past summer I traveled to Lebanon to network with activists in the
Palestinian camps and from Lebanon’s independent left. This
interview is from a discussion with Ghassan Makarem, who works on
a number of important projects in Beirut and covers Lebanese capitalism,
the history of the Lebanese left, the politics of solidarity, and
the possibilities for a bi-national solution in Palestine.
Could you introduce the projects and organizations
with which you’re involved?
MAKAREM: I work on
, a multi-tendency leftist magazine,
as well as with Beirut Indymedia and Helem, the only LGBT group
in the Arab world.
are the main political and economic features of Lebanese capitalism?
we want to understand Lebanese capitalism, we must look at two things,
the general condition of Lebanese capital and the role of Lebanon
as a tourist center.
capital is very much connected to international institutions and
to Arab capital. For instance, the spearhead of Lebanese capitalist
strategies is ex-Prime Minister Hariri [killed in a February explosion
in Beirut] who has business connections in Saudi Arabia, France,
and the United States. Lebanon is not a classic case of a comprador
system, but it is very close to it, especially since the late 1990s,
when Lebanon was forced to accept World Bank and IMF policies and
to join the WTO.
Lebanese economy is based on trade and services. This has been the
case since the 1990s. Before the civil war, it was a financial center
for the Gulf and other Arab countries. During the war, the region’s
financial center shifted to Gulf states like Dubai. The strategy
of Lebanese capital today is to re-establish its position as a financial
center. But the strategy is contradictory: the capitalist class
is trying to re-establish an old system in a new political-economic
context, one that works against the emergence of strong national
feature of Lebanese capitalism is its role as a tourist center for
the Middle East. During the war, Lebanon lost its tourist infrastructure.
While the reconstruction was supposed to revive the tourist industry,
it has turned Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, into one of the
most expensive places in the region. The result is that Lebanon
has lost tourists to countries like Qatar, Bahrain, and Dubai.
new accumulation strategies, then, are not working, not even for
the ruling class. This economic failure is connected to the unique
political situation in Lebanon. The sectarian religious divisions
are institutionalized through state structures and create hostile
polarizations and instabilities in Lebanese society. Religious quotas
organize the state and the government: every religious sect receives
a quota of positions that is proportional to its size. Positions
are both elected (Parliament) and appointed. This political system,
combined with the service-based structure of the Lebanese economy,
leads to clientelism where representatives of a particular confessional
“community” are expected to represent that sect (and geographic
area in some cases) in the state apparatus and to provide services
to his/her constituency.
divisions make reconstruction impossible because the spoils of any
“national” project get divided among the “leaders”
of particular sects, especially the stronger ones: Sunni, Shiite,
Maronite, Greek Orthodox, and Druze. They also perpetuate the conditions
of the civil war where a series of external and internal factors
led to the entrenchment of different confessional allegiances against
one another (Muslim vs. Christian, and various combinations). This
has not changed. On the contrary, it was institutionalized by the
Taef Agreement, which supposedly ended the civil war, but which
entrenched sectarianism in the constitution.
the war, when Hariri came to power, he initiated the Reconstruction
Project. The Project has various features, but the two most important
ones are the attempt to integrate Lebanese capitalism to the world
market through the WTO and the rebuilding of downtown Beirut as
a service center for the Middle East.
the first strategy has been slow going, the second one is well under
way. The majority of Reconstruction funds have been spent on the
downtown and on its linkages to sites outside of Lebanon, for example,
through the road system linking the downtown to the airport and
to the Syrian city of Damascus. The goal of the transportation system
is to make Beirut a center for finance, trade, and tourism. The
result is that the rest of Lebanon has become extremely underdeveloped
and class inequalities have become accentuated.
you discuss Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon?
based in the Shiite community, is one of the most prominent political
forces in Lebanon. It is probably the largest political party in
terms of membership and actual supporters and it is based in the
most marginalized communities in the country, areas that were under
occupation, rural communities hurt by economic “priorities,”
and the poor suburbs of Beirut. Its strength is due to three main
its population base, the Shia, is the largest of the 19 official
sects in Lebanon. Second, Hezbollah played a leading role in the
resistance, especially after 1984 and in the final round of operations
in the late 1990s against the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah could thus take credit for the liberation. Third, Hezbollah
has created a network of civil organizations in Shia communities
to provide social services ignored by the state.
of these strengths do not create stability. The size of the Shiite
community has become a rallying cry for the Christian right that
fears a reallocation of power in the sectarian quota structure and
thus an end to the system of parity between Christians and Muslims.
