Samir Frangieh: "The Cedars Revolution has put things into motion."

Posted in Broader Middle East | 24-Apr-08 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Samir Frangieh

- Exclusive WSN interview with Samir Frangieh, member of the Lebanese Parliament, a leading intellectual and a member of the March 14 block, conducted by Manuela Paraipan -

WSN: How would you describe the current situation of Lebanon in the context of the regional turmoil?

Samir Frangieh: At the recently held March 14 congress, for the first time I saw a direct critique that touched the core of both the Lebanese and the regional problem. The Arab world has to reconstitute itself, its political unity, quality and openness in order to gain its autonomy, in spite of the pressures exercised on it, by both Iran and Israel.

From my perspective, what happened in Beirut on 14 March, 2005 and since then in various parts of the Arab world is the equivalent of the fall of the Berlin wall. Somehow the Cold War continued in the Arab world. It is as if the region had been frozen in time. The Cedars Revolution has put things into motion.

WSN: What about the Iraq conflict?

Samir Frangieh: The war in Iraq was an external intervention into the Arab world, while the Cedars Revolution is an internal phenomenon. This is a phenomenon that Arabs can understand; it speaks their language and it is a claim of the people. It is their peaceful demand to enjoy democracy, and the people all over the region can relate on some level to the Lebanese experience.

Therefore, on this foundation has appeared the need to develop an Arab conscience, based on the fact that the Cold War is over and the Arabs have to assume responsibility for themselves.

WSN: Is the Arab world between two poles of power?

Samir Frangieh: On one side you have Israel, on the other you have Iran. Israel launched the project called the new Middle East, which was elaborated by Shimon Peres. More recently you have Ahmadinejad, who speaks of a new Middle East, but one that takes shape under Iran's leadership. Between these two regional players there is a relation of collision and opposition at the same time. The rivalry is evident and it perturbs the Arab world.

WSN: How can one understand this phenomenon?

Samir Frangieh: Look at Syria. Damascus is supported financially, militarily and politically by Iran. At the same time, Syria is protected by Israel. Israel is some kind of peace ambassador for Syria. As such, we have an interesting ambivalence.

In 2005, Syria sent a negotiator that went to the Knesset and this happened without Iranian protest, or for that matter, from Iran's ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah. On this configuration the manifest of March 14 has come into existence.

WSN: What do you think about the way Hezbollah understands the Syrian/Israeli negotiations?

Samir Frangieh: Hezbollah suffered great embarrassment. It wanted to impose its dualist, rather simplistic vision where Israel is the evil force. Therefore, we have to fight it. Those who fight Israel are on our side, on the part of good. If you are against Iran, you are with Israel.

However, this type of analysis is dominant in the Arab world. For Arabs, Israel is the enemy.

When Syria, an Arab country, signals interest in having peace negotiations with Israel, this puts Hezbollah in a difficult situation. How should they respond to it? If they go against the negotiations then they can be accused of working to the detriment of the Arab world. On the other hand, the Iranians themselves carry behind-the-scene talks with the Americans, and this has been more visible in Iraq. What is left of Hezbollah’s good - versus - bad analogy? Moreover, how to deal with the fact that Iran negotiates or is looking to negotiate its position with the United States to strengthen its regional role in order to gain control of the Arab world? This poses new, serious questions to Hezbollah's leadership and they have yet to find a way to manage the situation. I have seen them for the first time without a clear answer.

WSN: How do you see the alliance of the Free Patriotic Movement with Hezbollah?

Samir Frangieh: It is not a true, real alliance. I see just one player having a political project, and that is Hezbollah. The rest are there for other interests. Specifically, for Michel Aoun and taking into consideration his past actions, one can see a schizophrenic-type of moves today. For example, he is anti-Syrian, and he supports UN Resolution 1559 and yet this is the resolution he refuses to implement today. This is not a matter of politics, but one of holding power. If March 14 decides to elect him as president of the republic, he will change camps. My point is that he is not carrying a political project. Nowadays, he tries to give some continuation to his past actions and he says he wants to reform the state. Fine. To do it you need to address the problem of Hezbollah's weapons, which in itself is a projection of a state, separate from the Lebanese state.

