Beata Siemieniako: Many things about Lebanon can seem strange to Europeans. An Arab country where homosexuality is not penalized, while Hezbollah has a few seats in Parliament. But to me the most interesting is the fact that since the 1940s, power is shared between 18 religious groups, the President is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister is always a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of the Parliament is always a Shi’a Muslim. Does it work?
Rami Khouri: It is good in a way that nobody feels excluded and everybody is represented. But the weakness of this system is that it takes away the incentive for meritocracy. Those 18 religious groups that are recognized in the system share political power not only in the Parliament, in the Cabinet, but also among generals in the army, in bureaucratic positions. It doesn’t matter whether you are totally incompetent, but it matters from which family or clan you come from. As a consequence, you don’t have to put much effort into maintaining your portion of power.
The other bad thing is that it creates a deadlock. So if one group decides “We don’t like the President”, they can stay out of a meeting, or simply boycott voting and so paralyze the decision-making process [the President in Lebanon is elected by Parliament – red.]. As a result there is no President in Lebanon now, the Parliament actually doesn’t meet, and the Cabinet meets not as often as it should. The system is ridiculous and it is deteriorating. But you have to bear in mind that this bizarre confessional system was created by French officers and politicians back in the 1940s. And the same applies to Lebanon itself, which was created artificially from many groups that weren’t able to cooperate naturally.
Rami George KhouriIs a Palestinian-Jordanian and US citizen whose family resides in Beirut and Nazareth. He is a founding member and senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, as well as a columnist at the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper. He is an internationally syndicated political columnist and book author, and a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Dubai School of Government. He has been a visiting scholar at Stanford, Syracuse, Tufts, Mt. Holyoke and Northeastern universities, and in November 2006 he was the co-recipient of the Pax Christi International Peace Award for his efforts to bring peace and reconciliation to the Middle East. He was a Nieman journalism fellow at Harvard University in 2001-02, and recently served for four years on the international advisory board of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He has a BA in political science and MSc in journalism from Syracuse University.
It is also said that the confessional system contributes to the rise of political actors outside the State, as was the case with Hezbollah.
Hezbollah is a product of modern history. It is a military group with more power than national military groups and it is also part of the government. Europeans and Americans didn’t want to make countries in the Middle East strong militarily as they favoured Israel. So Lebanon had no chance to develop a strong army, but Hezbollah could and actually did it. Of course we don’t want war, but there is a simple reason why Lebanese people fight against Israel. If you have occupation, you also have resistance.
But on the other hand Lebanon functions quite well in many other ways. Even without oil and gas it has a high GPD, a high HDI, and more liberties and rights than other Middle Eastern countries…
But the first thing that we have to acknowledge is that the Lebanese government allowed Syrians to come in for humanitarian reasons.
It is only because of the talent of the people. That is the strength of Lebanon. And that is actually the reason I live there with my wife. It is the only country in the Arab World where you can be a free human being, where you can use your mind. I think that nobody should look at Lebanon as a model of governance, but you can look at Lebanon as a model for many other things – universities, culture, banking, engineering, services. In other Arab countries it is very common that life is controlled by religious institutions, they interfere in political, ideological, social, cultural, and intellectual life very severely. You cannot talk about politics, ideology, gender, minority groups –precisely the topics that should be talked about. In Lebanon you can. That is what makes this country different.
Is it not because of those French officers and politicians who decided in 1943 that the role of the State should be minimized in every sphere of life?
Yes, in Lebanon there is traditionally a weak central government. Power is dispersed around the country. Whereas in other Arab countries like Egypt, Syria, and Lybia these central institutions are very strong. Lebanon is much more laissez-faire, much more liberal, people have more freedom. The state doesn’t tell you how to dress, how you should behave. It is also generally open to others. Historically, since the 1950s and 1960s, people from other Arab countries in which there were conflicts or war could come to Lebanon.
That’s another interesting thing about Lebanon. The population is estimated at around 4.5 million. In the 1940s and 1950s, 250 000 Palestinians came due to the Israeli-Arab war. Now 1.2 million Syrians. There are some voices that suggest that the lack of assimilation of the Palestinians back in the 1940s somehow contributed to the civil war in the 1970s.
It is not fair to say that Palestinians started the war.