Of course, the political right refuses to admit that the actual
problem is the sectarian quota system itself.
role was due to Syrian influence in Lebanon. In the early 1980s—following
Israel’s withdrawal from Beirut due to resistance operations
carried out by the Communist Party, the Organization for Communist
Action, and their allies—Syria decided that it needed to control
the resistance in order to better manage the conflict with Israel.
This led to the dissolution of non-religious based resistance groups
and to the emergence of one main force (Hezbollah) under Syrian
patronage. The leadership of the “left” accepted the dominance
addition, although Hezbollah represents, in theory, a community
that is poor, marginalized, and, for the most part, either working
class or peasant, the party has yet to come out with a program that
reflects the needs of these communities. Actually, the party has
been very successful at evading class issues and has used sectarianism
and religious confessionalism to rally supporters, especially following
the liberation of South Lebanon and thus the end to its “raison
d’être.” Despite these limitations, Hezbollah still
has mass support, as seen in its success in parliamentary and municipal
you discuss Syria’s role in Lebanon?
clear that Syria controls Lebanese politics. However, it’s
not clear how this control is exercised. Syria benefits from its
control of Lebanon, both economically and strategically with regard
to its relationship to Israel. But we can’t think about the
Syrians as acting independently of other factors, especially U.S.
ones. Since the first Gulf War, one of the major prizes that Syria
received for participating in the coalition was the right to control
Lebanon. In return, Syria makes sure that an appropriate president
is put in power.
situation has changed in the past few months after the passing of
the Syria Accountability Act in the U.S. Congress and Resolution
1559 in the UN Security Council, which was spearheaded by France
and calls for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. Put simply,
the U.S. and Europe no longer need a proxy in Lebanon and want to
control Lebanese politics and economics more directly. Lebanon’s
accession to the WTO is almost complete. It has signed the Euromed
“partnership” agreement, a NAFTA-like agreement for the
Mediterranean, and its security forces have joined the “war
against terrorism” (e.g., the FBI and Interpol are teaching
them how to monitor communications and to keep track of Lebanese
citizens). The UN headquarters in Beirut also has files on all “criminals”
starting from the age of seven.
problem with Syrian intervention is that it is viewed as benefiting
Lebanese Muslims and thus upsetting the sectarian “balance.”
But this position can be undermined if you look at the class dimensions
to the Syrian-Lebanese relationship. All members of the ruling class,
whether they are Christian or Muslim, have good relations with the
Syrians and accept the integration of the two economies. The main
defense of the Lebanese system has always been sectarianism; it
is used as a veil to cover any class or social problems in Lebanon.
would you describe the situation of the left coming out of the war?
discussing the contemporary left, we need to understand how the
left in Lebanon and the Arab world has always been part of the project
for national liberation. Although the national liberation movements
of the 1950s and 1960s had fairly progressive programs and a mass
base, they failed to realize their goals and promises. This is clear
in the case of Iraq, and of Egypt under Nasser, who modernized Egypt
and gave it a role in international politics at the same time that
he repressed leftists, strengthened the role of regressive forces
in Egyptian society, and failed to fulfill many of the people’s
Lebanese left has always been a part of these movements and, in
some cases, played a critical role within them. As a result, the
independent left had a hard time developing into the positive force
it could have become. Before the civil war began in 1975, the Lebanese
National Movement, which was headed by Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt
and controlled by Arafat’s PLO, never addressed socio-economic
conditions independently of its relationship to Nasser in Egypt,
Assad in Syria, and the PLO. After Nasser died, a power struggle
over the leadership of the Arab movement broke out between Arafat
and Assad, a struggle that contributed to the destruction of Lebanon
and to the failure of the Palestinian Revolution of the 1970s. I’m
not saying that the Lebanese left has to be independent of these
currents because most of the time we’re part of the same struggle.
The problem is that the Lebanese left has always looked to a regional
or international power for guidance or followed a not so soft version
of Third World nationalism.
the Syrian invasion of Lebanon in 1976, the Lebanese left became
part of Syria’s sphere of influence in the country, despite
the fact that the left was the first to resist the Syrians as they
approached Beirut. Later on, they decided to side with Syria in
order to fight the Israeli invasions and occupation.
the end of the war, this alliance had really weakened the left.
