Interview with Sami Nader, professor at St. Joseph University in Beirut, a former Aounist (member of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of General Michel Aoun) and a finance expert.

Posted in Broader Middle East | 14-Sep-07 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

"It's a continuous struggle with Syria. Syria considers Lebanon to be part of the historic Syria."

The following interview by WSN’s Manuela Paraipan is with Sami Nader, professor at St. Joseph University in Beirut, a former Aounist (member of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of General Michel Aoun) and a finance expert.

WSN: How do you see Lebanon's present situation?

Sami Nader: The main course for us is to take Lebanon out of the Syrian orbit and this was the case since the inception of Lebanon.

It's a continuous struggle with Syria. The Arab Baath regime ideologically considers Lebanon to be part of the historic Syria.

WSN: The Greater Syria?

Sami Nader: Yes. They consider Lebanon to be a part of Syria, but historically this is actually not the case. Since our independence we have been through several crises. And every time we had a political crisis with Syria, Syria tried to go over the border in order to hush us up. In the early 1970s when we had the Palestinian camps armed, Syria helped to arm and train the Palestinians inside the camps. They admit this and there is a famous speech made by Hafez al Assad made at the University of Damascus in 1976. He admitted that they have been financing and controlling the military army of the Palestinians and that they succeeded in meddling in Lebanese affairs.

After helping the Palestinian militia they wanted to help the Christians, then they fooled the Christians and allied with the Shias.

From 1992 to 2005, we were under total Syrian control. During this period Hizbollah got to this dimension. The group did not exist before 1982. It is an emanation of Islamic Amal. It became influential only after the strategic alliance between Syria and Iran. Syria is the bridge between Hizbollah and Iran. Cut the bridge and Hizbollah would lose a lot of clout. The problem now is that Hizbollah is kidnapping the whole Shia community, and this is really a source of change in Islam and in Lebanon.

It's a young population, is increasingly more educated and in terms of Islamic ideology, they are open to change and they have a large leeway for interpretation of the Koran and this is why in terms of orthodoxy they are more open. However, now they are completely controlled by the Iranian militia. Why? Because the Lebanese government was absent from the South during all this era. First, this area was not historically in the heart of Lebanon. Lebanon is a young country and a young republic. Secondly, during the last 40 years and because of the Syrian interference, the government was not allowed to reestablish its sovereignty. Thirdly, we have an internal war. So this part of the country was totally neglected. Hizbollah is provider of social and economic services and because it has brandished this myth of fighting Israel and this is kind of a holy theme in the Muslim culture.

WSN: How did this culture develop?

Sami Nader: Mainly because of the financial support they got from Iran. One has to say that before this, Musa Sadr was a charismatic and very Lebanese leader. His alternative was to develop this area and fight Israel but when you compare Hizbollah and Musa Sadr's formula, the latter was more inclined to support a civil state. He did not promote a religious, Islamic Lebanon.

WSN: Is Hizbollah promoting an Islamic state?

Sami Nader: At first it was a Christian free state but they were forced to get into politics and get into elections, so they went less radical. But at its inception, Hizbollah was very radical. We have some recordings of Sheikh Nasrallah saying that the Crusaders implanted the Christians and their presence is not natural and this foreign body has to be removed. This was at the beginning. Afterwards, politics rounded the edges. Still we have this fear of Hizbollah promoting and working to establish an Islamic Lebanon. After all, they are like Iran. For them it is a matter of strategy and tactics now. They do not want to say it loudly for now because they know they cannot pull it off, but the day they can, they will. This is what I believe. The day they have the opportunity to make it, they won't hesitate.

WSN: What is the core of the present crisis?

Sami Nader: We have two projects. On the one side you have the government:

Lazy, not working well but it represents Lebanon's sovereignty. And then we have the other project: The resistance. They want to fight Israel even if they must do so alone. In 2002 at the Arab summit in Beirut, the Arab countries made the strategic decision to initiate a peace process under the auspices of land for peace. Since 2000, this is the official strategy of the Arab countries. Then this party came and announced unilaterally a war against Israel and initiated unilaterally in 2006 the war against Israel. But it's very cunning.