But the situation of the Syrians who are now in Lebanon looks similar to that of the Palestinians in the 1940s: new restrictions appeared at the beginning of 2015 that prevent Syrians from working fully, from participating in the healthcare system, in the educational system, and so on. Do you think that the isolation of the Syrians now can result in something similar, could it be dangerous to Lebanon?
Absolutely. But the first thing that we have to acknowledge is that the Lebanese government allowed Syrians to come in for humanitarian reasons. Lebanon had its own wars and during those wars, the Lebanese had to flee to Syria and Jordan to keep themselves alive. So they remember how difficult it can be. They allowed 1.2 million Syrians to come in, just like they allowed Palestinians in 1947, or Iraqis after the war in Iraq. They didn’t create camps for them, because they did not want have something similar to the Palestinian camps – huge groups of people who are not Lebanese, who are poor, and have no chance of going back home, no chance of integrating fully. And they left the system totally laissez-faire, as they usually do. They let international organizations like the UN to care for those people, or NGOs like Oxfam. The government, for instance, allowed for a second-shift at schools to enable Syrians to educate their children, run by NGOs. If a Syrian has to go the hospital and somebody other than the government pays for it, that’s fine.
But such a big group of refugees can become very problematic on a political, social, security, and environmental level. There is a lack of proper infrastructure, proper sanitation, proper healthcare. In Jordan it is the same – they say that Syrians are a security threat, they look at our girls, they try to attack our people, they want to take our jobs. The Lebanese government only started to see these different problems about 5-6 months ago. That is why they took these new measures at the beginning of this year. They only accept real emergency cases, for instance, if somebody needs an immediate heart operation. But in other cases they don’t accept people only on the grounds that they are refugees. They rather say: sorry, we are full, which is, I think, understandable.
Lately there was a discussion whether Poland should accept 300 Christian families from Syria. Should we? What do you think about the EU’s new policy on migrant issues? Strengthening Frontex, strengthening borders? How should Europe react?
Well, I don’t think that Europe is responsible for those migrants. But the first thing that we all should do is stop the war in Syria. We have to understand that most of these people would prefer to go back to Syria. But because they cannot, they go somewhere else. They cannot come to Lebanon or Jordan, because those countries are overloaded.
The second thing to do is to give temporary asylum to people who seek help. If the burden is shared equally among Europe and Arab countries, North Americans, Asians, Australians, that is probably the most realistic solution. We have to deal with this humanitarian crisis. Most Syrians want to stay where they are. Syria is a beautiful country, but there is a terrible war going on over there.
Sounds like a plan, but it doesn’t seem achievable to permanently remove all the causes of migration.
Of course, it’s not easy. War in Syria won’t stop soon. But it is much better to give proper temporary conditions to civilians who run away from countries in armed conflict. They did it in Turkey. They have huge camps, special work permits.
What about migrants from other countries where there is a permanent crisis, for instance migrants from North Africa? Should Europe be open for them as well?
I do think that people should live wherever they want to, but it is not realistic. You are used to open borders within the European Union, but it is a really special situation. No country in the world will open its doors and say: anybody who wants to can come. If you invite a million people, you immediately have a problem with unemployment, housing. But if you have an emergency situation, in which people are fleeing from war, it’s not about looking for benefits, it’s trying to stay alive.
Ed Miliband from the Labour Party suggested before the UK parliamentary elections that Britain should feel responsible for the refugees that flee from Libya, as it is responsible for the destabilized situation in that country.
That’s a very attractive and ethical position. It raises the issue of accountability for the actions that you undertake. The United Kingdom and the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and they simply destroyed the government, destroyed the army, the whole state. Chaos happened. Here it is the same. So being responsible for your actions is a good idea. It should be developed by the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and other international institutions. We must enforce the principle that acting against the laws on which we have already agreed results in accountability and punishment.
I think Tony Blair and George Bush should stand in front of the International Criminal Court. They should be accountable for what they have done. But that’s not going to happen any time soon.
A thousand years ago people from the Arab world were attacking Europe. At that time we were stronger and Europe was primitive. But the difference between a thousand years ago and now is that we now have international law. We have international protection of human rights, we have mechanisms to regulate relations and legal interactions between the countries. This law should mean something. And this is one of the biggest issues that people from the Third World, especially from the Arab world, raise! That is where Hezbollah or ISIS are coming from. That is what they are saying – we don’t want the Americans or the British to kill anybody they want, destroy what we have been building for ages. You cannot create millions of refugees, then go home and say: Oh, I’m sorry! You’re a free country, you can do what you want! That is the source of terrorism as well.
