A battle over influence in the Armenian community is brewing in the run-up to a strike and demonstration on Thursday to protest the lack of a second Armenian minister in the Cabinet.
Metn MP Sebouh Hovnanian, the minister for sports and youth, convened a meeting in Bourj Hammoud on Tuesday to discuss the community’s anger with unfulfilled promises by top leaders to appoint a second minister.
Ten current and former MPs and ministers, including Shahe Barsoumian, Arthur Nazarian and Apraham Dedeyan, were in attendance, as well as Zahle MP George Kassardji, who has spearheaded calls for a protest.
The group issued a statement saying it was “angered by the delay” in resolving the issue, despite promises by President Emile Lahoud and Premier Rafik Hariri. The grouping endorsed a three-hour strike and sit-in at Bourj Hammoud Square the move was backed by the Armenian Prelacy of Lebanon, which released a statement of support.
But invitations were not sent to Armenian MPs in Hariri’s parliamentary bloc, who fought a bitter election battle last year with Hovnanian’s Tashnak Party and its allies.
Beirut MP Hagop Kassardjian, who heads Ramgavar Party’s international committee, told The Daily Star that “it is completely illogical to attack the government while in the government,” referring to Hovnanian’s status as minister.
Hovnanian boycotted several Cabinet sessions until receiving promises from Lahoud and Hariri that a second minister would be appointed.
“Officials would have been under much more pressure had we stayed out of government,” Kassardjian said. “In any case, strikes or other types of action won’t be that successful.
“The solution is not coming to light because neither the president nor the premier is backing down from his position,” he added. “It’s obvious that Lahoud rejects having a second minister who is seen as close to Hariri. Meanwhile, Hariri feels that Hovnanian is already close to Lahoud, therefore he should name the second minister.”
Kassardjian was emphatic that the demand for a second minister was just.
“Our differences (with the Tashnak Party) during and after elections remain political; when the issue involves Armenian rights, we put aside our political disagreements,” he said. “But on several occasions, we’ve proposed holding discussions on demanding our rights, but the party hasn’t responded positively. Frankly, we’re amazed that they’ve decided to call for this strike without coordinating with all parties.”
Another MP who was not invited to the Tashnak Party-organized meeting was Beirut’s Yeghia Djeredjian.
Djeredjian said that he would not be participating in the demonstration, quipping that “I don’t have a shop in Bourj Hammoud to close down.”
“It’s a strike for a just demand,” Djeredjian said, but added that he had “no comment” on whether he supported taking the lobbying effort to the street.
Complicating matters is Djeredjian’s status in his own, Hentchak Party a faction that is allied with the Tashnak leadership supports the strike and demonstration call, claiming to speak in the name of the party.
Djeredjian, a former official with the party, declined to comment on the internal dissent, but predicted that “radical changes” in the party’s ranks would appear some time next month, when the group holds an international congress.
The situation has also reverberated in Zahle, as almost a dozen groups from the town including the Phalange Party’s local branch and various commercial and industrial associations issued a statement Tuesday supporting the protest.
In the statement, the signatories said that “we should note that popular representation was not secured in the Cabinet, particularly regarding the district of Zahle.”