Interview with Gibran Bassil, Political Officer of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM)

Posted in Broader Middle East | 05-Nov-07 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

WSN: When did you join the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM)?

GIBRAN BASSIL: Actually I was involved in the army in 1989, enrolled as a volunteer. I was studying engineering at the time, but I still managed to find time to go and help the army. After General Aoun left, in the first few years we were all lost and everyone acted alone in his or her university and town. Separate groups were not connected with each other. In 1993, I went to Paris where I met the general for the first time. I went at Christmas. I preferred to spend one hour with him instead of spending it with my family. I was so anxious to see him. He introduced me to some people in Lebanon so when I came back I started to work with them.

In 1996 I went to the FPM congress that was held in Paris. From 1993 – 1996 we formed a group called the Green Lebanon. We needed environmental issues as a pretext to meet because we were not allowed to do so. We went to the congress and after that we became more organized. It wasn’t much, but we started to know each other, to form groups in the regions and we went through several phases of organization. I was responsible for the Batroun region. I was the secretary of the movement, later on I was responsible for political contacts and in 1998 I ran for the first time in the municipality elections. I ran again in 2004 and in 2005 participated in the legislative elections. I won the election in my region but I lost in the bigger district - because of the law. You know the story of the law. My colleagues and I were supposed to win but because of the law and due to the falsifications in the electoral process, we did not win. We contested the results in front of the Constitutional Court and should have won.

WSN: But you still did not win?

GB: That’s right. The government dissolved the court. This is democracy in Lebanon. You have gerrymandered law, still you win in your district and you signal the many abnormalities of the process, which were very obvious and no one could neglect them. You have the right to be a member of parliament and you go to the Constitutional Court and they find a way to dissolve it.

WSN: What is the FPM’s position toward the presidential elections and did you meet the March 14 representatives for negotiations?

GB: In Lebanon everyone can have contact with everybody, but we cannot talk of a serious dialog. You know the main problem, but there are many aspects of the problem. The main one is in that in Lebanon we have what you call a consensual democracy, which means that no group or confession can be neglected. In 2005 the Shia chose the speaker, and the Sunnis did so for Siniora and the Mustaqbal, the Christians voted around 70% for our movement but when it is to elect a president, the others refuse. The Mustaqbal are refusing and this is in the context of marginalizing the Christians. The reason is that they want to use Lebanon as a satellite for other Arab countries. Not only do they want to have a Sunni regime, but they also want a Hariri royal-style regime. This is the reality. This is why they don't accept a strong president. The other aspect is to have the implantation of the Palestinians. When you have a regime that is willing to accept the Palestinians, this is the biggest strike to the country. For many reasons we cannot accept it: For economic reasons, geographical reasons as well as demographic reasons.

Lebanon is the smallest country in the region with the highest density population per square meter, the least resources and a high rate of unemployment. We cannot have 10% of our population at one time naturalized in Lebanon. Imagine having 6 million people naturalized in France or 28 million in the US. This is not possible. If the international community wants to help us they should talk with us and find a solution for the refugees instead of spending money for the Nahr el Bared refugees. Let spread them in all the countries where they can have a good living and jobs. This should not affect their right to return to Palestine. But Lebanon alone cannot bear this huge load. So I’m linking this issue to the above one because if you have a strong president he cannot allow this project to transform the country merely into a satellite and to have all the Palestinians here.

Restoring the internal equilibrium and a new electoral law would give a new spirit to democracy. We don't have democracy now in the country. After the withdrawal of the Syrians, we were supposed to restore our democracy as we restored our independence. Can you imagine a more biased law and a more biased electoral process than what we have at the moment, and to top it all off a government seized by foreign forces?

For 15 years we had the Syrian problem but this was also due to the encouragement it had from the internal parties. The same parties took advantage of the new hegemony of several other countries in Lebanon, and they are still implementing the same tools and the same policy. Only a strong president, when I say strong he must be representative, and most importantly he must be clean and have a real anti-corruption policy.

You cannot build a state with corruption. With these people, the Hariri style corruption is ruining everything. You cannot build a country only with money and petrodollars. Maybe you can have monopoly in some business districts and even this is fought all over the world.

But to have a monopoly in politics as well, to try to control people with money, to bring them to a certain level of need and poverty where your money is a necessity for them... This is what happened in Lebanon.

Lebanon was famous for its middle class. The largest portion of the population was in the middle class, little rich and little poor. This is what a society should look like. Now the middle class has almost been eliminated and we are left with a majority of poor people and a minority of rich ones. This situation is used as a political tool to control the people.

WSN: Are you saying that corruption is that generalized in the country?

GB: What I want to say is that corruption is not only touching the institutions, hindering privatization in certain sectors but it is also reaching the people and they become prisoners. This is not Lebanon. If you have such a monopoly by a certain group and confession, then the country is headed for disaster. We cannot bear it any longer. If you don't solve this internal issue you cannot deal with the external aspect of the crisis. Here we have the relationship with Syria, the Palestinian crisis and the Israeli conflict with Lebanon. When you don't have a stable country with a strong state to face Syria, Israel who can talk to Hizbollah from a strong position to solve the matter peacefully...this is the issue. So instead of integrating Hizbollah into the state we reach the level of internal conflict.

WSN: You were talking about the international community. Do you have any particular expectations of the European Union and the United States?

GB: Our expectations are minimal. All that we need from them is not to interfere in our internal affairs.

WSN: Are they interfering at present?

GB: Is it too much to ask? They backed us to regain our independence, and that is very good because the Syrians left. They can assure us that Israel will not attack Lebanon, and they can help us solve the Shebaa Farms issue. If they wish to help us regarding these issues as well as help us economically, that would be great.

