“I think there are going to be more assassinations”

TONY JONES: Robert Fisk is the Middle East correspondent for the Independent and he’s reported and observed politics in that region for more than 25 years. He joins us now from Beirut. Robert Fisk, thanks for joining us again. Can we start with the assassination of George Hawi? Only yesterday in one of your articles, you quoted an old Lebanese friend as saying, “Someone else is going to get killed soon.” I mean, you couldn’t have been more prophetic.

ROBERT FISK, WRITER AND JOURNALIST: Sadly, no. In fact, a number of Lebanese have been ringing me up today saying it was a very spooky introduction to my story. I think it was. You see, what is happening in Lebanon, through the parliamentary elections, which were freely held, although there are flaws in them, as the EU Commission of Observers said, is that we’ve reached a new stage where Lebanese can actually, in theory at least, control their own destiny. So how do you – if you’re against the Lebanese doing this or if you resent the Lebanese doing this, the question is: how do you create social, political, economic instability? And obviously, the killing of leading figures in Lebanese society – Samir Kassir, the journalist two or three weeks ago, now George Hawi, a respected man in Lebanon, a man who, as you rightly said, was one of the first people to call for resistance against Israeli occupation in 1982 and yet at the same time was also harshly critical of the Syrian La Habra intelligence services – how do you create this instability? Well, by killing people who have criticised Syria, but people who also have been known to be critical of Israel, because then the people who kill them can say, well, maybe it wasn’t the Syrians, maybe it was the Israelis – in other words, you muddy the waters of the deaths in order to suggest, well, you know, we can’t be sure; it’s outside forces; we don’t know who they are. There’s no doubt that, for example, among the very angry, ferocious crowd that gathered within minutes around George Hawi’s body – and I was there – they believe that it was the work of the Syrian intelligence services. The Syrians of course deny this, which you may have to – it may be a denial you have to take with quite a lot of Syrian Damascus salt on the tongue. But either way, you can be sure that we will not find out who did it in the near future. As usual, the security forces – there’s a very big security force apparatus here in Lebanon – were at the scene picking over the bits of the car. One isn’t quite sure where the evidence will go. You know, we know that after Rafiq Hariri’s assassination on 14 February, evidence was taken from the scene of the crime and later other evidence was planted there. We also know now that Samir Kassir, the journalist who was murdered earlier this month, his car was moved from the scene of the crime and the detonator was lost. The detonator, of course, has numbers and codings on it. I will be interested to see how good the investigation is into Hawi’s murder today.

TONY JONES: Walid Jumblat, the Druze leader, put it very succinctly. He said the life of anyone who wants a democratic Lebanon is in danger and, echoing what you’re saying there, he said that until the security apparatus is actually controlled by a democratic government, there can be no real change.

ROBERT FISK: Yeah, the real problem, you see, for the opposition is that the President of Lebanon, who obtained a three-year extra period in power from pro-Syrian parliamentarians last year, is a pro-Syrian. He is a friend of the President of Syria; he effectively is seen as Syria’s man in Lebanon. There doesn’t seem to be a legal way of actually getting him out of office, and one of the problems is that his security apparatus remains very much under his and therefore Syrian influence. It’s quite interesting that as we speak, the UN international commission inquiring into Hariri’s murder is actually interviewing, as we speak, Brigadier General Mustafa Hamdan, head of the Presidential Guards Brigade, who is a close security aide to President Lahoud, Syria’s friend. So you can see how, in a sense, both Syria’s friends are under great pressure – from the international community, from the UN or, by extension, I suppose from the United States and France, which backed the UN resolution calling for the withdrawal of the Syrians – and at the same time pressures are coming upon those people opposed to Syria in a very violent and tragic way.

TONY JONES: Last time we spoke to you was immediately after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, and you raised the spectre of a potential civil war beginning again in Lebanon. Just how painful do you think this transition to democracy in Lebanon is going to be?

ROBERT FISK: Well, I think there are going to be more assassinations, and I haven’t met a Lebanese who doesn’t think so. But I don’t think there will be a civil war. I think that every day that goes by since Hariri’s assassination in which there has not been violence is another good day – further proof that there won’t be. You know, I was only 400m from Hariri’s convoy when it was blown up. When I saw that explosion, all the dead of the civil war started climbing out of their graves for me. But I think now that, you know, so many families sent their children abroad during the war to be educated – to America, to Australia, to Britain, to Switzerland – and they’ve come back and I don’t think they’ve come back imbued with this sense of sectarian violence that existed for their families who remained here. I think one of the reasons why we’ve had so many demonstrations in Lebanon is that they’re young people who are demonstrating, saying, “We will not have another war. We refuse to have another war.” That probably is the saving of Lebanon.

TONY JONES: All right. That optimistic note, in a way, brings us to the extraordinary statements by the US Secretary of State in Cairo yesterday when she declared that 60 years of US foreign policy in the Middle East had been a complete failure. How do you rate her chances of turning that failure around by instituting or pushing for democracy throughout the Middle East?

