as the second.
“Qornet Shehwan ‘fell’ on Aug. 7, and Qornet Shehwan’s alliance with Walid Jumblatt and the Democratic Forum died as well. They didn’t come up with the right answer to the barbarity” of the crackdown, Hawi argued. “They should have called a general strike, and focused on political responsibility. The Carlton Conference participants ignored the people behind (the crackdown) and blamed the executors of the policy,” he said, referring to the call for holding accountable security officers and not, for example, the interior minister.
The authorities were aware that they could pick apart the various components of the opposition one by one, as Hawi related the events.
He said the policy involved “marginalizing” the Christian opposition and using a “carrot-and-stick” policy with Jumblatt, making him an associate member of the troika, while the left failed to act effectively.
The authorities also outflanked Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose MPs had attended the Carlton conference, by using Syrian support to embarrass him over the Criminal Procedures Law issue in Parliament later in August. Hawi said this was done under the slogan of “leaving politics and security to the president”; later, economic policy-making, which was supposed to be Hariri’s responsibility, was partly taken away from him to be shared with President Emile Lahoud. But the authorities had nothing to gloat over in neutralizing the opposition, as they merely produced a political vacuum, “managed” an economic crisis, and remained overreliant on Damascus.
The former CP secretary-general, a native of Bteghrine, Metn, said Lebanon still suffered from a post-war malaise in which Christian politicians, like Michel Murr and the late Elie Hobeika, draw their strength from Damascus, and not traditional strongholds like “Jounieh, Bikfaya and Deir al-Qamar.”
This leaves the Maronite patriarch as the pre-eminent Christian political figure and Qornet Shehwan as the “semi-official” expression of Bkirki.
As for Qornet Shehwan, Hawi said he hoped that during its next meeting, on Tuesday, the group would take strong stands on issues to pull them closer to the mainstream.
“I call on them to issue a statement that, in addition to discussing MTV, takes firm positions on the following issues: Israeli threats to Lebanon over the Wazzani River, US threats against Lebanon, the Iraq situation and what is taking place in the US Congress” regarding the Syria Accountability Act.
Amid a general political “vacuum” affecting political life, Hawi predicted that over the next few months, Lebanon will continue on its “negative path.”
“The economic crisis will get worse by mid-winter, after American aggression against Iraq and its consequences, while the ‘donor’ countries will be diverted from Lebanon, busy dividing up the cake in Iraq,” Hawi said, adding that he expected further sectarian tension and pressure on public freedoms.
He urged a return to mainstream politics, based on political parties and addressing the Syria issue in practical, not principled terms.
“Some have transformed the issue of Syrian-Lebanese relations into the country’s primary divisive issue, considering Syria’s departure a ‘magic wand’ that will solve all the country’s problems, while others say Syria’s staying here is the solution. But no one’s really talking about how to make Syria’s presence here more positive.”
“There must be a center” in Lebanese politics, he said.
Asked if Jumblatt was a candidate to form such a grouping, after having earlier called the Druze politician a candidate to lead national dialogue, Hawi said, “He’ll be making a big mistake if he thinks a ‘center’ can be based on a sectarian coalition. He should go back to his original base, the secular parties, like the CP. Not because the CP is strong, or should wield influence, but because an alliance is ‘natural.’
“We said at the time,” Hawi said, returning to last year’s visit by Sfeir to Mukhtara, “that a Christian-Druze reconciliation could eventually turn into a Christian-Druze conflict.”
Merely bringing the sects together isn’t enough, he said, stressing the need for a true national, patriotic alliance to confront Lebanon’s challenges.
In terms of regional tensions, one irony is that accusations of “betting” on the United States to get Syria out of Lebanon are being made in relation to a situation involving Iraq.
“Some Christian leaderships are still behaving extremely stupid and reading events incorrectly,” Hawi said. “They think they can rely on America to reduce Syrian hegemony, even though the US not only permits this hegemony, but requires it.”