Should Europe be accountable for ISIS as well?
I wouldn’t say so. Tony Blair should be responsible for ISIS, that’s for sure. You cannot say that there is no link between what the US and the UK did and ISIS. Indirectly there is a link between the poor assimilation of migrants in Europe, particularly in France or in England. Some Muslim communities are not well assimilated. They are very often economically and socially alienated. But I don’t think that is a European problem, it’s a problem of certain countries. If ISIS didn’t exist, those people would join a modern gang of cocaine smugglers, Baader Meinhof, or Charles Manson. Or some other group that would give some meaning to their hopeless, meaningless lives. So the link between people who join ISIS and Islam is very weak. ISIS is not a problem of Islam, it is a problem of young people who are not able to live in a society.
In one of your articles you wrote that the current war in Yemen is a sign of something very significant – instead of asking Western actors for help, some regional powers are emerging in the Middle East and initiating political and military actions. Do you think that ISIS could be defeated in this way? Without any help from Europe, the United Nations, or America?
But the first thing that we all should do is stop the war in Syria. We have to understand that most of these people would prefer to go back to Syria. But because they cannot, they go somewhere else.
First of all, not much has been done up until now. They left it to the Syrians and Iraquis. A militarily or politically coordinated response to ISIS has not yet emerged. Now ISIS has grown and it’s scaring, threatening, killing people, bombing dams and oil fields, destroying ancient cities. It is also efficiently led – there are all those former army officers. But I think you will see that in six to nine months there will be much more coordinated effort among Arab countries. Turkey, the Kurds, probably Iran in a quiet way, and Western countries. If you have this coordination, I believe that ISIS can very easily be defeated militarily.
But the problem with ISIS is that even if you defeated it militarily, you don’t address these underlying issues that caused it. And these underlying issues are corruption, security, state governance, poverty, foreign militarism on the part of the US, Israel, the United Kingdom, curtailed citizen rights. If you don’t deal with them, you will soon have another ISIS. You really have to see ISIS as a clear warning sign to the Arab world. ISIS is a reckless act of desperate people. This is their answer to what is happening around them. If they cannot find a solution to their problems anywhere, they try to use religion as a tool of possible change. And that is something typical. Look at Christian movements both in history and nowadays. Religious movements are usually linked to groups that want to overthrow the political order.
Do you think that Arab governments see a link between those underlying issues that cause ISIS and ISIS itself?
That is a problem and that is what concerns me. I don’t think that they see it. And there is no sign, that they will see it for next 5 to 10 years. The system now creates mass marginalization, mass poverty, and mass alienation. Imagine a family with six kids and none of these kids have any chance to receive to receive a proper education. This is what created ISIS. And it is not so easy to change.
In your opinion, what launched the growth of right-wing Islamist movements or militant resistance movements in Arab countries was the right-wing Zionist ethno-nationalism of Begin’s government in the 1970s. Do you think that pan-Arabism could create a real alternative to this trend?
Actually pan-Arabism was a very thin, short-lived idea of the 1950s and 1960s. It was a reaction to colonialism, to Zionism, but it was more of a feeling. Actually it did not succeed very well at the time when it was created by Nasser. Nasser could have made it better, he could have built a strong nation with democracy, a growing economy. If he had done it, if he had been able to challenge Israel, maybe today we could talk about a strong pan-Arab movement. But Nasser created one of the worst police states in modern history. The army is still running Egypt now. I wish it was otherwise, because I do think that if Arab people cooperated, they would be stronger, better off, and wealthier, instead of this crazy situation we now have in the Arab world.
So we cannot talk about pan-Arabism nowadays?
Not really. Maybe we can talk about it in this way that I just mentioned, that the Arab world should cooperate. Who is an Arab? An Arab is anybody who speaks Arabic and who says he’s an Arab. Some people who call themselves Arabs are not Arabs ethnically. They are for instance Armenians, Berbers, Kurds, Druze. However pan-Arabism is more of a sentiment, in fact there is something that all Arabs have in common. When I meet somebody from Sudan or Kuwait, I feel something in common with them, but I don’t feel I am part of the same country. Maybe it’s like Americans and Australians.
