BEIRUT: Setting a date for an interview with Mohammad Qabbani is not an easy task. But it is not through any fault of his – most lawmakers, whether from his Future bloc or from a rival parliamentary coalition, agree that Qabbani is one of the most active MPs in Lebanon.
He is in the news on a near-daily basis, whether presenting a draft law to Parliament, chairing the meetings of Parliament’s Public Works, Transport, Energy and Water Committee or commenting on developments in the country, particularly in his city, Beirut.
Furthermore, the lawmaker is one of the few MPs to be available almost every day in Parliament.
“I consider being an MP as a full-time job,” Qabbani told The Daily Star in an interview at his house in Beirut at the end of a busy day. “I am employed by the Lebanese people in order to represent them. I do not believe that this should be a part-time job.
“It is not like, for example, being a physician or an engineer and practicing my duties as an MP in the free time I have.”
After graduating from the American University of Beirut in 1962, he became a civil engineer. It was only once he was elected MP in 1992 that he stopped working in the field, to concentrate all his efforts on handling his new tasks. Since that initial success, he has lost an election only once, in 1996, and was most recently voted in during the 2009 polls.
“I go to Parliament every day from Monday to Friday,” Qabbani said. “In winter, I sometimes even go to Parliament on Saturdays. But in summer I go to the mountains Saturday.”
Besides spending an average of 25 hours a week in Parliament, Qabbani, a father of two, also works tirelessly outside the legislature.
“I work at my house in Raouche and at my offices in Parliament and Ain al-Mreisseh,” he said.
“My wife sometimes tells me, ‘I will kick you out of the house because of all these files and books,’” he joked.
Qabbani said he works at home until 8 p.m., when he begins watching news on TV. “I then watch movies, which is my favorite entertainment.
“I sometimes read my files for around an hour after watching TV and then I sleep at around midnight,” he added.
For the 72-year-old, working for around 60 hours a week in the service of Parliament is “exhausting, but at the same time a pleasure.”
“I am one of those people who feels happy when they produce ... I search for work if there is no work,” Qabbani said.
Of Lebanon’s 128 MPs, very few are seen in their offices on regular days. Some only show up for legislative sessions, and the faces of some are unfamiliar to many Lebanese.
Asked whether the fact that he was such a hard worker embarrassed other lawmakers who put in much fewer hours, Qabbani was nonchalant.
“It’s not my problem. Anyone who feels that he’s failing to fulfill his duties, let him work more.
“Many MPs do not care because they are only interested in the title of MP ... I was told that there is an MP living in the United States,” Qabbani said, a reference to a lawmaker from Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun’s bloc.
“But there are others who work and show the utmost interest. I highly appreciate and cooperate with those who work,” Qabbani said.
He noted that some MPs were very active on a political level, citing his colleague in the Future bloc MP Ammar Houri as an example.
“He works a lot. But most of his work is in politics; he follows up on events second by second. His phone is always open and he knows about developments one second after they happen. He always picks up his phone and gives remarks [to the media],” Qabbani said.
Others are strong in other fields, such as MP Ghassan Moukheiber from Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc, who Qabbani praised as being very active in legislating.
“Sometimes, it is only my office and that of Ghassan that remain open at around 3p.m. or 4 p.m. in Parliament,” he said. “By that time, there will be no one to serve us coffee. I if I need coffee, I take it from an espresso coffee machine he has at his office, which is only 4 meters away from mine.”
But this lack of apparent interest from other MPs in keeping up with their duties makes life much more difficult for those who do work hard.
“I beg some MPs to attend [their meetings] for just 30 minutes to achieve a quorum so that the session can convene,” Qabbani said.
At the moment, mechanisms to prevent people from simply not turning up are not working.
For example, Parliament’s bylaws state that if a member of a parliamentary committee is absent from meetings more than three times without a valid excuse, his membership should be canceled. But according to Qabbani, this was not being applied because “such a measure is considered to be a violation of the lawmaker’s dignity.”
For Qabbani, his main work involves legislating, mainly limited to proposing draft laws, and monitoring the performance of certain ministries, which takes up much more time.
“In the fields I am responsible for, which include public works, transportation, energy and water, this monitoring has no limits.”
In practice, this means Qabbani must keep an eye on any work that involves roads, new construction projects, buses, planes, electricity, water reserves, sewers, oil and gas fields and much, much more.
“That’s why I keep working, in order to have serious oversight,” Qabbani said.
He also takes his duties as an MP for Lebanon’s capital very seriously.
“As a Beirut MP, my duty is to represent its people and defend their interests. I do not squander time,” Qabbani said.
Despite his immense workload, however, Qabbani said he had no staff to help him, lamenting that Parliament allocated no budget for MPs to spend on staffers.
“I only have a secretary at the Public Works, Transport, Energy and Water Committee, whose job is to prepare for sessions and write down the minutes, among other things,” he said.
Qabbani said he sought technical and legal advice from friends, including university professors, members of NGOs and research centers and people working in public administration and for private companies.
He pays the expenses of his office at Parliament, along with his other office, out of his own salary.
“If an MP needs to really fulfill his duties as a lawmaker, his salary cannot cover all the required expenses,” Qabbani said. “I pay for my personal assistant and for my driver and for my bodyguards.”
“I rely on other revenues to spend on my family because nothing of my salary is left.”
So why is there no budget for such basic essentials?
“They are used to MPs not working. Traditionally, an MP attends sessions and raises his hand and that’s it.”