Hawi said anyone betting on American help to pressure Syria would be in for the bitter surprise that General Michel Aoun experienced in October 1990, when Damascus joined Washington’s coalition to liberate Kuwait in exchange for the green light to oust Aoun.
“America will try to use Syria to achieve other goals in Lebanon, which aren’t in the interest of Lebanese Christians, such as disarming Hizbullah and resolving the Palestinian refugee camps situation. In exchange for (American demands on Syria), the state of rebellion among Christians will be brought under control. America is the last country to be concerned about the Christians of Lebanon; it’s concerned with oil and Israel.”
Hawi blamed Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement for championing the “bet on America” policy, compared to the “moderate and courageous” positions of Qornet Shehwan member and Metn MP Nassib Lahoud, or the “balanced” statements on the need for good Lebanese-Syrian ties by former President Amin Gemayel, also in Qornet Shehwan.
“But unfortunately, sovereignty is a point of view,” Hawi said. “What it means to you is different from what it might mean to me. This is why we need a national conference to determine exactly what (it) means.”
Hawi dismissed speculation that the MTV closure, which he predicted would be a “long” one, resulted from Syrian intervention or was the result of a “family conflict,” as the Maronite patriarch and Orthodox bishop of Beirut termed it.
Hawi condemned the behavior by “friends of Syria” for doing further damage to Damascus’ image here.
“(Beirut MP) Nasser Qandil verbally attacking the head of the Beirut Bar Association just ends up hurting Syria, since Qandil is seen as being close to Syria. And anyway, if it’s a family struggle, let’s get rid of both brothers from political life,” Hawi said, grinning. “But getting rid of one just to appease the other is unacceptable.”
Asked about the anti-Syrian rhetoric voiced at Saturday’s ceremony to mark Bashir Gemayel’s 1982 assassination, Hawi said the speeches did not surprise him.
“After watching it, I’m even more convinced that the emptiness of the authorities and the failure of the authority of Taif lead to such rhetoric.”
The assassination of Gemayel and this week’s commemoration of the Sabra and Shatila massacres will capture much public attention, but for Hawi, the week also marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Lebanese National Resistance, the grouping of mainly secular parties that prompted successive Israeli withdrawals from Lebanese territory after the 1982 invasion.
Overshadowed these days by “fundamentalist” political violence, Hawi argued that the resistance’s pioneers should not be overlooked.
“On this day (Sept. 16), Mohsen Ibrahim (of the Organization for Communist Action) and I signed a document in the home of Kamal Jumblatt, calling on the Lebanese to take up arms,” Hawi said, recalling the event that crowned the PLO’s exodus from Beirut and the assassination of Gemayel.
“Others quickly joined in, like the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the Nasserite parties, Amal, and later, Hizbullah.”
“We lit the spark for those who came later … and Hizbullah shouldn’t be the only party considered a resistance group.”
He said seeing Hizbullah take all the credit made it easier for its enemies, like the US, to single it out as a “terrorist” group.
Asked about the role of “suicide bombings,” which the secular parties occasionally carried out, Hawi said he considered “martyrdom operations the height of heroism.
“With all due respect to religion, a religious person doing such a thing is guaranteed a place in heaven, but a secular person embarks on such an act because he wants this earth to become heaven. He himself doesn’t get any compensation; he is acting for the good of his own people, his fellow-citizens.”
Hawi said regional and international factors had worked to obscure the role of secular resistance to Israeli occupation, commenting that a La Figaro headline from the 1980s used the word “Shiite” to refer to a suicide operation by Lola Abboud, a Christian from the Bekaa town of Qaraoun.
“As late as 1999 and 2000, we had martyrs from the party with names like Alexi and Pierre,” he said, recalling the secular Lebanese who were either killed, tortured or imprisoned by Israel.
“Just as one sect didn’t produce all the collaborators (with Israel), a single sect didn’t produce all the martyrs, either.”