ROBERT FISK: I don’t think there’s going to be democracy in the Middle East and I don’t really think we want democracy. One of the problems of democracy in the Middle East is that, if it really exists, the Arabs may not do what we want them to do, and it’s much more easy to have dictators, generals, businessmen running countries on our behalf, rather than saying, “Let’s have a fair vote”, because in many cases, we may find Islamist governments take over, which we don’t want. Remember, originally, the Americans didn’t actually want elections in Iraq. It was only later, when the Shiites of Iraq threatened to join the insurrection with the Sunnis, that suddenly America became a proponent of democracy in Iraq. No, I don’t think the West wants real democracy out here because it may not turn out to be the kind of democracy we want. We are much happier with military governments or shadow military governments, as in Algeria. We didn’t object when the Algerian authorities closed down the second round of elections when they thought that Islamists might take power. It’s constantly the refrain of the Baath Party in Syria, of Mubarak, that if real democracy came to the Middle East, it would be Islamists who would take over, and we don’t want that. We saw what happened in Iran, where, with all the flaws inherent in it, there are real elections.

TONY JONES: Can I just interrupt you there? You have to take some of what’s being said here at face value. I mean, she’s saying that the US, in the past, pursued stability…

ROBERT FISK: Are you sure?

TONY JONES: Well, I’m asking you whether you can. The US pursued stability at the expense of democracy, but now things are going to be different. She claims the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. Now, she seems to be opening up the possibility there that the US would support Islamist governments.

ROBERT FISK: Well, she does, but look, if you live in the Middle East, it doesn’t look like this. The Arab world, which is principally what we’re talking about, would love some of this shiny beautiful democracy which we possess and enjoy. They would love some of it. They would like some freedom. But many of them would like freedom from us – from our armies, from our influence. And that’s the problem, you see. What Arabs want is justice as much as democracy. They want freedom from us, in many cases. And they’re not going to get that. They’re not going to get it in Uzbekistan, which is not apparently in the little circle of democracy which Condoleezza Rice is talking about. I’d like to believe that what the Americans say is true, but living here, I don’t believe it is.

TONY JONES: What do you think the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, made of those statements, though, made at his very doorstep, when he faces the potential of an Islamic party coming up to challenge him?

ROBERT FISK: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood remains banned in Egypt. Mubarak has been told many times before by the Americans and by the British at one point, “We really want democracy in Egypt.” He said, “We have democracy. We will have more democracy”, and everyone’s clapped and said, “That’s great”, and after a year or two we’ve forgotten the speeches and it carries on with the Egyptian Government effectively being a one-party state. You know, Mrs Bush when she was in Egypt said it was a great push in the right direction when Mubarak decided there could be contenders for the presidency; it wouldn’t be just him standing for election next time. But what she didn’t say and what Egyptians know is that the Egyptian governing party has to decide whether those presidential contenders are allowed to stand or not. So it’s not a democracy; it’s another sham. Look, all the Arabs deserve real democracy; they deserve freedom – and freedom from us – but we’re not offering that to them. We continue to support the dictators and we will do so.

TONY JONES: How do you know, though, that a new breed, just as in Lebanon – you’re talking about these young people coming back from many years in the West and changing the way things are done in a country. How do you know that a new breed of young Democrats might not take root and even take heart from these kind of statements in Egypt and in fact right through the Middle East?

ROBERT FISK: Look, it’s nice and it would be lovely to contemplate that this was the case, and I would personally like to see that. I’d love to see democracies all over the Middle East. But the fact of the matter is that we are anchored into history – the Ottoman Empire; the British and French mandates that followed the First World War – and we have created these patriarchal societies in which democracy, our kind of democracy – one man, one vote or one woman, one vote or whatever you like to say – simply largely cannot take root. We have created in Lebanon, for example – there was democracy here, by the way, before the war; we didn’t invent this now. But we’ve created in Lebanon, for example, a totally sectarian society. You cannot be the President of Lebanon unless you’re a Christian Maronite. You cannot be the Prime Minister unless you’re a Sunni Muslim. You cannot be the Speaker of Parliament unless you’re a Shiite Muslim. But we don’t mention this. We talk about democracy. But this is not a modern state. Lebanon, like all the states in the Middle East, is artificial. It was created by us, and it is a tribal state, as is Iraq, as we now know, as is Syria, which is governed by Alawites, which is the Shiite sect where the majority are Sunni. We are not setting up the framework for democracy here. What we are doing is we continue to support the largest tribes while claiming that we want human rights and more proportional representation. What you’ve got in Lebanon, for example, is proportional sectarianism, which is what, if you look at the electoral lists of the last four weeks, has been created. It’s a free vote, but you have to vote for your tribe.

TONY JONES: All right. We’re nearly out of time, I’m afraid to say, because we’d like to talk about this a lot more, but can’t you unmake history? I mean, you talk about not setting up the framework..

ROBERT FISK: Ah, look, you cannot escape from history.

TONY JONES: ..for democracy to take place, but why can’t you set up those frameworks?

ROBERT FISK: It doesn’t work like that. Look, history – I will be very brief; I know you’re running out of time. History for us is easy to cut off from. End of the Second World War, end of Nazism; new world, European Union, Commonwealth – you say what you like. But in the Middle East, people continue to suffer from history. The Palestinians in the refugee camps of Saba and Shakila, which are scarcely 2.5 miles from where I’m speaking, they still look back and say that the Balfour declaration, which was Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, is what drove them into exile. They lived the Balfour declaration, which was made in 1917, last night, one hour before. You cannot ask the Arabs to separate themselves from history, because they live it today.

TONY JONES: Okay, Robert Fisk. We’re living history just talking to you, I think. Thanks very much once again. We’ll see you as soon as we possibly can.

ROBERT FISK: (Laughs).

Copyright: ABC – Australia.

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Robert Fisk

Middle East correspondent for London’s Independent, often outspoken and out of step with the rest of the mainstream media