Minister for Information Tarek Mitri: "Muslims believe that they have been humilated by a powerful West"
During my fact-finding stay in Beirut, I had the opportunity to meet many ordinary Lebanese people as well as people in high-ranking political offices. One of them is the Minister for Information, Tarek Mitri, who was the acting Foreign Minister after the war in Lebanon in 2006. He played a vital role in the negotiations leading to the ceasefire agreement. His answers to my questions provide a good insight into the complexity of Lebanese politics.
Manuela Paraipan: In 2006 you were acting Foreign Minister and the special envoy to the UN during the July war. Looking back at that experience, what were the crucial moments that you remember for both you and Lebanon? And why did it take so long for your task to ask for a ceasefire to be successful?
Tarek Mitri: Let me start with the second question. From day one we asked for a ceasefire. We went to Rome and asked for a ceasefire, but the Americans said that the conditions for a durable one were not there.
This was the leitmotif that I heard in New York. They were originally hoping to draft a resolution that would address the root cause of the problem, as they put it, but then they thought the time was not ripe for such a resolution.
Our position has always been to support a ceasefire with no conditions, and then whatever we agree upon, in respect to the international, multinational force, it will come later. We did not actually get the ceasefire. We got the cessation of hostilities with a series of conditions that would make the ceasefire a lasting one.
Manuela Paraipan: Going back to my first question.
Tarek Mitri: Although my country was a victim of the Israeli aggression it has been portrayed as the aggressor, simply because Hizballah had crossed the Blue Line. True, Hizballah did cross the line, but the Lebanese government has clearly stated that it neither was informed nor did it condone this action of Hizballah’s.
I saw my job as trying to redress the situation, by making it clear that Lebanon is a country that has always respected the international legality and my government could not be held responsible for what happened in the south. This was not a war against Hizballah as Israeli claimed; it was a war against Lebanon.
The second most difficult part of the task was when both the French and the Americans came with the first draft of UN Resolution 1701. We have had problems with that draft. France was coordinating with us, listening to our position and trying to accommodate our sensitivity. However, after their negotiations with the Americans they came to us with a totally unacceptable draft.
Manuela Paraipan: Why unacceptable?
Tarek Mitri: There was no clear reference to a full stop of the military operations, a distinction they were making between defensive and offensive operations. They wanted to give Israel the right to continue its defensive operations, and those of us who know the history of Israel know that every war that Israel started was supposedly a defensive war. The concept of defensive war is in Israel very elastic, and this is something we could not accept. Also, we could not accept that the resolution made no reference to Shebaa Farms. The earlier draft of the resolution wanted to send an international force under chapter VII. We wanted the role of UNIFIL to be enhanced and we were kind of in favor of an international force under chapter VI plus, but not VII.
Manuela Paraipan: Why were you against chapter VII?
Tarek Mitri: In Lebanon that would have been perceived as a military intervention rather than a peacemaking, peacekeeping force and it would have been resisted. We would have gone from one war to another one.
These were two very difficult moments: To redress the perception that the war with Israel was not against one organization, but one country. Now you hear them say that they did not break the bones of Lebanon, that they did not bomb the infrastructure, electricity plants etc. Well yes, they spared some, but they destroyed bridges, buildings and the country as a whole.
The second moment was when we expressed our reservations about what was drafted. Things improved after that. We are a small nation, we know we cannot get everything we want from a UN Security Council resolution, and 1701 is a compromise, but it did accommodate the Lebanese requests to the best of what was possible at the time.
Manuela Paraipan: In 1989 and in 2008 the political leadership looked to the Taif Agreement in Saudi Arabia and respectively to Doha in Qatar, in order to save the country from darker times. Why do the Lebanese go outside the country to solve their problems or at the very least to pretend to do so? Is Lebanon not good enough for them? Can't they manage to solve their own issues?
Tarek Mitri: They can and there were occasions when they did, but it so happens that in both of these situations the Lebanese leaders had to go outside. Most likely for two reasons Firstly, with the Taif Agreement it had to do with the pertaining security situation. You could not bring the parliament to meet. When they tried to meet, there were people shooting at them from all places. Secondly, when we went to Doha we needed a party to provide security for all to be able to move. I remember that the road to the airport was closed. Had it not been for the Qataris and all their relations, traveling out of Lebanon and coming back would not have been possible.
You have these reasons, and you have the fact that you need the good offices, in times of crises, of some third party. However, this is only one part of the answer.
