Republics of Fearlessness?

On conjugating liberalism in Syria and Lebanon. An interview with journalist and author Samir Kassir


Every Friday, readers of Lebanon's most respected daily, Al-Nahar, can read a front-page column by Samir Kassir. On a bad day, Kassir (who also teaches history at Beirut's St. Joseph University) is merely annoying to those in power; on a good one, he is infuriating enough to earn newspapers irate telephone calls from the gentlemen at the security agencies, an open-ended ban from political talk shows, and, even, at one time, a detail of trailing intelligence agents seeking to make Kassir's life wretched. His story, then, is that of the liberal intellectual facing down a Middle East suffused with the futility of autocracy. Reason spoke to Kassir on Syria and Lebanon, the past and present of Beirut, and the limbo of free expression in Arab societies.

reason: You've just published two books, Syrian Democracy and Lebanon's Independence and A Soldier Against Whom?, both collections of weekly columns for Al-Nahar. Why republish the articles?

Samir Kassir: Let me admit, first, that almost every columnist has a secret dream that what he writes will stand the test of time. I am personally sensitive to this, maybe because my academic background leads me to seek coherence in my articles from week to week. Yet, publishing the books was not, or not only, a narcissistic decision. Both are intended to feed the political debate in Lebanon, especially as we are supposed to have a presidential election this year and that a great concern is that the current president, Emile Lahoud, will impose a renewal of his mandate—or that Syria might do so—despite the fact that the constitution mandates a single presidential term. The process implies that the security services, which are already pulling the strings, will go further in suppressing opposition to this scheme on behalf of the president, but also of a hegemonic Syria.

My book on Syria is a reminder that the problem we have with the Syrian regime is not merely that it has imposed itself against the free will of the Lebanese people, but also that of the Syrian people—a dimension many Lebanese choose to ignore. I want to remind everyone that the demands for reform in Syria came long before President George W. Bush chose to express them. Furthermore, both books are a signal, both to colleagues and to readers, that they don't have to buckle under pressure from those in positions of power—that they must persist in writing what they want, even if they are threatened.

reason: The book on Syria, which you've subtitled "In Search of the Damascus Spring," appears to be an admission that Syrian reform is an illusion. True?

Kassir: If you mean by Syrian reform a reform conducted by the regime, I've always been skeptical of this. In all that I've written since Bashar Assad inherited power from his father, I never succumbed to the illusion that he would willingly reform his regime. At the same time, I saw in the process of succession an opportunity for Bashar to gain real legitimacy by undoing what his father had done. That's why I've been asking for the release of political prisoners, the ending of the state of emergency, and political liberalization, including allowing freedom of expression, as prerequisites for this new legitimacy. I have refused to see the small steps Bashar has taken in this regard as gifts we should thank him for.

That doesn't mean things haven't changed in Syria. But they have changed thanks to the courage of intellectuals and political militants who decided to voice their demands publicly, through the press—the Lebanese press I should add—or through the so-called Manifesto of the 99 and other manifestos. If the "Damascus Spring" [the short-lived period of relative openness that followed Bashar's arrival to power in June 2000] means anything, it is embodied in the courage and the quest for freedom expressed by the Syrian opposition. The Syrian regime understood this and cracked down on dissidents. But that hasn't worked. Though the opposition in Syria is not in good shape, it has widened its margin of expression, though not enough to propose an alternative to the Ba'ath regime.

reason: You have written that the elephant in the living room of the Syrian opposition is its unwillingness to raise the matter of the Syrian presence in Lebanon. How is Syrian democracy related to Lebanese independence?

Kassir: I think things have evolved, especially since Riad Turk, the key figure in the Syrian opposition, addressed this issue in one of his interviews with Al-Mulhaq, the literary supplement of Al-Nahar, in early 2003. In the interview, he asked for a restoration of Lebanese independence and questioned the manipulation by the Syrian regime of the resistance, through Lebanon, against the Israeli occupation. When I meet my friends from the Syrian opposition, I feel the issue of Lebanese independence has imposed itself and that nobody questions the need to put an end to this hegemony. However, this doesn't mean they are willing to give top priority to the issue. As one Syrian dissident once told me: "We want to address the core issue, the Ba'ath regime's hegemony over Syria; once we've done that, its hegemony over Lebanon will fall apart." But I maintain the reverse is also true.

Here, I must add that my criticism was not a moral one; it was not intended to compel Syrian dissidents to feel they owed the Lebanese something because our press has been a platform for their ideas. My criticism was political: I meant that one couldn't understand Syrian politics if one didn't consider what Syria had done in Lebanon for over a quarter of a century. I feel the Syrian dissidents must be aware of this, as they know better than anyone else that their regime's raison d'?tre is to project itself across the Middle East, beginning with Lebanon. After all, if Syria is a regional power, it is because of its intervention in Lebanon.

reason: Is the Syrian-Lebanese relationship as it is shaped today sustainable?

