Dr. Habib Malek: "Hariri's assassination was the tipping point"

Posted in Broader Middle East | 16-Apr-05 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Dr. Habib Malek, Professor at the Lebanese American University

Dr. Habib Malek is a Lebanon expert and Professor at the Lebanese American University (LAU). He is the son of Dr. Charles Malek. Dr. Charles Malek was a leading figure in the drafting and adoption of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He headed the ad hoc committee formed by the UN, which spent three years drafting the declaration with the help of such members as former US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Rene Cassin (French Nobel Price).

WSN: Sir, do you see the current opposition ready to lead Lebanon toward democracy?

Habib Malek: So far, they have a common list of goals and they seem to be sticking to it. They are all well-known personalities, they ask for the truth about Hariri's assassination and for the removal of the heads of the secret services, because they hold them responsible, if not for the actual assassination then for not doing their job. So far the heads of the intelligence services have not resigned but they have come under a lot of internal and external pressure. Some say that the explosions we witness periodically have something to do with the intelligence, but I cannot comment on this.

Also, they want the Syrian forces and security apparatus to leave the country, and this is slowly happening. The opposition's hope is that all the above will lead to free and fair parliamentary elections. The other side is of course stalling for time, hoping that things will change, or that somehow the euphoria of the opposition will cool down.

WSN: The opposition is reuniting both Muslims and Christians, and thus to a certain extent the sectarian system has been taken over by their demand and hope to enjoy freedom and democracy in Lebanon. Can they succeed, in this formula?

Habib Malek: The fact that they are so varied is for me a sign of health, assuming we reach the point of free and fair elections and there will be a new, more representative power. The differences between the opposition can then form the democratic game played in the Parliament. Now, the opposition does not have a powerful leading figure, and obviously Mr. Jumblatt is not cut out to be that particular leader although he may want to be, or projects himself as such.

WSN: We hear these days many comments about US and French interest in Lebanon. What is your view on the issue?

Habib Malek: I happen to be a person who takes the changes in Washington since 9/11 very seriously, unlike others who entertain the old thinking that everything that is happening is a temporary game and in the end, the Americans will come and deal with matters. I do not share this vision. We are witnessing the birth of a new kind of Middle East.

WSN: Is it likely to see American or French troops in Lebanon, in the near future?

Habib Malek: I do not think so. They have no interest in doing this, nor is there any need to have troops here. I think there is a conviction in Washington that democracy restored in a place such as Lebanon is good not only for us, but also for the region and the US. In Lebanon, you do not have to invent the wheel when it comes to democracy. We have a vibrant civil society - unlike Iraq - and we have had the experience of democracy in Lebanon. The Iraqi story is messy and bloody, but one can say that it is nevertheless a success story with some limitations. If certain pressures are removed, Lebanon can enjoy democratic rule. The French are keen to reassert some kind of role in the Middle East, and they see Lebanon as one way to do so. Interestingly enough, Lebanon suddenly emerged as an important point of "rapprochement" in transatlantic relations. The US is willing to give this space to France. Who would have thought two months ago that Lebanon would be a point of transatlantic conversions?

WSN: Is it all the merit of Lebanon?

Habib Malek: Not entirely. The series of mistakes and the poor assessment of the international situation taken by Damascus have helped the Lebanese. Hariri's assassination was the tipping point, as Thomas Friedman calls it, the straw that broke the camel's back. The curious thing I noticed was that 15 minutes after Hariri was killed, it was very difficult to convince anyone that it was not the Syrians, although no one had any proof. Sometimes the truth takes the back seat to perception, but I tend to think that perhaps this is not the case.

WSN: What is the further role for the Shiite Hezbollah?

Habib Malek: Hezbollah had a chance, a golden opportunity in May 2000 to exit on a high point. They have liberated the South, regardless of how much of the story is truth and how much is folklore. If they had exited then the business of liberation and resistance, I think they would have been in a more comfortable position right now. They can remain viable only if they are in a state of continuous vigilance and if they play the card of liberation and resistance. Now, when an Israeli plane circles for half an hour over Sidon, they say they need the weapons. It becomes a rather pathetic excuse. I think they may have realized that without this business, their ideology is completely bankrupt. It offers no answer to the challenges of modernity, in order to attract the youth in a free, pluralistic society.

What really scares them is not the US or Israel but having to operate in an environment where their youth will have all the other options. As Lebanese, we have to be sensitive to their situation and we need to give them time to readjust, in a sense that we should give them time to reinvent themselves, although they may be a little too late.