Parties like the Organization for Communist Action and the Communist
Party (CP) were destroyed. They lost most of their membership and
influence. Furthermore, most of the spoils of war were given to
the sectarian forces, which were part of the National Movement,
such as the Syrian Nationalist Party (Greater Syria nationalists)
and the Ba’athists. The left’s military card was also
lost as its cadre quit or joined the Islamic resistance against
the Israeli occupation. The intellectuals, for their part, began
working for NGOs, doing studies for the UN, or serving as consultants
to the regime.
1994-95, there has been a resurgence of activity on the left. Part
of it focuses on secularism. Another part focuses on rebuilding
the Communist Party, which remains the main pole on the Lebanese
left. However, because the CP supported Soviet policy, is organized
hierarchically, and now supports neoliberalism and “democratic
transition,” it has fractured, producing two main currents,
one led by the Stalinists and the other called the Democratic Left
Movement, which is close to the Third Way movement in Europe.
1996 election was important for the left to move beyond the Communist
Party. During the election, a broad coalition organized around a
number of tickets. While the efforts failed, partly because of the
sectarian system, they created momentum and activity outside of
the CP. Following this were a number of attempts to regroup the
actors involved in the electoral coalition. These attempts also
failed: they were too top-down, too driven by “intellectuals,”
and they tried to assimilate other activists, groups, and projects.
failures created another vacuum on the left, which started to be
broken with its response to the siege of Arafat in Ramallah. This
event forced the left, especially the youth, to come together. The
invasion of Iraq also forced cooperation among left groups. However,
sharp divisions soon emerged, when we decided that we would support
neither the Ba’ath regime nor the rhetoric of the Arab regimes;
that the movement should not be based on nationalist politics; and
that the left should not join forces with Islamic and Arab nationalist
of the anti-war movement, there was another attempt at re-groupment,
especially through the “No War, No Dictatorship” campaign.
This failed as well because it was subject to the same type of assimilationist
tactics used by some on the left, in this case the Democratic Left
independent left, then, remains weak as a result of the civil war,
the role of the Communist Party, and the trajectory of the national
movement. We’re still trying to develop a common set of understandings
and organizational forms.
you spoke about two projects with which you’re involved,
and Beirut Indymedia. Can you speak about their significance
and the ways in which they are trying to fill the vacuum on the
of these projects emerged out of our response to the siege of Arafat
in Ramallah. During the siege, a number of people called for an
open sit-in at downtown Beirut, which was able to group together
most of the young left. Working together during the sit-in helped
us to conclude that there was no reason to continue working within
the mainstream institutions of the left because of all their limitations.
So we launched our own projects such as Beirut Indymedia (beirut.indymedia.org).
The more politicized among us launched the magazine
which we use to publicize an array of views on our activist commitments.
began as a collective for leftist activists, for
anyone who had a project and wanted to analyze and debate it. It
is based around action and, at the same time, tries to develop positions
on local, regional, and international issues. These projects have
been going on for over two years and have created spaces for developing
an independent left.
Europe, North America, and South America, the new movements use
participatory democracy, oppose all forms of oppression, and organize
direct action to build their counter-power. Has a similar politics
developed among the independent left in Lebanon?
a certain extent, things have been similar here. For instance, one
of the main disagreements between the independent left and the party
left has been around issues of sexism and homophobia. At some point,
we’ve been called the “sodomite left” because we’ve
created the only spaces in which gays and lesbians can participate.
The issue of diverse spaces was also a point of contention, not
with the traditional left, but with those close to social democratic
tendencies in Europe. There is a fear of diverse spaces without
a “historical” leadership, as they put it. Most intellectuals
on the Lebanese left see themselves as having a messianic purpose
and think that activists should follow their orders and stick to
their priorities. Unfortunately, these priorities are not much different
than those espoused by the UN and the NGO community and thus they
do not represent the working class or any marginalized social segment.
traditional left, even the supposedly more radical groups such as
the 4th International, considers issues of sexism, oppression, and
diversity as being separate and secondary to the class struggle.
For us, due to local particularities, the issues of sexism and sexuality
were breaking points; our politics forced us to break with the traditional
left. At the same time, the entire left is still male dominated
and it is still common for men to deny the need to develop women’s
we have been able to promote a diversity of perspectives within
. In these projects, there are many
leftist tendencies, including international socialists, anarchists,
autonomists, and secularists. We’ve made a big effort to maintain
this diversity and we agree that our goal shouldn’t be to convert
each other to certain ideologies, but to figure out how to work
together, organize direct action, make international connections,
and so on. Of course, the debates occur within a set of shared understandings.
