Interview Ahmad Al-Assaad
WSN: I know you have a party and also the Lebanese Option Gathering (LOG).
AHMAD AL-ASSAAD: The party is part of the gathering. The Lebanese Option Gathering [LOG] is a gathering of many Shia figures and my party is part of it.
WSN: When did you start the party?
AA: The al-Kafaat Party was founded four and a half years ago.
WSN: And the Lebanese Option Gathering?
AA: One year ago.
WSN: Why do you think there is a need to have another structure aside from the al-Kafaat Party?
AA: I believe this new structure is the key to solving Lebanon's problems as long as the Shia situation is as it is. It is the need to bring about change in the community. The idea behind the gathering is to bring all the Shia voices that have a different view and opinion than Hizballah’s together, to give the people a choice between Shias that are truly Lebanese and Shia - let's put it this way - that are not truly Lebanese.
WSN: How do you assess the situation of the Shia community from a socio-political perspective?
AA: Its simple. You come from the Eastern Block countries. It is like it used to be under Ceausescu. When you had elections, 99% had to vote for him. And we saw that when people had a free choice and alternatives, we saw the kind of percentage the communist parties are now getting in elections. It's the same thing here, even worse because in your countries if you were not a communist, a true communist, you were a traitor. But here you are not only a traitor, but also you are not a man of God, a Muslim, a Shia. There is a lot of pressure, and it takes courage to be able, in these circumstances, to say: “I don't agree with you.”
WSN: Why do we keep hearing that all or most of the Shias are with Hizballah?
AA: The story that Shias are with Hizballah is far from being accurate. Iran is spending a lot of money in Lebanon, and that's why they are able to have a base of supporters, services and a social network to pay salaries. If the funds are cut today from Iran, I will show you tomorrow who will stay with Hizballah: No one.
The good thing is that not all Shias are profiting from Hizballah's services, or maybe Iran is not sending enough money. Either way, there is still a big minority that is not profiting from Iran and that is not happy with the present situation. Like other Lebanese, they have no jobs, no prospects for the future and they are afraid to express this. My job and my colleagues’ job is to convince these people to come out and express their views freely and openly.
WSN: Is it a job that can be easily done?
AA: It’s a tough job, but it's the key to solving Lebanon's dilemma. The elections are coming, and no matter what happens, even if the majority wins more seats in the parliament - let's say anything between 70 to 90 seats - and if you change some aspects of the Shia representation of the parliament members, we are still back to the same status quo. As long as we have Hizballah saying that only it represents the Shia community, we are not moving one inch. In order to move forward you have to move with all the communities in Lebanon, and as long as Hizballah has the monopoly over the Shias, Hizballah will hinder and block any movement towards achieving a true Lebanese state.
WSN: What about Amal? What role is there for Amal within the community?
AA: Amal is a nice decoration. There is no Amal. It’s a beautiful thing to put in your window to show that there is an alternative, but Amal does not exist anymore.
WSN: Are you saying that if we take Speaker Berri out of the picture there is nothing else left?
AA: I feel sorry for Mr. Berri, and many of us have come to a point where we think that he is so weak, that we feel sorry for him. He is just a puppet. He is not a statesman but that is the path he chose. He is able, but he is not willing to stand up to the Iranians and the Syrians. He is happy to be the speaker of the parliament, and he does not really want to confront the dangers we face. Amal does not have the privileges it used to have: Money and funds, and he used to put people in government jobs. Those jobs existed only on paper. These kinds of actions do not take place anymore. Now the budget of the Council of the South is not as big as it used to be. It used to be around US$380 million but nowadays is under US$40 million; around here we say that the cow has no more milk. Thus, Mr. Berri has nothing. It is all Hizballah. They have the funds. He is just a follower with a beautiful etiquette called Amal.
WSN: How can you counter Hizballah's hegemony over the community? You talked about the services, but there are also the arms.
AA: I don't worry about the arms in the Shia community. Hizballlah will think long and hard before using arms again, especially using them within the community. Hizballah does not give a damn about the Sunni, Druze, Christians and so on. Like them or not, as long as they are in control of the community, they can go on like this forever.
