May 22, 2008
Azmi Bishara tells Amira Howeidy that Arab Nationalists have a lot to answer for and that Hizbullah had no other option but to take over west Beirut and parts of Lebanon
Azmi Bishara, 52, a former Knesset member, commentator and novelist, was unanimously elected chair of the Arab National Congress's (ANC) 19th round, held in Sanaa from 10-13 May. Bishara arrived in Sanaa from a conference in Abu Dhabi. He is very much in demand across the Arab world.
When he left Israel in March 2007 Israel's security services began to investigate him on charges of treason and espionage. In April 2007, Bishara submitted his resignation from the Knesset to the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and has remained in the Arab world ever since, based mainly in Doha, Qatar. His wife and children have had to move to Amman, Jordan, in order to see him.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly in Sanaa, Bishara explained that the case against him remains "open".
There are no trials in absentia in Israel. Leaks to the Israeli press from security sources recently referred to the option of "assassinating" or "abducting" him. The decision to return home, he says, would mean handing himself over in a case where a life sentence is expected. "It would be stupid" to do that. Although he's been busy finishing three books, participating in conferences, making TV appearances and contributing to the Arab UNDP report, the strain of living between countries is beginning to take its toll. "It's getting difficult," he says, with no office or assistant, "and there is, of course, the psychological stress and missing home."
"I now feel at a crossroads. I have to decide where to live and what I should be doing."
As chair of the ANC's 19th round, you've been snapping at longwinded speakers to keep to their time limit. What is the point of this conference other than it being a talking frenzy?
All conferences are talking frenzies. There's always a lot of talking involved, even at academic conferences. Conferences are an occasion to exchange ideas, network and socialise. But the ANC is different. The mere fact that it is held makes it important. The vast majority of its members are extremely busy individuals, so for them to make time for the conference means that holding it is an important objective in and of itself.
The ANC is evidence of an existing Arab body that is thinking about political issues. It is where a group of Arab intellectuals and politicians, with a vision to share, meet to deliberate on pressing issues. But meeting and sharing views is no longer enough. It's time for change. Arab thought doesn't develop in conferences. It can develop only in practice, when non-marginalised intellectuals exist in the mainstream, concerned with the problems of their societies, addressing and answering their people's questions.
Had I not been faced with the question of citizenship and democracy [of Arabs in Israel], I wouldn't have developed national thought in the area of citizenship and democracy. Any Arab nationalist who is involved in his country's problems will have to answer questions on the dimension of identity within the nationalist equation. If the ANC doesn't rebuild itself so that it becomes representative of the work of progressive democrats while at the same time developing the nationalist idea it will have exhausted the reason of its existence.
The ANC's 19th round coincided with developments in Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen and Sudan but failed to address them. How is it any better than the Arab foreign ministers' meeting that was held in Cairo at the same time and which also failed to address these issues?
The Arab foreign ministers' meeting is one of the more vile manifestations of Arab reality. In its current shape the ANC is one reflection of the people's aspirations. It's not crystallised enough, nor does it express itself adequately... There is a realisation that even Nasser couldn't have dreamed of, that we are closer together as Arab peoples. In Nasser's time a Palestinian and a Moroccan couldn't understand each other. Today our dialects are closer and so are our grievances. But this condition isn't expressed in political terms. The Arab idea is stronger but the stream that carries it is weaker.
Given the repercussions of the Hizbullah-led opposition's takeover of parts of Beirut last week, was it the right thing to do?
Hizbullah didn't have five or six options to choose from. It's clear from their behaviour during the last two years that they tried very hard to avoid and delay this very option. The government's decision [to dismantle Hizbullah's communications network] was, by the government's own admission, foolhardy. But if Hizbullah was in the government none of this would have happened. In less critical situations, in other parts of the world, people would go to elections to determine who is the majority and who the opposition, end of story. What's Lebanon's problem? Those who refuse the participation of Hizbullah claim that the group wants to manipulate authority when in fact Hizbullah's demand has always been participation.
Yet there are fears that disarming or weakening the Sunni bloc of Al-Hariri would mean inviting radical Sunnis like Al-Qaeda to Lebanon.
This all depends on the reaction of Arab states. Saudi Arabia [for example] considers what happened in Lebanon as a withdrawal under Iran's power, which is a catastrophic way of thinking. To consider reconciliation in Lebanon a matter where prestige and status are damaged by an Iranian victory is indeed a disaster. But if Saudi Arabia understands that Lebanon could be ready for a historic deal between Hizbullah, Amal, Al-Mustaqbal (Future) stream and [Christian Maronite] Oun, things could work smoothly. It happened before in the 2005 four-way coalition between these very same forces. Otherwise things will escalate in Lebanon.
Is there an Al-Qaeda presence in Lebanon? We saw them in Nahr Al-Bared. And some Al-Qaeda cells attempted to assassinate Hassan Nasrallah. But these cells are not the outcome of recent events; rather they are the byproduct of exacerbating Sunni sectarianism, which is new to Lebanon as far as the Sunnis are concerned. Lebanon's Sunnis are Arabs and the citizens of this country, they were never just a sect. Transforming them into a sect is unfortunately one of the achievements of the [US- backed] 14 March government coalition.
I believe that the government's decision to dismantle Hizbullah's network was related to [US Assistant Secretary of State] David Welch's recent visit to Beirut and pressing the 14 March coalition into rejecting efforts for dialogue with the opposition. And as usual, when an empire tries to impose an international balance of power locally, it backfires. Internationally, the US can make the Security Council issue any decision it wants, but any attempt to impose it in Beirut, where the balance of power is different, leads to a blood bath. In Beirut the balance of power is against US interests. They can issue 15 1559 UN resolutions [to disarm Hizbullah] and none of them will be implemented.
US approaches to Lebanon are genuinely stupid and their lackeys in Lebanon are divided into moody adventurous warlords -- like Samir Geagea and Walid Jumblatt -- and spoilt yuppies and neo- liberals -- like Saad Al-Hariri -- who admire the machismo of the former. It's really a deadly combination.