When you fight Israel, in every Arab mind they are with you. It is true that in every Muslim somewhere you have a Bin Laden. This is the way they are fighting Israel. But things are changing today. Mainly because the Sunnis after the assassination of Hariri felt really betrayed. Plus there is the rising of Sunni/Shia conflict.

WSN: Is Hizbollah still popular on the Sunni street?

Sami Nader: Hizbollah is not popular anymore among this population even if it is fighting Israel. At one moment I witnessed something very strange in Lebanon. In the Sunni street, which means genuinely anti-semitic, anti-Israel religiously politically and ideologically, I heard people claiming that Israel smashes Hizbollah. Hizbollah became arrogant because of the rising Sunni/Iranian problem and because of Syria. No one in Lebanon likes Syria, not even Hizbollah. Syria succeeded in fighting all the communities in Lebanon. It is true that Syria and Shias are allies, but they are not friends. The Shia know that Iran brokered a deal with Syria. The bottom line is that we have two projects. One is promoted by Iran and Syria for different reasons but this project is called unilateral confrontation with Israel. The other one, promoted by March 14, which was a terrific day in Lebanon, supports the idea of an independent, sovereign Lebanon in solidarity with the Arab world.

WSN: In this context what is likely to happen next?

Sami Nader: I will not be surprised to have in one way or another, two governments or two states. Actually today we have a hidden state, which is the Hizbollah state.

WSN: In the South you mean?

Sami Nader: In the South and the Beqaa. They have their own army, own finance, now they are building a communication network; they have their own project, which is different from my project. So it is an undeclared state but it is one. What makes a state a state? If you set aside the fact that some countries recognize it and some do not, it's a state.

WSN: What do you think about the MoU ( Memorandum of Understanding)?

What is the strategy behind it?

Sami Nader: It's a tactical move from Aoun to block the 14 March camp because they did not back him up to promote his candidature. That is why he is losing a lot of ground. He used to be supported by 70% of the Christians.

WSN: I know you have been with the Free Patriotic Movement. Could you say few words about it?

Sami Nader: I was part of the Aounist movement and I left because they changed and because of this alliance they stroke with Hizbollah. I found it counter-natural; it's in a way a betrayal of the original cause we have been fighting for. We have always said that Hizbollah being armed is unconstitutional because we always believe that one state should only have one army. With this understanding, this alliance they stroke has betrayed this very important principle.

Sovereign countries cannot tolerate two armies, whatever you say.

Whether they are right in what they are fighting for you cannot tolerate two armies under one state.

It is true that the party is gaining in popularity amongst the Shia and maybe what it loses among the Christians it is gaining with the Shias. This is not what we have been fighting for. So I distance myself from them and now I work as an independent more close to 14 of March.

WSN: What can you tell me about the March 14 movement?

Sami Nader: The 14 March, the Beirut spring was really fantastic. Because of the Syrian control the country was kind of separated into different sects. During this Beirut spring you saw how communities came together saying that they want independence. The process was called independence 05. In a way I feel I still belong to this spirit. The party I was in was the core of this process. Then the political bargaining and arrangements came because of political interests.

Aoun's real intention was to strike a deal with Hizbollah in order to block the government. The alliance is not genuine. The Christians have sanctioned it. The Christians are not following Aoun as they used to.

Now he keeps control of some constituencies because people did not like Christian militias, because they wanted the army in control, and he was a general of the army so he got all the credit for being someone not in a militia, not from the corrupt political class. He was a symbol of sovereignty and freedom.

WSN: Is it loyalty towards a person?

Sami Nader: Loyalty towards a symbol of non-corruption, of the Lebanese state, of a strong army etc. His motto was liberation.

The main theme that we don't agree on, they consider now that Syria is out of the country and we have a normal relationship with it. But this is totally insane. Syria did not leave the country. They are still promoting, supporting and financing some political parties, and even the military. They still support armies like Fatah al Islam in the camps. So Syria did not leave the country and this is very important.