You have to understand that for them it is important to have a certain image in the community. Although that image has been broken because of what they did in 2006 and in May; still, they are working to preserve the bits that were left intact. Let's not forget that the people of Hizballah who are in its militia are in the towns and villages. They are part of the society and it’s not easy for Hizballah to take the weapons and turn them against other Shias. This is why I don't worry about the weapons. I do worry about the money, the immense funds they have, and this is very difficult to match and it makes the base of competition unequal. If they would give me half of their money we would have no problems, but I don't think they are that generous.
WSN: Are the substantial financial resources of Hizballah the main impediment for other Shia voices to be heard?
AA: This is the main issue, and that is why people are with Hizballah. Not because of the rhetoric, but because people are in need. The people are getting poorer and they (Hizballah) want them to get poor in order to keep them hostage. If Lebanon is on its feet and gets to be a prosperous country in the 21st Century - and Lebanon deserves to get to that stage because we as Lebanese are truly gifted people - then the people will no longer be need of Hizballah.
Every chance Hizballah has to bring poverty, to bring Lebanon to the days of chaos, they take it with great enthusiasm, because this is what they need to be successful.
WSN: What can you tell me about the LOG plans for the immediate future, having in mind the upcoming elections?
AA: We want to have a coalition of Shias all over the country, from southern Lebanon to the Beqaa, Beirut, Dahyeh and elsewhere, and present people with a choice: Elect a Shia that belongs to Iran or elect a Shia that belongs to Lebanon.
WSN: You talked of generalized poverty. Does the gathering have an economic plan for reforms to put forward?
AA: The truth is that you can't do anything as long as you have Hizballah. The days of communist totalitarian use of the economy are long gone, and economic growth and jobs come from investment. Lebanon is not getting any serious investments, although the Gulf countries are fed up with money because of the increased oil prices worldwide. Very little of the money is coming to Lebanon. There is no rule of law and there is no state. There is the state of Hizballah, and understandably, no one wants to take unnecessary risks. As long as Hizballah is in control of war and peace and decides from one day to another to have chaos, no one will come here.
After the 2006 war, we had a little economic boom. This was because we Lebanese are good at lying and we even believed the lie ourselves; we kept saying that there is no worry about Hizballah. They are in the south; it will have no impact on Beirut, Saida or other places you invest in. The 2006 war came and showed the lie we sold to the outside world and that we believed in.
The point is to weaken Hizballah, to put pressure on it to become a Lebanese party, and the only way to do this is from within the Shia community.
WSN: What is your opinion about the March 14 group and its political leadership?
AA: A bunch of amateurs, although not all of them. I have good friends in March 14, friends that are ethical, solid, open, real statesmen, but unfortunately, they are not the decision makers. The decision makers lack many of the qualities that are needed to confront and overcome Hizballah. We lost so many chances since 2006 because of this lack of quality and decisiveness within March 14, most recently in Qatar at Doha. The unity story, its a big lie, another defeat for Lebanon, another point won by Hizballah.
WSN: Any positive change in the relationship between Syria and Lebanon now that President Sulayman visited President Bashar al-Assad?
AA: I don't see any change and naive are the people who think that the Syrians are going to give us anything of value. Now the headlines about the embassy exchange, but is this the main problem we have with Syria? The whole problem?
The Syrians will not make any real concession to Lebanon for the simple reason that they are scared to death by the International Tribunal, and they believe that when the facts come to the table, the decision makers of the world will decide what to do with those facts based on their respective interests. It is important for Syria to hold on to the cards they have even more firmly, in order to trade them.
I believe that the International Tribunal will do what it can to bring about all the facts that it can, but its up to the important countries of the world to decide what to do with these facts. They took Milosevic to prison because it was in the interest of these countries to do so. On the other hand, with Qaddafi, they decided to live with him and make him pay a monetary penalty.
For the Syrians, Lebanon is the main card and they will not let it go or allow it to become weaker, simply because their fate depends on it.
WSN: What is Lebanon's main card? Why should we pay attention to whatever happens in Lebanon?
AA: I believe that Lebanon - and not because I am Lebanese - plays an important role at a global scale. We have another cold war going on, and this time it is not between West and East, capitalism and communism. This time it is between the free world and the so-called Islamists. I say so-called because I was raised as a Muslim and I know what Islam is and what Shia Islam is. These people have made the biggest forgery of a great religion and tradition.
If we cannot win the cold war in Lebanon, in a place that has a history of democracy, freedom of speech and a tradition of openness, how are we going to win it elsewhere?
