Karim Pakradouni, the recently elected president of the Phalange Party, believes that political renewal can only happen via rejuvenated political parties and is relying on two important people for support.
In a wide-ranging interview at his residence in Ghadras, Kesrouan, Pakradouni made the case that parties have begun to exit their postwar sluggishness and could benefit from a boost by two of the country’s most well-known non-party figures: the president and the prime minister.
On Oct. 4, Pakradouni became the Phalange’s fifth president in a landslide victory over Maurice Saba and amid a boycott by party opposition leaders like former President Amin Gemayel and Elie Karameh, a former party chief.
After the election, the new politburo members made the traditional calls on senior politicians and received well-wishers, but Pakradouni insisted that the ostensibly “protocol occasions” were significant.
“The speaker of Parliament is the head of a party, so whatever (positive remarks) he makes about parties is natural,” he said, referring to Nabih Berri and his Amal Movement.
“But the president and the prime minister, who don’t belong to parties, stressed that there can’t be democracy without parties.
“(Rafik) Hariri himself, six years ago, would speak using a very different logic. He would say that the parties were responsible for the war, that they destroyed the country, and that it was time to leave the political parties behind us.
“Now, he says that you can’t have democracy without parties … I think that we’re entering a period of people going back to political parties, on the condition that these parties renew themselves.”
Asked if he believed that Hariri’s positive remarks were sincere, Pakradouni said “it’s enough for me to hear him say this … I’m not going to judge his intentions, but take him at his word.”
He indicated that one of the key ways to help revive political parties is producing a qualitatively different parliamentary election law for 2005.
“We are going to prepare an election law based on parties,” Pakradouni said. “We have to get out of the issue of small districts and big districts. It’s a bit early to talk of the details now, but we want to have a proposal ready in six months.”
With perhaps a year or two might be needed to forge a consensus for a new election law, especially if it contains dramatic changes, Pakradouni was realistic about the possibility of any sudden developments.
“I’d like to be surprised and see an election law passed right now, but I don’t think that this is going to happen. This isn’t the right political environment.”
Instead, laying the groundwork for 2005 and a revival of political life should take place through the formation of a new political bloc, he said.
Berri has advocated the formation of such a bloc, while the Baath Party has been floating its proposals for such a mechanism with pro-Syrian politicians and groups.
The front that Pakradouni is advocating has a long way to go, and the issue of Syria’s presence here is likely to be a key dividing-line over who is eventually included.
Pakradouni, now that he has been elected, stressed that he had no problem being seen as pro-regime, which by extension means a supporter of strong ties with Syria.
“I am Emile Lahoud’s ally. I’m convinced of his strategy, and I believe that he was proven right, regarding his stance on the resistance and confronting Israel. Israel withdrew and there was no security problem. In the past, when Israel would withdraw, there were massacres, in Mount Lebanon and villages east of Sidon.
“This is because Lahoud embraced the resistance, and particularly Hizbullah. Today, the South is completely calm.”
Pakradouni said he also agreed with Lahoud’s policy of strategic relations with Syria, “which has begun to give positive results.”
Asked about his relations with the Maronite patriarch, who has repeatedly and vociferously urged a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, Pakradouni concentrated on less divisive stances by Bkirki.
He said the party’s traditional role was to act as a go-between between Bkirki and the Lebanese state, and stressed his support for the Apostolic Exhortation, which was produced after Pope John Paul II’s visit here in 1997.
Pakradouni said it provided a sound concept of Christians’ role in the Middle East, since the document stressed that they must be an integral part of the societies in which they live.
“It said that they are original inhabitants of this region, and not transitory ones … They have a great cultural and intellectual role to play here,” he said, putting forth the idea that “Lebanon, is after, all the
UNESCO of the Arab world.”
“It can’t be the Vietnam of the Arabs, or the Switzerland of the Arabs. It’s not going to be a financial or military power. This is the role that the Apostolic Exhortation called for Christians must be in the vanguard of intellectual life.”
Asked about the difficulty of balancing support for the ideas contained in the Apostolic Exhortation with a less favorable stance on the Maronite bishops’ call for a Syrian withdrawal, Pakradouni indicated that Lebanese politics had gained a breathing-spell from pressure for the latter.
“I don’t know if (the bishops’ second call) came at the right time,” he said, chuckling, “but it seems that Sept. 11 has buried it for now.”
He said the call for a Syrian withdrawal had diminished of late, while a core demand of improving the bilateral relationship remained.
“Calling for a Syrian withdrawal is stupid,” he said flatly. “Syria entered Lebanon for regional reasons, and is not going to leave because of Lebanese reasons.
“I don’t think Syria will withdraw from Lebanon before the Middle East’s crisis is ended. Lebanon has no interest in seeing Syria leave without the Palestinian issue being solved, particularly the permanent settlement (of Palestinians in Lebanon). The Palestinians must leave before we ask the Syrians to.”
Calling Syrian intervention in domestic, non-security related affairs “damaging to Syria before Lebanon,” Pakradouni argued that Lahoud and Syrian President Bashar Assad were “distinguishing between strategic relations, where coordination is 100 percent, and Lebanese domestic issues.”
He argued that a slow process of increasing coordination at the top and less heavy-handed intervention in Lebanese domestic issues was taking place “this is the real correction” in bilateral relations, he said.
Asked if the events in August a wave of arrests of pro-sovereignty activists or politicians’ about-face on reforming criminal procedures legislation involved a non-Lebanese role, Pakradouni replied by saying that the entire world was moving toward a more security-conscious stance.