Michel Aoun has not alleviated the way for those who are in his camp understand how today they are at the opposite pole of what their position had been at the beginning. Furthermore, Michel Aoun is the spokesperson for March 8 while organizing an event to celebrate March 14. How to understand that?

WSN: How do you see Hezbollah's strategy for the time being? They agreed on the name of the president, yet they don't agree to actually hold elections. Isn't this a contradiction?

Samir Frangieh: I think that Syria is the one that imposes the blockage of the presidential elections on Hezbollah. Why? Because Syria is doing all it can to block the emergence of the international tribunal. So, Syria hopes to use Lebanon as a card to either block the tribunal or to limit its effects.

The blockage made by Hezbollah is also for regional considerations and you have both Iran and Syria as part of this strategic edifice.

WSN: Did the international tribunal surprise Syria?

Samir Frangieh: Syria could not believe that there would be an investigation and a tribunal in Rafiq Hariri's case. Although the tribunal has been voted in by the UN Security Council, it needs to be financed and Syria tried to find a compromise with the financing countries. Perhaps the most caricaturized case is France. It hoped to be a deal broker and as such delayed its payment to the tribunal. When the negotiations failed, France through its President, Nicolas Sarkozy announced from Egypt that the payment would be made. The Syrians changed their tactic because they thought that Annapolis would assure them a cover and that it would be sufficient to say that they want peace in the region and everything else would go away. Just that Syria did not get the international recognition it sought.

WSN: What cards does Syria have to play with at this time?

Samir Frangieh: The presidential elections card is not determinative. We have a government that is internationally recognized. The last card they have in their hand is extremely dangerous and they should think twice before using it. If Syria wants to play the victim's role at the hands of international imperialism, it is likely to provoke a domino effect.

WSN: What card could they use?

Samir Frangieh: It may be the death of a hero of the Arab cause.

WSN: Internally there were many discussions about the next president of the republic but also about the government.

Samir Frangieh: It was the problem of the number of ministers, then the electoral law; tomorrow, we may have to talk about the law on abortion, and so on. There is always something new March 8 brings to the table.

WSN: Will Lebanon soon have a president?

Samir Frangieh: I think that the crisis will continue and everybody waits for the tribunal. Imagine that in Eastern Europe you have Poland as a democracy, Romania as well, Russia balancing towards openness and East Germany still ruled by the Stasi. Syria is East Germany ruled by the Stasi. It's an anachronistic regime.

Syria has no connection whatsoever to the reality of the world, no idea of what happens around it. Just the other day, the Mukhabarat (Syrian intelligence services) entered into Internet cafes and asked the people who worked there to put down the names of all those who enter it. Today you cannot control people to this extent and in this manner. They have blocked sites when it is enough for someone to just go home and listen to all news via cable, satellite or radio. Why do it then? I do not know. However, it is clear that it is a regime that failed to turn the page and move on. In spite of being credited as a young leader, Bashar Assad practices a 20th Century policy in the 21 Century. It is not working.

WSN: Syria even refused to exchange ambassadors with Lebanon.

Samir Frangieh: This is yet another example of the fact that the Syrian regime has largely failed to step into today's world. Syrian culture and society is rich and interesting, but the Syrian regime does not only have a difficult mentality to deal with but also a Mafioso dimension attached to it. At the time when Bashar's father was in power, it was a military regime, now it's a Mafioso one that is doing everything and then nothing, without rules, without principles.

WSN: When I compare Syria with Iran, I see the Iranians as superiors in terms of negotiators and strategists. Is Syria merely a way to link Hezbollah to Iran or more than that? What does Syria represent to Iran?