It is very simple. If we win the war in Lebanon it means that we are able to win it elsewhere, while losing it in Lebanon, means that its only a matter of time until the whole region falls to these so-called Islamists. No matter how much people are disappointed by March 14, we have to keep on doing our job because what happens in Lebanon will have great consequences throughout the region.
WSN: What is your view on United States policy towards Lebanon?
AA: I am for McCain. I believe this is a gentleman who knows the regimes here, knows how they think, their nature, how to deal with them. He has the experience, the knowledge and intelligence to bring about the necessary pressure on these regimes.
Sometimes the people in the West, being used to certain standards and ethics, believe these concepts are universal. They think you can convince anyone of them just by talking. Disappointingly, this is naive thinking. Many of the regimes, especially the Iranian and to some extent the Syrian regime understand only the language of strength, power, and pressure. Reason and logic are just Chinese to them.
I hope and I believe that Mr. McCain will be elected as the next president. This would be a very good thing for Lebanon, for the Middle East and the world.
WSN: How do you see European policy towards your country?
AA: I see a lot of hypocrisy from the Europeans. They are great in philosophy, in making theory, but they don't have the backbone to do anything, and they are hypocrites because in order to have a role, a stupid, tiny role, they are willing to have it at the cost of principles. For example, if we look at the recent opening of the French toward the Syrians. Why did the French do this? What are we getting out of it? Nothing. A stupid embassy? As if our problems will be solved once the embassy is here!
WSN: What objective do you think the French had to motivate them to follow such a course?
AA: The whole thing was done because France wants to have a role. And this is role comes at the expense of the basic principles. There is a lot of double standard in the Europeans, and I don't like this. I know how they deal with me, and I am very frank and say things how they are. The European embassies are scared to death when they see me.
WSN: Why is that?
AA: They are afraid that Hizballah will think that they have a good relationship with me, and they think about the soldiers they have in UNIFIL, that maybe this will have consequences for them.
I don't approve of the European Union policy here, I don't think it’s a policy; they have no moral high-ground anymore. Sometimes just to aggravate them I say, thank God for the yanks.
WSN: Lebanon has a consensus president. Is he able to do his job properly under these circumstances?
AA: This is a president that prolongs the status quo, not a president that brings a solution. In Lebanon, we are used to living in the gray - not black and not white. This is a big problem in the politics of the country. Mr. Sulayman is a nice guy, but he is not the guy that can make the strong decisions that are necessary for building a sovereign Lebanon. This is why our gathering was always for the fact that the majority in the parliament should have imposed even if Hizballah & Co. would not have accepted; they should have elected a true Lebanese president, like Nassib Lahoud.
WSN: You are talking of the 50 + 1?
AA: Exactly. They should have done that. Freedom does not come on a plate of gold or silver; you have to sacrifice and to be able to go all the way. You have to do your duty first and then ask for or expect help from the outside. The status quo works to the benefit of Hizballah, and now we have a situation where they feel they are more powerful. They hope to be able to control the next parliament.
WSN: Is this likely?
AA: It is too soon to tell. However, after what happened in May and after they saw that the March 14 men are men of paper and under pressure they all fall, in case they lose the elections, what you have seen May 7 and 8 will be just a small example of what they will do. Hizballah will use any pretext to sabotage the results, because now that they are encouraged they know that what they can't take through law or diplomacy, they can get by sheer force.
I really hope that if this happens, March 14 will stand its ground and not give up as easily as they did recently.
WSN: You are clearly not content with the European policy in Lebanon. Do you have a message for the Europeans?
AA: I want to say to the Europeans that we have a common enemy and this enemy is an enemy of all humanity and this is the so-called and I explicitly say, the so-called Islamic movement. This is an enemy that will not simply vanish into thin air. If we do not face it and make it weaker, it will become stronger and a menace to Lebanon, and especially Europe, because of its proximity to the region. I want to remind the Europeans of Hitler, and of the naïveté of some at that time, believing that one could talk to Hitler, that one could coexist with him. Just look back and see what happened. Do not forget your history.
These Islamic movements are even worse than Hitler, so stop stalling for time, stop escaping reality; take actions no matter how difficult these actions will be. In a generation’s time, and even sooner, the problems will be bigger than now. The Europeans know deep down that there is no other choice than to face the enemy, but their problem is that oftentimes the tiny interests and gains in politics matter more to the politicians than unpopular, tough decisions. This is a problem that can no longer be postponed and we have to work together to solve it.