Kassir: Let's try to characterize this Syrian-Lebanese relationship. It is not an occupation, nor is it a free association between two sovereign countries. Rather, Lebanon is a Syrian protectorate, similar to what we used to see in Eastern Europe under Soviet rule. I should add it is also a mafia-type protectorate, since Lebanon is not only a place of strategic importance for the Syrian regime, it is also a place where Syria's ruling elite, in association with Lebanese counterparts, exploits all kinds of, often illicit, economic and business opportunities.

Clearly, this situation is no longer sustainable—it never was, to my mind, given the resilience of Lebanese civil society. What has changed are two factors that helped shape this relationship: The first is the internal cohesion of the Syrian regime. It seems obvious that things are no longer as cohesive as they were under the late president, Hafez al-Assad. The second is the end of the conspiracy of silence that surrounded the Syrian takeover of Lebanon beginning in 1976, and which has continued during the post-war period, with the tacit backing of the US. Tremendous change has taken place and, although I don't agree with the principle of unilateral sanctions imposed by the Bush administration against Syria, I think the measures taken under the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act have opened a new page, one that is not to the benefit of the Ba'ath regime. I know that Syria can still provide "services" to the US. But in the changing Middle East, you no longer have to "reimburse" such services by "offering" a third country as reward.

reason: What of the reports from Damascus that Bashar Assad is essentially the weakest link in a Syrian system that he fails to control, thanks to the existence of more powerful networks—the intelligence services, the Ba'ath Party, even people in his family who are the real powers in Syria?

Kassir: "Qassiounology" [for Jabal Qassioun, the Damascus hill where the presidential palace is located] is even more uncertain than was Kremlinology. Because of the absence of transparency in Syrian politics, but also the confusion surrounding Bashar's succession, one cannot say who is in charge. Clearly, Bashar is not. But it doesn't seem that anyone else is either, except maybe for the shadow of Hafez al-Assad. Nobody has the strength to change anything. It seems there are rival centers of power inside the ruling elite—the heads of the security services, crony capitalists inside the "royal family" and Ba'ath apparatchiks. It is the shifting equilibrium among them that drives Syria today.

reason: Has the taboo of the omnipotence of the Syrian intelligence services been broken both in Lebanon and Syria? If so, where can this lead?

Kassir: In Lebanon, the taboo has been broken for years, at least from the point of view of those who want to see it broken. As I explained, that was one of the aims behind the publishing of my two recent books. Yet, among the Lebanese political elite and in the public administration the taboo is still there. In Syria, it is even more difficult to overcome, which is why we should appreciate the courage of the increasingly audacious Syrian dissidents, as was shown in two failed attempts to protest publicly in Damascus—on March 8 and two weeks ago on the occasion of the Day of the Syrian Political Prisoner. Syria has been ruled by fear. If the fear disappears, the regime will find it very difficult to hold on to power. The big question now is whether it will be able to revive this management by fear.

reason: Would a democratic Iraq precipitate grand transformation in Syria?

Kassir: Undoubtedly. Despite the quagmire in Iraq, things have already changed in Syria, although the Syrian regime has exploited the Iraqi mess to postpone domestic reform. This provides us with yet another reason to criticize American policy in Iraq. What a waste of opportunities!

reason: The title of your book on political behavior during the post-1998 period in the Lebanese state [after Emile Lahoud became president], A Soldier Against Whom?, was taken from the title of a controversial column of yours. It comes from an old student protest chant asking the military, effectively, whom were they beating upon, before answering: "Against the peasants, Oh soldier." This led the Lebanese General Security service to harass you for weeks. What happened?

Kassir: My passport was confiscated under false pretexts and intelligence agents tailed me for 40 days, around the clock. Sometimes, two or even three cars followed me, I don't know for what purpose. I have reason to think that they initially intended to harm me. However, I spotted my "followers" early on—before the passport confiscation—and I immediately contacted officials not directly linked with the military [which controls the security services] so they would intervene. After that, the agents' purpose was maybe to isolate me. It is disturbing to have people watching you wherever you go—at caf?s, restaurants, at your friends' or family's homes. But the solidarity that people displayed allowed me to stand up against this. I must add that I had the privilege of receiving the public support of Syrian dissidents in Damascus who signed a manifesto. It was the first time that such support went in this direction—from Damascus to Beirut, rather than the contrary. Finally, the mess was too big and the security services stepped back. Yet, I am still blacklisted on local television.

reason: The subtitle of your book is "The Disappeared Republic." If that's true, then of what value is Lebanon to anybody, including Syria? Why should anyone care for a republic that has, in some respects, erased itself?

Kassir: I didn't mean that Lebanon had disappeared as a state, but that the values and the procedures of the republic have been thrown off track. That does not diminish Lebanon's worth. After all, nobody forgot Poland or Czechoslovakia, despite the suppression of the opposition there. Not all values have disappeared in Lebanon. As I said, civil society has proved its resilience and intellectuals are still writing.

reason: Does Lebanon have a message to offer, in that case?

Kassir: I don't know, but I am sure the Lebanese deserve a better future. At least, they deserve to find their own way, in accordance with a rich history that cannot be reduced merely to violence. Yes, we were a laboratory for violence, but we were also, before that, a laboratory for modernity, and in some ways we still are. Lebanon has had a long-standing tradition of constitutional politics. It would not be such a bad thing for the Middle East if we could resume this history.

reason: Is there a risk that the security-oriented system you so deride will continue in Lebanon? How does the president, Emile Lahoud, fit into this?