“September justified what took place in August. In America, they’re giving (the authorities) the leeway, in combating terrorism, for extraordinary detention measures.
“The logic of security is prevailing worldwide. In Lebanon, what happened in August was forgotten. The “international September” made us forget the “Lebanese August.”
Asked if a “security mentality” was sufficient to deal with the phenomenon of violent extremism, Pakradouni predicted that “during the next two years, the US will implement its ‘logic of security’” throughout the world.
He said that if America’s new security policy succeeded, he did not expect any movement to solve the Palestinian problem.
“If it doesn’t succeed, and faces difficulties either in Afghanistan or with its Islamic coalition partners, then, the US, under pressure, might think about a political solution … During this period, the most important thing is for negative repercussions not to happen here, unlike in the past.”
Pakradouni gave a positive evaluation of the authorities’ approach to Sept. 11 and its fallout.
“I think Lebanon did well … We said that yes, we’re with you in the fight against terrorism, but you must distinguish between terrorism and resistance … and I think Emile Lahoud was successful in getting Hizbullah out of the realm of terrorism.”
Also in the wake of Sept. 11, Lebanon has seen incidents an explosion at a Maronite church and a mysterious fire that started in a mosque in Batroun whose importance Pakradouni played down.
“I think that sectarianism is under control. The idea of Lebanon’s national unity is fixed; I’m not afraid of projects to create cantons in Lebanon … There is a rejection by Muslims of an Islamic state, as well as Christians supporting a Christian state.”
Pakradouni said that the country had little to fear from small groups that might be behind the incidents.
“I wouldn’t be surprised by Islamic groups that provoke religious feelings, and the best way to do this is by destroying a church or blowing up a mosque. But their presence is becoming smaller, not growing.
As for the Phalange’s own fortunes after years of postwar malaise, Pakradouni pointed to the stream of well-wishers after its most recent elections.
“The response that the Phalange received from all parties, especially Islamic ones, has encouraged us to engage in a true dialogue with them, from Hizbullah to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.
“The Phalange, by itself, cannot be successful. This is why we have to enter a front, to be more effective ... Of course, the front must have a national, and not a Christian platform,” he said.
Getting the Phalange’s own house in order will prove daunting, and Pakradouni acknowledged the difficulties involved.
After exiting what he acknowledged was a “vicious” party election battle, Pakradouni said that there were three types of opposition currents within the Phalange.
“With the Amin Gemayel group, we have no contacts. With Elie Karameh (a former party president), there are channels of dialogue.
“As for the pro-reform opposition, they are returning to the party. There are people like Paul Jelwan, Paul Abi Rashed and Fares Hajj they all want to come back … They are a group of younger people who call themselves the ‘reform movement’.”
With this third group, he continued, there was an agreement for them to begin working within the party to implement a reform and restructuring policy.
Pakradouni acknowledged that not all elements of the party supported him.
“The traditional cadres and party base are with Amin Gemayel. The younger elements and the ones who came of age during the war are certainly with me. The party’s real struggle is between a group that supports a policy of reform and renewal and the traditional program.”
Pakradouni identified the party’s role as two-fold: take Christians from a situation of boycott to participation in political and national life, and produce a program of renewal for Christians and Lebanon, based on documents like the Apostolic Exhortation.
“Christians aren’t participating today on two basic levels, one of which involves political representation in the state, government, bureaucracy and Parliament. Most Christian MPs don’t represent Christian forces and they weren’t elected by Christians. So this must be corrected. And there’s the issue of development, since Christian areas have become backward.”
Asked about where development needs are particularly pronounced, Pakradouni pointed to the areas surrounding his residence in rural Kesrouan.
“Right here do you see these roads? And go to Batroun, and Jbeil. So there’s a development issue to be corrected … Christians must participate in order to fix these problems.”
From now until May, when the party’s newly elected leadership officially take up their duties, Pakradouni said that preparatory work on the new party policies would be underway.
Efforts here, he said, would focus on producing a new party program with particular emphasis on socio-economic issues; restructuring the party with an eye toward involving more young people and women; contacting various parties and forces to arrange future alliances.
The 56-year old lawyer, who said he spends about 12 hours a day on political activity, said his goal was to return the Phalange to the entire country, where traditionally, Christians from the periphery have played a “more important role than those in Mount Lebanon.”
Pakradouni downplayed the idea that poor financial resources would hinder such a goal, saying that human resources were more important.
“I’m betting on the return of party cadres (in rural areas). We have party headquarters in these regions; we have one in Tripoli it’s closed and it needs to be opened. We have one in the former occupied zone that we need to revive.”
Also in need of dialogue and reform, he continued, are the country’s politicians, and especially the government.
Pakradouni identified creating a good parliamentary election law, reforming the judiciary and improving the socio-economic situation as top national priorities.
But the Cabinet’s performance on these issues has been extremely disappointing, he commented.
“The government never ‘took off,’ on any of these issues, and I don’t know if it is possible to do so now. This government lost its momentum very quickly.
“Relations with the government are cool,” he said. “It’s not just that we don’t have anyone represented in the Cabinet, but because there’s no dialogue. The government isn’t engaging in dialogue and discussing ideas with the various political forces.”
With about half the day spent on politics, “which is everything from reading the papers to making party-related contacts,” another two hours are spent daily on legal cases.
Pakradouni is traveling to Libya this week to review progress on his suit against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres.
He is expecting a “positive” response regarding the court’s decision to hear the brief, which is being presented by the Moammar Gadhafi Foundation for the survivors of the massacres.