But no one can give support to an internal party in such a way that this party does not fell the need anymore to engage in dialog with you. He does not feel the need to talk to you internally.

Half the population of Lebanon demonstrated and the Siniora government didn’t resign. Why? Because it has international support. The international community should have told them that they would stop backing them if they don't reach an agreement with us. To treat us as equals. This is a non-constitutional government when you have the Shias resigning from it.

WSN: But I hear they are still working in their own ministries.

GB: Still this government should resign. A government that was contested in the streets by half of the population – how can it stay in place? Its anti-constitutional, it has no legitimacy – in the preamble of the constitution it is written that there is no power for any institution that does not respect coexistence in Lebanon. A whole confession resigning is not coexistence.

WSN: Who is helping the FPM and Hizbollah?

GB: It is known and Hizbollah doesn’t deny that it is backed by Iran financially, by Syria and maybe by others as well. No one backs the FPM. We are independent. This gives us the advantage of being able to talk to anyone without being his or her puppet. Frankly speaking, we don't have relations with Syria at all, but we think we can talk to them. We were able to confront them when they were in the country. Now that they have left we have been able to come up with a policy, with a vision on how to build a neighborly relationship.

WSN: Did the Syrians really leave?

GB: Let me tell you, the Syrian army and intelligence services have definitely left Lebanon. But in terms of political influence, let me ask you: Do you think Saudi Arabia does not have influence in Lebanon? Do you think the US, France or Iran do not have influence in Lebanon?

Culturally we have closer ties to the US, not only we at the FPM, but the Christians in general in Lebanon. But does this mean that we have to accept a policy imposed on us that touches our existence? Nobody can threaten that we will be banned from any recognition if we don't align with a policy that is not convenient to us. If the Christians have affection towards the US this cannot be used against us. We have contacts with the Iranian Embassy. We never go to their embassy. They come to Rabieh. The Iranian ambassador knows well the limit with the general. He can never ask something that is a pure internal matter that can touch our independence. The same goes for France and the United States. We want them all to respect our internal policy and to respect us. This is how we protect Lebanon. We can take into consideration the interests of others but not at the expense of our national interest. We want calm at the Israeli border, not to have weapons getting from Syria here, to respect the international resolutions and to basically adopt a platform that respects the international community and our independence.

WSN: Talking about the weapons. Is it true that the FPM is also arming?

GB: You know it is the others, because they used militias before and this is the way they think they can protect themselves. We in the FPM come from the army and we feel that the army can be there to have control on the ground. But what happened with us in the past two years; many times we were attacked and nobody protected us. Not even morally. Not the judicial system. Not the religious references, nor the people in terms of saying that we are the victims and the others the aggressors. When you put the aggressors and victims on equal terms, this is not fair towards the people that were attacked. We are obliged to protect ourselves. If someone were to break into my house now, yes I have a weapon to protect myself. But I will not use it outside to attack somebody.

WSN: We talked about the elections. Have you agreed on a presidential candidate with Hizbollah?

GB: We in the FPM have General Aoun. The others did not agree on a candidate. So far, they have Boutros Harb, Nassib Lahoud, Robert Ghanem and everyone knows that Geagea and Amine Gemayel want to be candidates. I hope they'll agree on one person soon, to have two candidates and see where the support of the people goes. You can tell me now that the parliament elects the president. The issue is that the constitutional court did not validate this parliament until now. 11 seats out of 128 are contested. That flipped the majority from one side to the other. Nothing was done with the parliament to be validated and accepted. Now they want to keep things like this until they can bring in their own president - definitely an employee, a political employee of Hariri. This cannot be accepted.

WSN: And if they manage to bring in their own candidate as president?

GB: Let's not suppose it because they don't have one, but even so in Lebanon there is a constitution like in any republic. It is very clear with respect to the presidency. There must be the two-thirds attending. This is the right of the minority to use, if it does not want to attend. Like what happened in Turkey. They went to anticipated elections. We’ve told them for two years now that we have to have another election. Either you take into account the results of the Christian vote as a basis for your dialog with us, or if you don't accept it, fine, let us go to new elections. If you say that we lost popularity, no problem. Beat us in a democracy and we will accept it. Is there a flaw in logic here?

Neither they nor we have total control in parliament. Let's have elections and go together to the parliament. Let's go to election in government. To fill any vacancy that can occur. They refused. Now we are left only with the possibility of agreeing on a president. To agree on a president you have to convince us that we need to attend the session. If they say that they don't need the 2/3 and they will vote with any majority, any portion of the parliament that means they go against the constitution. It’s possible. Then we won't let this president rule the country or go to Baabda Palace, or let the Siniora government rule the country. At that time we will have our own measures to take.

WSN: What do you think of this chain of assassinations? Who may be behind them and why isn't the army and the intelligence able to protect the Lebanese?

GB: This is what is weird about it. You have all the intelligence services in Lebanon with the eyes wide open on Syria. Yet nobody discovers anything. Is Syria that strong? Is Syria that smart? They are neither that smart nor that strong. If they are the ones doing the assassinations, then the Lebanese should have some confirmation. If Syria is doing it to hinder the elections, this means that they are pushing us towards civil war. Should we go to civil war? Clearly we have to avoid it. We should not implement the wishes of the murderers. Also who is benefiting? We have the involvement of the international tribunal and the Security Council. We are not the ones to benefit. The FPM has been under high pressure and criticism every time such a crime is committed. So we are the ones that are having the real losses.

WSN: I appreciate your input. Thank you.