We share agreement on the need for a bi-national solution in Palestine/Israel,
on the need to have relations with the Israeli left, on the nature
of international capitalism, and on the failure of Third World nationalism.
we always stress the importance of the international movement at
all its levels and critique the nationalism of the traditional left,
which refuses to look at events outside of Lebanon. For us, the
struggle is local, national, and international at the same time.
Through our involvement in local campaigns, we’ve realized
the importance of international processes and networking.
you talk about the bi-national solution and the links that the independent
left has with organizations in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon?
of the main obstacles facing the Lebanese left is our limited connection
to the Palestinian movement. Due to a tacit agreement between the
traditional left and the PLO and the de facto ban on Palestinians
becoming members of “Lebanese” parties, Palestinians and
Lebanese leftists have not been able to work too closely. Both sides
have been told to support each other, but not to work together.
The problem still exists; you cannot find Palestinian members of
the CP for instance.
we oppose these barriers, we have difficulties overcoming them.
We’re trying to find ways to work directly with Palestinian
activists without going through the traditional Palestinian groups.
We haven’t been too successful. Through Indymedia, we’re
trying to establish a presence in the Palestinian camps. But the
camps are ghettos and their regulation prevents Palestinians and
Lebanese from working together.
the question of Palestine, we start by recognizing how the two-state
solution has failed. The results of the two-state solution were
Bantustans. The current situation is even worse and who knows what
will happen with the construction of the wall. One of the solutions
is to network with the Israeli left, which shouldn’t be confused
with the Zionist left. This is happening in strange ways, for example,
through collaboration on films. For practical reasons, I think we
need to work towards a bi-national state.
lot has happened since we first talked last summer. Following the
assassination of Rafic Hariri and the beginning of Syrian withdrawal,
it seems that Lebanese society has been polarized. What are the
priorities of the Lebanese opposition and the loyalists to the Syrian
all practical purposes, Syria has begun its withdrawal from Lebanon
after extensive international pressure to fulfill UN Security Council
Resolution 1559, coordinated by the U.S. and France. Internal pressure
came through a series of demonstrations culminating in a sit-in
in the center of the city by supporters of the Lebanese opposition.
from international media coverage, it seems that Lebanon is going
through the motions of Georgia and Ukraine. The analogy is quite
misleading. Although we should be careful not to put all forces
calling for “democratic” reform in one basket— pro-U.S.,
pro-business, etc.—it is necessary to look at the make-up of
the political forces on various sides of the Syrian withdrawal debate.
period following the civil war (1975-1990) had the following two
features: a neo-liberal economic plan espoused by Hariri, the former
warlords, and a new political elite; and a policy of resistance
against U.S./Israeli hegemony led by Syria and executed almost entirely
by Hezbollah. For most of the 1990s, these two features merged.
The U.S., Syria, Saudi Arabia, and others coordinated it through
a system of religious/sectarian patronage. The role of the feudal-style
leaders of religious sects continued. Political parties and movements
not involved in the power struggle of the political elite were swept
to the sidelines.
1990s also saw a rise of a small, influential, and metropolitan
professional class created by the needs of corporations and the
service industry and by the role of intermediary institutions such
as the UN and the NGO “movement.” Their guru was Rafic
Hariri. Money laundering and “tax haven” services provided
to Arab capital played a significant role.
assassination of Hariri was seen as an opportunity by the current
opposition to accelerate a process of liberalization and Eastern
European style “democratic emergence.” The former level
is well underway with minimal interference from either the current
loyalists or current opposition. But the status quo imposed by the
U.S. and Syria at the end of the 1980s no longer fit the post 9/11
world. Syria’s interference and Hezbollah’s activities
had to be put to an end. Since the Europeans will not allow the
U.S. another Iraqi-style adventure—alone, that is—they
get a piece of the pie, namely in Lebanon and in Palestine, by controlling
“developmental priorities” in the latter.
Hariri gone, the two main poles of the opposition are Michel Aoun
and Walid Jumblatt. Aoun was the commander of the Lebanese army
during the civil war. He was exiled following an attempt to liberate
the country from Syria at the end of the 1990s and remained in Paris
after he refused to accept the agreement that put an end to the
civil war. In the past few years, his rhetoric was focused on the
withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon. According to his followers, mainly
Christian university students, Syria is the cause of most of the
ills of the country and any reform should be postponed until it
other pole, Walid Jumblatt, is a feudal-style leader of the minority
Druze sect. Officially belonging to the Muslim side of the sectarian
equation, they are organized around the Progressive Socialist Party.
The progressive and socialist parts of the name are misleading.