Samir Frangieh: I think it is more than a passage to Hezbollah. On the Iranian side, the objective is regional. Iran has managed through the Syrians to have more than one facade: One is Syrian, one Lebanese through Hezbollah, and one Palestinian through Hamas in Gaza. Iran has thus become a partner in the Arab-Israeli conflict and because of that it plays an important role in the Arab world. A regime that was not able to offer too much to its own people, Iran has become a tool of pressure for the monarchies of the region. This is the edge it has due to the nuclear bomb it seeks to develop.

The Iranian project is an imperialist one. It is strongly ideological, but also sensitive. Hezbollah tried to implement the Iranian model of society in Lebanon but it is a project too poor in itself, lacking a meaning, to be able to impose it through peaceful means.

WSN: Are Syria and Iran always on the same wavelength?

Samir Frangieh: Of course not. They have their differences. Syria is a piece of the Iranian puzzle. However, it is tiring for Iran at times to support Syria. Iran wants to play the role of the most powerful regional force, and Syria wants to play the role of a mini-regional force, but the Syrians are making errors. To a certain extent, Iran has to pay for the mistakes of its ally, but neither one can move forward without the other. If Syria renounces Iran, it loses the strongest ally it has now and may find itself in a corner. Iran without Syria loses the link to Hezbollah and Hamas. It's an indispensable alliance for both parties.

WSN: What role is there for the EU and the US in Lebanon and at the regional level?

Samir Frangieh: The European Union as a block can have a stronger political and cultural role. There are problems between the Arab world and Europe, and you know them. Therefore, the EU needs to put forward the basis of a global project to incorporate various dimensions from both sides into it. I see the EU policy towards Lebanon and the region in general as being too timid. It lacks stamina. Like in a hospital where you have proper food but it is not appetizing food. This is the problem with Europe at the state level, not at the people level.

The United States has a partnership with the Gulf States and with Israel, and they are now in Iraq.

WSN: America and Israel do not always have the same interests in the region.

Samir Frangieh: The interests of Israel towards Iran are not the interests of the United States, or if similar in essence, there are significant differences at other levels.

On the other hand, the US policy in Lebanon is more distinct than the one towards Iraq. I remember that the American journalists kept asking: How will the elections in Iraq influence Lebanon? It's a surreal question. In Lebanon, we have had elections for decades now, and it is not something new for us. We developed the democracy we have here in Lebanon internally. It did not come from outside. Furthermore, the Lebanese love to cast their vote. If we'd have elections every day, they would go every day to express their opinions. You cannot keep them in the house when it’s election time - political or in any other area. The elections for parent committees in a school will be carried out with as much passion and force as if they would determine the fate of the United States. You know about the university elections, so that is not a problem we have.

Now we have two major leanings in the region. One is in the spirit of March 14 and the other one in the spirit of March 8. I said once on TV that we consider Khatami (Mohammad Khatami, former Iranian President) to be more on the side of March 14, and Ahmadinejad more with March 8.

We have thus far the moderate claim of democracy in the Arab world. The regimes have problems on a national front, with their extremists and then we have the Israeli politics that did not chance.

WSN: Please continue your idea about the Israeli policies.

Samir Frangieh: In Israel, you have those who want peace and those who want war. Israel has become too much like its neighbors, and this is not necessarily positive. The part which wants peace is not the strongest one in Israel right now, while the other lacks a crystallized project and solutions. There is too much polarization in the Israeli political arena, and the administration of their society is not an easy task. They have the Russian Jews, many of whom do not speak the language, who have grown up in a different type of society, and they brought to Israel a different set of problems that were not there when the state was formed. Certainly there is a role for the Americans and Europeans to play along the Mediterranean. The role the Lebanese can play in this region is crucial. Through our experience and socio-political and economic culture, we can be the necessary locomotive in the Arab world. But not before we solve our internal problems.

WSN: Thank you.