The other is that Lebanon's conflict and tensions have more than one dimension. They are often local in their origin, implications and effects on our lives; they crystallize around issues like power sharing. This is what the Taif was all about. Doha too was in a way about power-sharing, national unity government and electoral law, but also about putting an end to violence. The price is paid here, the effects are here and the actors are Lebanese. Be that as it may, most of these conflicts have both an international dimension and an Arab dimension. Sometimes this dimension exacerbates the local aspects. A perception that some Lebanese, maybe many, I don't know, developed is that the country is a battleground for all forces.
When the Iranian president says that he will fight the United States in Lebanon, some find it acceptable. When the Syrian president offers his opinion about Tripoli, again some find it acceptable. There is this perception that Lebanon is the place where other people’s wars - regional or international - unfold. Conflicts invite foreign intervention, and thus peace making, although not the same people intervene in both cases, but that is what happens when you are a battleground.
In Doha, the Qataris were talking with the Iranians, Americans, Syrians, Russians, Chinese, Romanians maybe... they were offering the good offices together with the eight members of the Arab committee on behalf of the Arab and international community. It is unfortunate that the Lebanese are not able to solve their problems within their own institutions.
Manuela Paraipan: The political institutions did not work at that time.
Tarek Mitri: We had a parliament that was locked, and the key was thrown into the well. Governments and cabinets are formed and they receive either a confidence or no-confidence vote in parliament; they fall in parliament like everywhere else, but when the parliament does not function and the presidency is vacant because the parliament was locked, then the system is not able to generate solutions for the crisis on its own.
Somehow you need to invent, to do it yourself outside the norms of the institutions. In the cabinet statement we have a paragraph - and we had much discussion about it - that the Doha Accord was an exceptional agreement in an exceptional situation, and it should not become the rule but remain the exception.
This incredible situation emerged in respect to the share of the seats in the cabinet. This is unprecedented. I have never seen this anywhere in the world, and it made it extremely difficult for the cabinet to be formed. It took Premier Siniora two months of talks with the right, left and center, and the classical norms were left outside.
Manuela Paraipan: What exactly happened?
Tarek Mitri: The prime minister goes to the president with a list of names and they agree. This time, because of the quota that was established in Doha, there were people that thought they had the right to name the ministers because they were given the number of ministers. In fact, the eleven cabinet members who are part of the opposition were not chosen by the prime minister and the president; they were named by the opposition. This is a very strange and unusual way to form a cabinet, and I hope it is the first and the last time to do so and that we will return to normal procedures.
Manuela Paraipan: If you allow me to build on what you just said, is the power sharing the main cause for the collapse of the political system various stages?
Tarek Mitri: There are two different problems, but those two problems are intertwined and maybe that's the difficulty. The power sharing problem is a Lebanese problem. It is a local problem that has to do with the system, with reforming the system. In democracies the system is reformed from within, there are rules to follow.
Lebanon being a battleground for others is a distinct problem, but they become intertwined when there are forces in Lebanon who for reasons pertaining to their domestic objectives draw strength and support from outside. So local actors use foreign forces to advance the domestic agenda, and vice versa, foreign forces use local forces to drive their own agenda. This complication has a long history.
When I say that we should restore Lebanon's independence and sovereignty, these are not absolute terms. Nevertheless, we should at least immunize the country from direct, daily interference in its affairs. The problem is that you cannot do that unless you have peace between all groups and communities so that they do not need to capitalize on support from outside. It has to do with fear.
Manuela Paraipan: Distrust as well?
Tarek Mitri: With both fear and distrust. Often those who call on foreign support do so in the name of fear, of being threatened by others or in the name of a cause that transcends the borders of Lebanon. Of course, we have a cause on which all Lebanese agree, that Lebanon should defend itself against Israel and Lebanon should be in solidarity with the Arab world in defending the rights of the Palestinians and seeking a just and durable peace.
This is the strategic objective upon which the Lebanese agree. Where they disagree is how to achieve this objective. There are those who'd like to see Lebanon with the Arab world, but without choosing one regime over the other, without being part of an axis of radical countries versus moderate ones, without taking sides; in solidarity but at the same time a country that contributes to unity not division.
Manuela Paraipan: Maybe as a neutral country?
Tarek Mitri: Not neutral, I would not go that far. There are people who support the idea, because of the country's social fabric, size, geography and history, but I don't think Lebanon can be neutral in that absolute sense of the word.