On the other hand, if their leadership takes its own inflammatory rhetoric seriously this is very unfortunate, because it will hamper their ability to reintegrate into Lebanese society. I hope their leadership is astute enough to make a distinction between the inflammatory speech that fires up the crowds and reality. If they are pragmatic, they can liberate themselves from regional influence. Once the integration is a fait accompli, then their profile will rise further within the Shiia community. At least they have the reputation of being honest, contrary to Amal. Also, they have the ground achievements, in terms of services. A gradual, peaceful and diplomatic solution is required for Hezbollah. After Hariri's assassination, Hezbollah made a big mistake. For three weeks they remained silent, and after Bashar al-Assad's speech, they went straight in his direction. The existing ideology of Hezbollah is not up to the challenges of the 21st Century; it has zero answers. However, they are Lebanese and our grandchildren will have to live with their grandchildren. Therefore, if they are willing to ask for help, no one will refuse them.

WSN: Do you support UN Resolution 1559?

Habib Malek: Yes I do, and I want its implementation to the last comma, but it does not mean that Hezbollah should be disarmed by force, nor does it mean that it has to happen tomorrow or next week. I make a distinction between Hezbollah in 2005 and the PLO in 1975; the Palestinians did not hesitate one minute to destroy Lebanon, but Hezbollah has to think very seriously before using its arms internally.

WSN: General Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) is raising its profile in politics. What are your comments on this?

Habib Malek: General Aoun, whatever you may think of him, was at least consistent for a long time. He was anti-Syrian from day one. While in exile, he steadily built up his contacts in France, Washington and also a network in the Lebanese diaspora; he also remained in touch with his supporters here, in Lebanon. I remember the days back in 1989 and 1990 when Aoun confronted the Syrians. There were literally hundreds of thousands of people supporting him. They were all around the Presidential Palace in Baabda for weeks, but the international community was not favorable to his views. The media used to call him "the isolated general"; it is amazing how things have changed.

After Hariri's assassination, the streets were filled with people, but the numbers were still lower than those who backed Aoun. Talking about numbers, I think that Hezbollah played a dangerous game when it organized the rally from the Riadh el-Solh Square, as opposed to the rally of the opposition. In Lebanon we operate on the basis of consensus; not one of the 18 officially recognized religious communities can raise more than 15% support, and therefore we need to form coalitions. When Nasrallah organized the rally, he had to challenge several groups. Therefore, we have seen the Sunni, the Christians and the Druze joining their efforts. A widespread misconception abroad is that Hezbollah and the Shiias are one and the same. They are not. Hezbollah is important in the Shiia community, but it is not the Shiia community. We were able to talk to some Shiias at the demonstration on March 14, and they said: "Look, we respect Hezbollah, but we feel more at home in a rally chanting for a free Lebanon," as they carried pictures of Bashar al-Assad. This is what they told us, and I consider them genuine, patriotic Lebanese Shiias.

Back to the Free Patriotic Movement -- this current is quite well spared, but in the last municipal elections they did not do very well. I am hoping they will perform better in the Parliamentary elections. Their chances look better now because of the popular momentum. There is a role for the FPM and for Aoun, himself. However, if Aoun returns and Geagea is released I hope they are not under the illusion that they can repeat the maneuvers they did last time. Let the one come back and the other be released, but stay decent.

WSN: Did the Syrians agree with the Lebanese on Taef, thinking about implementing the accord's demands?

Habib Malek: Syria had no intention to implement Taef. They are now hurrying to implement few parts of the Taef Agreement because of the international pressure. Otherwise, they would have stayed for 300 years without even thinking of leaving. Syria has always had an expansionist desire regarding Lebanon; they did not recognize Lebanon's independence, there are no diplomatic relations between the two countries. The "brotherly relations" are in fact double speak, as the communists in Eastern Europe once had.

WSN: Can you have a democracy in Lebanon, without a change of regime in Damascus?

Habib Malek: I think the question should be reversed: Can Syria avoid opening up and being democratized, if democracy flourishes in Lebanon? I really hope, for the sake of the Syrian people, that Syria will be open to freedom and democracy. I am convinced there is no Gorbachev hidden in Syria, waiting to change things from within. The Syrian Baath party just as the Baath party in Iraq is totalitarian, locked in a frame of thinking that is obsolete. Both were expansionist - Iraq towards Kuwait, Syria towards Lebanon - and both used violence.

There is also another important issue to be taken into consideration. Removing Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, but leaving him in power in Iraq proved to be a mistake and many paid for it. Removing Assad from Lebanon, but keeping him in Damascus in a post 9/11 world, is a different story. I do not know what will happen next, but Assad's regime as well as the Lebanese regime has a lot to answer for.