Kassir: The security-oriented system preceded Lahoud. But it was under his mandate that Lebanon became a security-obsessed state. It is under his mandate that Lebanon has made great strides toward becoming a Ba'athist kind of regime, where security officials see citizens as enemies, or at best children who must be controlled. It is under this president's mandate that freedom of expression has been the most restrictive, although we have managed to counter this. I may be biased, but I don't see any gains under Lahoud. Even the liberation of the south from Israeli occupation was a result of the resistance, not Lahoud's actions. And even there, Lahoud and his associates, including Hizbollah, managed to squander this great success. So I don't see any reason why he should stay in power as he has been trying to do. On the contrary, the struggle against the renewal of his mandate may be the beginning of an awakening.

reason: You say freedom of expression has been restricted, yet that the Lebanese have managed to resist this. What are the forces at play here?

Kassir: Thanks to a handful of journalists, we have indeed reconquered our freedom of opinion and expression—if not yet fully our freedom of information. It is a paradox: One can write that mafias are ruling and ruining the country, and link that to Syrian hegemony; yet not a single newspaper or TV channel will try to investigate the mafias' behavior and the scandals arising from their control. You can criticize Bashar Assad by name, as you can Syria's proconsul in Lebanon, but no newspaper will investigate how a junior intelligence officer intervenes in the appointment of a bureaucrat or the winning of a contract.

reason: On a related topic, Lebanese liberalism is, in many respects, both a function and a reflection of its capital city. You've just completed a book, in French, on the history of Beirut. It provoked some debate. What was that about?

Kassir: I wouldn't quite call the two critical articles to which you're referring, among numerous others that were far more positive, a "debate." One of the articles said I had ignored the weight of [the predominantly Christian] Mount Lebanon district in shaping Beirut. This was criticism from the political right. The other, which represented criticism from the political left, accused me of focusing on the impact of the wealthy and middle classes in the development of Beirut. Yet the fact is that Beirut was a merchant city, a port, and, therefore, wealthy. It was commerce that made it what it is, and that allowed for its emerging vitality, and, ultimately, liberalism. I couldn't ignore this, even if I went to great efforts in my account to gauge the impact of modernization and Westernization on all social strata, while also highlighting Beirut's role as a cultural hub.

reason: Can we consider Beirut, through its openness, the future of the Arab city, or its contradiction?

Kassir: I hope it is the future. When you hear the crown prince of Dubai, Mohammad bin Rashed, who was central to the remarkable expansion of the Gulf emirate, it is clear that his model was initially Beirut. Now, Amman is also taking on characteristics of Beirut. Yet, Beirut also has something unique—human diversity and, thanks to its history, linguistic and political diversity. Let's hope it will keep it. If Beirut loses this diversity—and the city did not do so, despite its 15-year conflict between 1975 and 1990—it means it would have been seen as the contradiction of the Arab city, which would represent a triumph for regression

reason: If you had to define a running theme through your books, to which I must add a study in French on the first years of the Lebanese civil war, which was your doctoral thesis, as well a two-volume account of France and the Arab-Israeli conflict (authored with Farouk Mardam-Bey), what would it be?

Kassir: I find it difficult to add my two recent books to my personal bibliography. I have yet to come to terms with my duality as a scholar and a journalist, and when it comes to my books, I prefer the scholarly ones. But to answer your question, I can say I am obsessed with recent Arab history—even in my newspaper articles—and I essentially try to find out what went wrong, to quote Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis. But unlike Lewis, and though I never refrain from self-criticism, I think we Arabs are not the only ones responsible for what has happened to us. I am making this argument in an essay that will soon be published in Paris, titled "Considerations on the Arab Misfortune." The West not only brought us modernization, it also brought colonial domination as well as divisions, and it continues to do so. Just look at US support for Israel. The West should be aware that when we speak of our failures, we also mean our inability to confront its destructive hegemony.

reason: Is a liberal Middle East possible, and, if it is, does Lebanon have a role in bringing this about?

Kassir: If a liberal Middle East were not possible, things would be unbearable for secular people like us. I am convinced it is possible, but not under just any circumstances. For it to be possible, the liberal West must also be liberal in the Middle East: It must abandon its support for dictatorships, even those considered as moderates and allies. Look what happened with Libya: Once Muammar al-Qaddafi renounced his nuclear ambitions, Bush and Blair acclaimed him. What a message when you are calling for democracy in the Middle East! On the other hand, Yasser Arafat is denounced by American officials on a daily basis, despite being elected and considered by Palestinians as a leader and a national symbol. Most importantly, the West must accept that the strategic importance of the Middle East must not justify denying its peoples the right to self-determination, and that means, particularly, the Palestinians.

Under such conditions, Lebanon can once again prosper. But even now, Lebanon would show, if it were provided with the means, that political liberalism can be conjugated in Arabic, and that is the country's paramount contribution.