Lebanon is an Arab country, in solidarity with fellow Arabs that suffered from Israeli policy in the region and Lebanon is still under threat from Israel. Unless we reach a global peace agreement, the danger is there. The challenge is to find a way of limiting the use of the country as a bargaining chip by outside powers, limiting the use of non-state actors as surrogates and limiting - and I use the word knowing that a radical solution is not at hand - the partisan politics that one Arab country plays in relation to other countries.
Manuela Paraipan: As a scholar you wrote extensively about the Christian and Muslim relationship. What is it that the Christian-Western world - in form and rather secular in essence - fails to understand about Muslims, and what is it that the Islamic world is either not willing or not able to comprehend of the West?
Tarek Mitri: I make a separation between Christian and Muslim relations and the relationship between the Western world and Islamic countries. Christian-Muslim relations have to do with religion, history, memory, social habits, legal systems and sometimes with political identities.
Manuela Paraipan: This is all taking place at the people level then.
Tarek Mitri: The relationship between the West and the Muslim world has to do primarily with global perceptions, with the unachieved independence of the Muslim world, with the perceived hegemony of the West (which is cultural, political, hard power versus soft power) and also with the problems of Muslim communities in Western countries, mostly immigrant communities, but also local ones that have not been adequately solved.
Some of these communities did not achieve full integration or adaptation to societies they are part of, and they are perceived often by the majority as a security threat, as social misfits. All of these issues have been exacerbated since 9/11. When Americans asked, why do Muslims hate us? The Muslims too asked, why do the Westerners, and in particular, Americans hate us? They mirrored each other.
Furthermore, many in the West as in the Islamic world believe there are these two monolithic entities that fight each other.
Manuela Paraipan: Do you share the same opinion?
Tarek Mitri: I personally stand to contradict it. Both worlds are not monoliths and they are not at war with each other. You have countries at war with each other, political groups or individuals that don't like each other, but we are not in a scheme of war among religions or civilizations. This is too simple and too inaccurate to be taken seriously. The matter of perception here as elsewhere is very important.
Manuela Paraipan: Can you give an example?
Tarek Mitri: In the Muslim world, and I am not a Muslim myself, but I understand that Muslims have a deep sense of humiliation. They believe that since colonial times they have been humiliated by a powerful West. They have not recovered from this. This humiliation has been further aggravated in certain places, like in Palestine. I have heard Muslims say, how can we trust the West, if even the wall, the separation wall built by the Israelis, which everyone said was illegal, unacceptable and not conducive to peace, yet no one did anything, no one put pressure on Israel to change its behavior. Muslims all over the world, and there are over 1 billion felt humiliated by it, by the occupation of Jerusalem and they cannot do anything about it. There you introduce another aspect, the perception of humiliation and loss of power, of not being able to fight against humiliation. This breeds at times extremist attitudes. Islamic terrorist groups find fuel for their activism and this is a problem for the Muslims to sort out, and it’s a challenge for them. As for the West, I don't put blame on anyone; the blame is on all.
In a situation like this you cannot reduce one complex phenomenon to one dimension. I heard people saying that without Bush or Bin Laden we would not have these problems. I don't think so. If the events of September 11th hadn’t taken place, things would not have become so dramatic. But the seeds of the problem were already there.
Manuela Paraipan: Why is it that post-Doha you still have clashes in the country? Any particular reason?
Tarek Mitri: They are leftovers of the pre-Doha situation, but what is more important is that it looks as if we are able to contain these problems.
Manuela Paraipan: The national dialog just started. Any thoughts on that?
Tarek Mitri: It’s a beginning. It’s a good start, but only a beginning, nonetheless.
Manuela Paraipan: Let's do an exercise of imagination. How do you see Lebanon in ten years from now? Another Taif or Doha around the corner?
Tarek Mitri: I think the Taif Agreement was a rather comprehensive political reform, while Doha was an agreement that will last, so to speak, one year. It takes us through the elections. How I see Lebanon in a decade? I don't know. It’s hard to predict, but I don't see a chance for the country, ten years from now, without a workable democracy, a political system that generates solutions from within. If we'll have a third agreement, another Doha, it means Lebanon would be a failed state, would not be viable.
My hope is that we go back to normalcy. It is difficult, is going to take time, but at least we have to make sure we agree on the terms to move forward.
Manuela Paraipan: Thank you Minister.