An interview with Samah Idriss
Samah Idriss speaks about the May 2008 Lebanese crisis.
Can you please describe the current situation in Lebanon? The alleged most immediate causes for the opposition taking its last actions have been the threat on the resistance communications network and the destitution of Mr Shuqayr. In your opinion, could there be other political or other factors determining the opposition initiative?
The most immediate reason for the last crisis is indeed linked to the two unwise decisions adopted by the Sanyoura government: to deligitimize Hizbullah’s communication network; and to destitute Mr Shuqayr, a close ally to Hizbullah who would be able to report to the latter on any “suspicious” movement at the airport.
The telecommunications system is not just one part of Hizbullah’s weapons; it is probably the most important of these at all. Indeed the Israeli Vinograde report traces Hizballah’s steadfastness in 2006 to that system, thanks to which military communications between the party’s cadres and leadership cannot be intercepted or decoded. The government’s decision was, therefore, rightly deemed by Nasrallah as an immediate attack against Hizballah’s arms. One could argue (as I do), in view of the ensuing internal conflict, that Hizballah’s recent use of (light and mid-range) arms in Beirut and the mountain area to defend a much more important arm (the telecommunication grid) was not the smartest or the least harmful tactics. Nevertheless one should never dismiss the severity of those two decisions taken by the government, as they seem to go in line with many attempts in the past years to disarm the resistance.
Do you think the last events can also be read from a wider regional and/or global perspective? That is, how is the situation in Lebanon affected by increasing international (and especially US) pressure on Iran?
The recent events are indeed part of a wider conflict between the American-West European-Israeli axis on the one hand, and the Syrian-Iranian axis on the other. However, local aspirations and resistances in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, should not be dismissed; any attempt at reducing the conflicts in these countries to a global or even regioanl dispute avoids the root of the problem, which is foreign occupation (Israeli in Lebanon and Palestine, and American in Iraq). Regional aid, whether from Syria or Iran or both, helps those resistances achieve their goals (as witnessed by the Israeli withdrawl from Lebanon in May 2000), albeit at the expense of some measure of independence. Only a popular, intelligent, and devoted local leadership would be able to balance the positive and negative aspects of any regional intervention (but that is a different subject altogether).
The US has been trying hard to disarm Hizballah for at least four years. They first tried to do that through UN Resolution 1559 (2004), but the Lebanese opposition at the time (now in the government) was too weak to enforce that resolution politically and through legislation. Later, Israel and the US decided to impose it militarily through the July 2006 war, but they failed too. When these attempts failed, they tried to push pro-government forces in Lebanon to de-legitimize Hizballah’s heavy weapons by, first, deligitimizing the telecommunication network. Once this is done, pro-governmnet forces would then proceed to deligitimize the other arms (rockets,…). This is, in my view, the context in which we ought to understand the two decisions taken by the government.
On May 7 there was a call by the CGTL for a national strike, which was eventually cancelled. Some commentators are now saying that the opposition has used the trade unions for its own political purposes. Could you comment on that?
There is an acute economic crisis in Lebanon. The CGTL asked for an increase in minmum wages from LL 450,000 (300USD) to 900,000, but the government only offered LL500,000—a ridiculous increase indeed. Having said that, one ought to admit that the opposition did exploit the trade unions’ economic demands and the CGTL itself to the detriment of the workers’ movement as a whole. What the opposition did recently in my opinion was an act of highjacking, in line with its old-time lack of interest in any socio-economic program. With the gradual weakening of the Lebanese Left (not part of the current opposition), and the containment of CGTL by some sectarian movements within the opposition, workers demands, which should be the cornerstone of any substantial change in Lebanon, were marginalized.
Most of the mainstream Western media is presenting the latest events as a sectarian clash between Muslim Sunnis and Muslim Shiites. Could you give us another key to interpret the last crisis?
The mainstream media, not only in the West but also in the Arab world, have indeed focused on the sectarian aspect of the recent events in Lebanon. Closely associated with the ruling classes, the official Arab media needed to de-legitimize Hizballah (which commands high popularity within the Arab masses) by portraying it as a shiite existential threat to the sunnis; such an attempt, however, seems to have failed.
It is true that Hizballah is a sectarian party; its agenda and constituency are both religious and sectarian by and large. Nevertheless, there is more to Hizballah than mere sectarianism: It is also a resistance movement, that is smart, well-trained, and dedicated. Contrary to all the other resistance movements in the Arab world, Hizballah was able to achieve concrete victories: Driving the Israeli Army out of Lebanon in May 2000, liberating thousands of Arab prisoners, and resisting a devastating Israeli invasion in 2006. Hizballah’s weakest point is its sectarian aspect; and this is what all its opponents (in Lebanon and abroad) try to exploit.
How would you describe what Hizballah is and represents to a foreign and non-Arab audience?
The Western mainstream media outlets try to portray Hizballah as a fundamentalist terrorist group. As with any other movement that is NOT allied with the Western powers, those outlets have created of Hizballah a monster that threatens “western values” (democracy, equality, peace,…). They intentionally erase all differences beween Hizballah and Al-Qa’ida in order to justify western intervention and continuous aid to Israel and Arab allies. Very little is mentioned in these outlets about the popularity of Hizballah and Hamas, about the social services they offer, and about the Israeli history of aggression that brought them into existence in the first place. Meanwhile, those outlets keep silent about fundamentalist regimes like the Saudi autocracy, which are socially no less reactionary than Hizballah or Hamas, but are politically supportive of US plans in the region.
What could be the role played by civil society in the current context?
The challenge to those of us who are neither sectarian nor neo-liberal is to help transform the resistance movements into national liberation movements. To do that, one should emphasize the other aspects of national liberation that do not necessarily exist in the current resistance movements, such as the values of citizenship and secularism. Furthermore, the notion of resistance itself needs to be widened to incorporate other tools of national liberation, such as boycott, divestment, and the call for a wider representation of youth and women