Across the Bay

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Interview with a Dissident

Reason published an interview conducted by Michael Young with Lebanese academic Samir Kassir.

The interview deals with several interesting themes, among which is the issue of Syrian reform. On that topic Kassir said:

"If you mean by Syrian reform a reform conducted by the regime, I've always been skeptical of this. In all that I've written since Bashar Assad inherited power from his father, I never succumbed to the illusion that he would willingly reform his regime. At the same time, I saw in the process of succession an opportunity for Bashar to gain real legitimacy by undoing what his father had done. That's why I've been asking for the release of political prisoners, the ending of the state of emergency, and political liberalization, including allowing freedom of expression, as prerequisites for this new legitimacy. I have refused to see the small steps Bashar has taken in this regard as gifts we should thank him for.

That doesn't mean things haven't changed in Syria. But they have changed thanks to the courage of intellectuals and political militants who decided to voice their demands publicly, through the press—the Lebanese press I should add—or through the so-called Manifesto of the 99 and other manifestos. If the "Damascus Spring" [the short-lived period of relative openness that followed Bashar's arrival to power in June 2000] means anything, it is embodied in the courage and the quest for freedom expressed by the Syrian opposition. The Syrian regime understood this and cracked down on dissidents. But that hasn't worked. Though the opposition in Syria is not in good shape, it has widened its margin of expression, though not enough to propose an alternative to the Ba'ath regime.

Michael Young had labeled the placing of the task of reforms in the hands of the ME authoritarian regimes, with no outside compulsion, a "pipe dream."

Another very interesting theory by Kassir on the Syrian "presence" in Lebanon follows:

" When I meet my friends from the Syrian opposition, I feel the issue of Lebanese independence has imposed itself and that nobody questions the need to put an end to this hegemony. However, this doesn't mean they are willing to give top priority to the issue. As one Syrian dissident once told me: "We want to address the core issue, the Ba'ath regime's hegemony over Syria; once we've done that, its hegemony over Lebanon will fall apart." But I maintain the reverse is also true." (Emphasis added.)

Kassir also defines the nature of the Syrian "presence" in Lebanon:

" Let's try to characterize this Syrian-Lebanese relationship. It is not an occupation, nor is it a free association between two sovereign countries. Rather, Lebanon is a Syrian protectorate, similar to what we used to see in Eastern Europe under Soviet rule. I should add it is also a mafia-type protectorate, since Lebanon is not only a place of strategic importance for the Syrian regime, it is also a place where Syria's ruling elite, in association with Lebanese counterparts, exploits all kinds of, often illicit, economic and business opportunities."

Kassir made an insightful remark on the cultural and ideological traffic between Lebanon and Syria during Syria's occupation of Lebanon. While the traditional Lebanese freedoms provided Syrian dissidents with media to express their views, Syrian Baathism, via the Syrian-appointed Lebanese President Lahoud and other cronies, has seeped through to Lebanon:

"The security-oriented system preceded Lahoud. But it was under his mandate that Lebanon became a security-obsessed state. It is under his mandate that Lebanon has made great strides toward becoming a Ba'athist kind of regime, where security officials see citizens as enemies, or at best children who must be controlled. It is under this president's mandate that freedom of expression has been the most restrictive, although we have managed to counter this."

Kassir also betrays some of that bizarre confused relationship I've talked about between some ME intellectuals and the oft maligned "neocons." Kassir chastized the US for its backing of dictators (realpolitik) while proclaiming its desire for ME reforms and democratization:

"[T]he liberal West must also be liberal in the Middle East: It must abandon its support for dictatorships, even those considered as moderates and allies. Look what happened with Libya: Once Muammar al-Qaddafi renounced his nuclear ambitions, Bush and Blair acclaimed him. What a message when you are calling for democracy in the Middle East."

The problem is that this is exactly what the neocons and "idealists" in the Bush administration have criticized as well! Yet, the Arab intellectuals are calling for the return to power of the people who preach such realpolitik that Kassir is criticizing!

Regardless, it's an interesting interview that's worth looking at.