The party’s membership is rural and more or less religiously
pure. Jumblatt more often identifies himself as the leader of a
sect, not a president of a political party. He was on excellent
terms with Syria from day one, when, according to him, the Syrians
assassinated his father, but he went to Damascus, forgave them,
and became the leader of the Druze sect in 1977. This quaint Machiavellian
twist turned deadly when, after the leadership of Christian parties
supported the Israeli invasion of 1982, he retaliated by allowing
his followers to massacre the Christian population of the area.
The massacres did not spare Christian members of his coalition,
the National Movement, such as members of the Communist Party.
adversaries, at that time, were the various militia versions of
the pre-war Christian right. Today, they make up the remainder of
the opposition. Together, they were responsible for the atrocities
of the 1970s and 1980s, including massacres against Palestinians
and working-class Muslims living in the area they controlled and
culminating in Sabra and Shatila. This was balanced by similar atrocities
committed by the sides controlling the, now Muslim, areas.
Christian right espoused a Lebanese brand of fascism inspired by
Hitler Youth at the 1936 Olympics. During the war, their hatred
was directed towards Palestinians. Today, their targets are Syrian
workers and laborers. They remain in power, along with Jumblatt
and many members of the loyalist camp, because the Taef agreement
included amnesty for all war crimes against civilians. The Christian
representation in the coalition is completed by Qornet Chehwan,
a group of political heirs based around the Maronite Patriarch.
to the rhetoric of the opposition, but politically insignificant,
is the Movement for Democratic Renewal and the Democratic Left Movement.
The former is a small group of “experts” based around
a member of the Lebanese Parliament who is a hostile cousin of the
current president and a multimillionaire. The latter is a splinter
of the Communist Party and includes some center-left intellectuals
who supported the war on Iraq.
assassination of Hariri was an opportunity for the opposition, coalescing
after the illegitimate renewal of the president’s term through
Syrian pressure, to accelerate the process set by UNSC Resolution
1559 calling for the withdrawal of all foreign armies and the dismantling
of militias, meaning Hezbollah. The images of unity between Christians,
Druzes, and Sunnis at the demonstrations obscure a different reality.
The decision to only carry Lebanese flags at the demonstration was
meant to diffuse the tension brought up by the flags of the wartime
militias. Away from the cameras covering the downtown area, the
flags reappeared, so did racist attacks against Syrians and “Syrian-looking”
March 8, at the beginning of the Syrian withdrawal, Hezbollah held
a demonstration to oppose U.S. intervention. The Agence France Presse
estimated the number of demonstrators at 1.6 million, later estimates
put it at 500,000. This was meant to remind the opposition, along
with the U.S. and France, that the majority of Lebanese do not support
their plans. On a more direct level, it was a show of force by the
Shi’a community to prove that the national unity claimed by
the opposition does not exist.
next day, the Lebanese daily,
, reported that opposition
demonstrators, in their camp in Martyr’s Square a few meters
away, had set up guard against attacks from the other demonstration.
When asked how they could differentiate between a Lebanese supporter
of the opposition carrying the Lebanese flag and a Lebanese supporter
of Hezbollah also carrying the Lebanese flag, they said that they
would know them by the way they look and smell.
Hezbollah’s demonstration will force the opposition to reconsider.
Already, the extreme right is beginning to show its true colors.
Some, such as Amine Gemayyel of the Hitler-inspired Phalanges, have
already begun defending their pro-Israeli positions during the war
and the United States has just chastised the Israelis for leaking
a story about the Lebanese opposition trying to open channels with
the Likud. The Hariri block has avoided any controversy with Hezbollah,
probably because Hariri’s sister, an MP and heir apparent,
has her constituency in the majority Shi’a South Lebanon.
the surface, the opposition is divided over the issue of disarming
Hezbollah. While Jumblatt and some other members of the opposition
have said that the issue of disarming the resistance is out of the
question, or at least it should be an internal matter, they need
to explain the coincidence that led the European Parliament to vote
for a resolution on March 10 accusing Hezbollah of being a terrorist
latest developments could mean that Hezbollah is ready to become
part of the political system. Whether this is a precursor to heeding
to international pressure for disarmament depends on the next move
by the U.S. against Syria and Iran. The speech given by Hassan Nasrallah,
Hezbollah’s secretary general, at the March 8 demonstration
clearly indicates that they are willing to go for the former option,
calling for a dialogue with the opposition. He also reminded the
United States and France that the last time their Marines interfered
in Lebanon (in the early 1980s) they were sent back home in pieces.
is an activist in the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and
in local anti-occupation coalitions