Before we say that things must go back to normal, I don't say they have to compensate all the destruction they have caused, but they have to exchange ambassadors to recognize us as an independent country. We have to reach an understanding for the borders. You remember the Shebaa farms? This is a Syrian territory. The UN says it's Syrian. Now they say it's Lebanese and till now we don't have a written document from the Syrians allowing us to go to the UN and say that we want Israel to leave our land and take out Hizbollah's main rationale for fighting Israel. Up until the year 2000, whether you like it or not - and I did not like it - Hizbollah would say that a part of the country was occupied and they have a legitimate reason for resistance.

In 1996, the Israelis wanted to withdraw through negotiations. But let's say until the year 2000 it was legitimate. Afterwards this was not the case anymore.

WSN: Why keep this front open?

Sami Nader: This front was used either by Syria as a negotiation card or by Iran. This is the way for Iran to put pressure on America because now they have direct contact with the US. And it's the best way to mobilize the Arab world around it. What is uniting Muslims is the desire to fight Israel.

WSN: What is Lebanon's current economic situation, spanning from corruption to all the other issues?

Sami Nader: The political class is corrupt. Up until the early 1970s, the country was in a way a rich country. Lebanon got the benefit of all the excess cash. Another factor of success was the fact that we are the only Arab country with a liberal, open economy and free trade. In my opinion, it is not liberal enough. All the other Arab states are state-controlled economies. For example, look at Dubai. It is in the process of opening up. Due to the excess of cash, the political system etc we were well positioned for an economy inflow. Still, our fundamentals were not strong enough and we are still dragging. Our productivity is low because we did not invest in productive projects and infrastructure. We import more than we export. However, our monetary balance is in excess because we have more currency entering the country than leaving it. We have a high-performance banking sector. The banks secrecy worked very well. Any Arab could come and open an account in Lebanon without being known.

In the 1980s we started borrowing and then came Hariri. The problem with Hariri is that he made a wrong bet. He started investing in the country borrowing at high interest rates because no one believed in Lebanon at that time. The wrong bet was to borrow and invest in the country on the assumption that peace would come and we would recover the debt. But peace did not come. Hariri could have been a huge chance for Lebanon because of his connections and business ties. He could not succeed in overcoming a corrupt political class or to free himself from the Syrians who were making a profit on every dollar spent in the country.

The move did not succeed. So we have an increasing debt and it's one part of the problem. We have a huge debt compared to our national GDP.

Our GDP is approximately US $20 billion and the debt is more than US $40 billion with the ratio being one of the highest in the world. We still have a lot of capabilities and strategic assets. We have a rich and successful Diaspora, we have a geo-strategic position in the Middle East, a legal framework and a relatively friendly business environment when compared to state-controlled economies. So we do have some resources and some capabilities that we can use to encourage the economy to recover.

WSN: What about the money Lebanon obtained from Paris 3?

Sami Nader: Let's talk about Paris 2, which was more important than Paris 1.

The conference was a success but its implementation was not. A lot of money was coming to Lebanon. The problem with Paris 2 was that people gave money but the money was not invested in productive projects. They have been kept in banks. And in one way or another we recycled as treasury bonds. The effect on the interest rates has been very interesting and we could reach benefit from it. It lowered the interest and this is a positive aspect but not enough. Now they learned from Paris 3 that the $7 billion is subject to real economic reforms. The projects are now combined with conditions of reforms and specific productive projects.

WSN: Who came up with the projects? Both the state and the private sectors?

Sami Nader: Yes. Some countries can help with electricity – to renew our electricity infrastructure. Others will help the agriculture and so on. They have signaled out productive projects but the money is not free before they get the reforms implemented. $7.8 billion were promised but we really have only $337 million because the parliament is blocked. We cannot continue like this. Some of us want resistance and resistance necessitates an economic system specially designed for an income. You cannot say you want economic development and go with such political projects. Either you want the economy of Gaza or you want Dubai.

We cannot go for war and hope for economic welfare. The cost of the July war was unbelievable for us. It brought us 20 years back in time.

We were heading towards peace but Syria brought upon us anything but peace. They want this country to be an open state for wars. For economic development we have to make the right choices in politics and foreign policy. We need a vision of democracy, freedom and sovereignty.

Manuela Paraipan, WSN Editor "Broader Middle East", reports from Lebanon.