Ineffective calls for national dialogue by politicians and a government that lacks creative solutions are signs that the country is not headed in the right direction, according to Syrian Social Nationalist Party leader Gebran Araiji.
Araiji, a Zghorta native who was recently elected president of the SSNP, told The Daily Star in an interview that “the government wants to oversee an economic revival, but there are no great ideas about how to do this, which is leading to a sense of anxiety.”
Araiji expressed what he called a hope for “normalization” between the president and prime minister to help the government through a difficult period.
Despite official denials, political observers maintain that Emile Lahoud and Rafik Hariri do not see eye-to-eye on many issues ? but Araiji blamed most national woes on the fact that sectarianism permeates the important political issues.
“(State) institutions aren’t cooperating with each other, which reflects the sectarian conflict” that continues to afflict the country, he said. Any discussion of reform in state institutions, Araiji complained, was bound to lead to talk that sectarian-based interests were at stake.
Araiji rattled off a string of such recent issues: Deputy Premier Issam Fares’ proposal regarding two administrative posts tied to the Cabinet and prime minister, keeping the Lebanese University’s presidency reserved for a Shiite, tinkering with the Council for Development and Reconstruction and other construction bodies, or shaking up Tele-Liban, where Speaker Nabih Berri is seen as the most important player.
Araiji said that until a true solution for sectarianism was found, discussion of such issues would raise sectarian accusations and counter-accusations.
Araiji said that in discussions with officials the SSNP remained steadfastly “outside the equation,” as a non-sectarian and anti-sectarian party. “We’re a bit of an orphan in a society like this. But Lebanese do see us as a bit of hope for the future.”
Against this backdrop, Araiji appeared pessimistic about the chances for dialogue on political reform. “There was a meeting in Bteghrin at George Hawi’s home, but what were the subjects under discussion? It was obviously a meeting of various political trends,” which he indicated did not bode well for success.
Araiji appeared to blame politicians rather than the authorities for the impasse.
“There’s a lot of talk about dialogue these days, but what are the topics? There are many groups out there ? parties, NGOs, and civil associations; but each group wants his own topics on the table,” Araiji said, indicating that domestic reform had a ways to go before the public would see meaningful steps.
“People who say ‘these are the only subjects are the ones I want discussed’ aren’t speaking from a patriotic position.”
As for Damascus’ role or goals in such a situation, Araiji rejected the idea of Syria holding a dialogue in order to placate the country’s Maronites, describing it as a situation that would lead to “each sect having its own foreign policy.”
Araiji stressed that the country needed an “economic dialogue” as much as a political one, to find a way out of the recession.
The government’s emphasis on securing funding from outside the country and continuing reconstruction projects, he argued, did not do much to build a comprehensive, forward-looking economic vision.
“We’re in favor of dialogue that has a goal,” Araiji said, listing the SSNP’s preferred topics: the type of democracy suitable for Lebanon, the issue of public freedoms, the need to abolish sectarianism in politics, and the Arab-Israeli conflict, which he emphasized has no “unified reading” by politicians.
He acknowledged that there was more or less a national consensus about the need to resist Israel before last May, but that since liberation, calls for the army’s deployment in the South had become more vocal.
“Only the state knows what it should do in the South and by sending in the army it could lose all of its cards,” Araiji said. “These calls only serve Israel.”
Although Amal officials such as Mohammed Obeid have urged judges to deal with former South Lebanon Army militia members by differentiating between unwilling and willing collaborators, Araiji said the SSNP had no similar initiative.
“The way the withdrawal took place and the aftermath were quite civilized, compared to what happened in France to Nazi collaborators, and the many, many street executions.”
Araiji said “let the judiciary decide” when dealing with the SLA, but urged officials to intervene massively when it came to bringing the former occupied zone back into the national fold.
“Liberating the land must means that you ensure the best conditions for people’s staying there,” he argued. “Development plans by the government have remained fairly modest.”
Araiji hinted that in the end, the less-sensational political issues were the ones that required serious work and provided hope for change, again blaming sectarianism for preventing any serious, practical movement for change. He argued that politicians were ignoring goals such as drafting a new political parties law and
|a parliamentary election law for 2005 that would ensure “true representation and national cohesion.”
Tackling these topics is the way to begin gradually abolishing sectarianism here, he argued, and said “it will resuscitate our political life (as a country), which is sick.”
“Everybody keeps saying that they don’t want sectarianism in politics, but no one’s ready to make the first move.
“It reminds me of the old saying: ‘Everybody wants to go to Heaven but no one’s willing to die to get there.’”