Is there any chance for the Arab world to cooperate more instead of creating separations through nationalist movements?
You have a good example of it in Europe. After the two terrible wars you had, now you are all together. The European Union is expanding, is growing. It would be great if something like this could happen in the Arab World. But there is no sign that it will occur in the near future. Partly it is not happening because the decision-making process is being controlled by militaries and individual leaders, and there is no place for the democratic aspirations of the people. If citizens of Arab countries were more influential in the decision-making process, they could push their countries towards change. Belgium, Poland, or Germany have different ideas about who they are, but they can cooperate together to have free movement and banking, to become stronger and wealthier.
But there are more and more critical voices which question the current EU model as the best means of cooperation between European countries. The word “crisis” is often used to describe the situation in the EU, the last elections to the EP showed the strength of right-wing nationalist parties, the United Kingdom wants to exit, and so on. There are also some other doubts as to whether Africa or the Middle East should copy this model.
That’s true. But if you in Europe talk about crisis, you cannot imagine how many people around the world would like to have this kind of crisis. For instance these people who drown in the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a nice crisis to have, believe me. You as the EU are growing very fast, you have to face new problems, adjust to new circumstances, and that could be the reason for this crisis. Still, it is one of the most successful models of cooperation between states. You also have to remember that you started in the 1950’s, it’s not even a century of existence.
How do you see the Arab path do democratization? You have mentioned that the political stage in the Middle East is usually dominated by sectarian politics, clans, religious groups, powerful individuals. The Arab Spring was supposed to break these patterns, but it did not.
If ISIS didn’t exist, those people would join a modern gang of cocaine smugglers, Baader Meinhof, or Charles Manson. Or some other group that would give some meaning to their hopeless, meaningless lives. So the link between people who join ISIS and Islam is very weak. ISIS is not a problem of Islam, it is a problem of young people who are not able to live in a society.
You are talking about two different things. You are talking about the transformation process and the citizens’ rebellions against current governments. It is very common that they are put together in one box. We know now that the connection between the civilian rebellion in 2011 and the democratization process succeeded only in Tunisia. It didn’t happen in other countries and there are many different reasons why. We know better what was wrong, we saw the mistakes of those events. To be fair, when an uprising is happening, usually it is not planned. The Arab Spring was also a spontaneous event. It happened so quickly, leaders failed so quickly, because they had so little support. But after removing the leaders, there was no strategy, no plan, no organisation of accountability, no cooperation mechanisms between nationalists, leftists, and all the groups that fought together to remove these leaders. The intensity of these oppressive systems, the willingness to get rid of those leaders when the Arab Spring happened was so high that the uprisings simply had to happen. So during the Arab Spring you had mass civilian opposition and you didn’t have a democratization process. I wouldn’t link them.
So can we say that the aftermath of the Arab Spring is not a total failure?
I wouldn’t say that the Arab Spring failed, democracy failed and that is a problem in the Arab world. People didn’t want oppressive systems, but they didn’t want chaos either. They see this chaos in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. People simply weren’t prepared logistically and organisationally for a smooth democratic transition. Your experience in Poland was much better. The Solidarity movement had a much clearer idea of what they wanted. They coordinated more, negotiated for a longer period of time, focused on what precisely they want to achieve.
I would say that the intense desire of millions of Arabs for more freedom, a more dignified life, human rights, and civil rights is still ongoing and they will keep pushing for change. And I hope there will be more opportunities in the near future for a transition to happen. You had the same thing in Europe. The transitions in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia – you were fighting for many years against these oppressive systems and finally broke through them in 1989.
So democracy is unavoidable and we need to be more patient about the Arab World?
Yes. That was the mistake for instance of Egypt, Libya – the came up with a new constitution very quickly, called new elections, and so on. They acted too fast. They didn’t really agree on the rules of the game, on critical issues, the role of secular institutions, religious institutions. The people who are willing to make this democratic transition have to have a clear idea of what they want. That was the case in the Arab world. If political parties and labour unions are involved in such a process it is much easier to achieve these goals. The luxury of having some time for a dialogue, cooperation, and making changes step by step is key. Such a process would be slow, but it would slowly lead to democratic, pluralistic, and constitutional systems.