Socialist Appeal interviews student activist in Beirut

Last year's war in Lebanon ended in defeat for Israel, but it also shook up Lebanese society. The general strike that took place shortly afterwards is testimony to this fact. Luke Wilson interviewed a student activist in Beirut on how he sees the situation now.

Throughout the decades of vicious bloodshed, wars and repression in the Middle East, Socialist Appeal and our predecessor, the Militant Tendency, often stood alone in understanding that the only way to end this misery was through a socialist transformation of the region, replacing the monarchies, military dictatorships and theocracies with a federation of workers' states. We have always rejected the absurd notion that the so-called "peace plans" of the imperialist powers, their local stooges and the United Nations could ever free the peoples of the region.

But how could this be achieved? Through the unity of the masses of workers, peasants, students and activists in the Middle East, striving together to drive out imperialism and establish a socialist society. These masses are already becoming increasingly radicalised by the misery inflicted upon them: waves of strikes have hit Iran, Egypt and Israel, and in Lebanon last year, Israel's brutal invasion was met with determined resistance. So how do we channel this radicalism into revolutionary activity? By building revolutionary parties in the Middle East, who can educate the masses and offer leadership.

However, making contact with socialists and progressives in any Middle Eastern country is not easy. I was helped greatly in getting in touch with Kamal Farran, a student activist at the American University of Beirut, through the Internet. Because of the practical difficulties in meeting Kamal, I arranged to "interview" him via the internet on his opinions of the conflict with Israel, on the Lebanese resistance, and on his own activities.

Socialist Appeal would not necessarily agree with all of his views. For instance, the general strike which took place in Lebanon, although it aimed at the bringing down of the government, the underlying reasons for it are clearly the terrible economic conditions that a section of Lebanese society has to endure. The reference to the "incomplete consciousness" of the Lebanese masses has to be explained in terms of the complicating factor of the national question, the ethnic divisions and the role of the Communist Party leadership, which has not been able to pose the question of working class unity. The Lebanese army also cannot be entrusted with defending the Lebanese people. The Lebanese government is pro-imperialist and therefore can never wage a genuine struggle against any attempt at invasion on the part of the Israeli army. That was clear last and explains why Hezbollah filled the vacuum.

However, we do think that the interview is thorough and well thought-out and indicates that the more conscious and leftward leaning youth are thinking things through and trying to find an objective and socialist view of the situation in the Lebanon. We welcome more contributions from these young comrades.



LW: Hello Kamal, and thank you for agreeing to this ‘interview'. How did you first come across the In Defence of Marxism website? How long have you been a member of this Facebook group, and what prompted you to join? 

KF: I was told about the In Defence of Marxism site by a comrade in a leftist group I joined at university. Actually, at that time I knew I was a leftist in the broad sense of the word; I had general leftist ideas regarding politics, but I still didn't know much about the different schools of thought and the various tendencies inside leftism. The In Defence of Marxism site was one of various sites with different points of view that I began reading, and it turned out to be the one I agree the most with.

I joined the Facebook group about six months ago as a way of being in contact with people who have similar ideas to mine.

LW: The political situation in Lebanon is extremely volatile, partly as a result of the bloody invasion by Israel last year. What do you believe prompted Israel to invade?

KF: The Israeli ruling class has always thrived on the idea that the Israeli army has the superior military capability in the region. In fact, we notice how they are always instilling fear of the Arabs among the ordinary Israeli people, and telling them at the same time about Israel's military might as if to say, "You need us to survive".

After Israel was forced to leave Southern Lebanon in 2000 due to the high cost of staying there in terms of soldiers dying, that image was a bit shaken inside the Israeli community so they had to find a way of eliminating the presence of Hezbollah on their borders, again to tell the people that "We can still protect you". They tried to count on other factors, like UN resolution 1559 that calls on the disarmament of all militias and on the internal instability in Lebanon, especially after the murder of Prime Minister Hariri in 2005. But when they saw that nothing was happening, they just needed an excuse to wage a war whose goal was to eliminate Hezbollah's presence. Hezbollah's capturing of the two soldiers was just what Israel needed to do what it wanted.

LW: The widespread perception in the West is that Israel lost the war. To what extent do you feel this to be correct? What effect, if any, do you believe Lebanese resistance had on the outcome of the war?

KF: There is no doubt that since Israel couldn't achieve its goals in disarming Hezbollah and removing their presence from their border that they lost the war. But, I don't believe that we can say that Lebanon won when there were almost 1500 civilians killed, thousands injured and almost a million refugees. I believe there were losers on both sides since wars are not the solution to the region's problem; they are its problem.

Maybe we can say that the idea that, despite all military advancements technologically, a resistance can still work and is the only winner. In fact, the Lebanese resistance both on the ground and politically were the reason that Israel's plans were foiled. We notice that most of the damage was done through air strikes but on the ground Israel sometimes needed days to enter a village and couldn't do much.

LW: The war was very soon followed by a big general strike. What do you believe were the causes of the strike? What effect did it have on the consciousness of the Lebanese masses? Does sectarianism still play a role?

KF: Actually, the general strike which took place in Lebanon had nothing to do with economic issues, and it was mainly demanding the resignation of the Siniora government.

In fact, though Hezbollah and the other opposition parties participating in the strike repeatedly criticized the corruption of many ruling class parties or members and attacked the economic "reform" plan laid out by the Siniora government, they never presented an alternative policy and some parties in the opposition had been in the government before, during the Syrian presence, and they were known to also be corrupt.

Unfortunately, the Lebanese masses have an incomplete consciousness when it comes to class issues; they criticize corruption, inequality, and other issues, yet we see these same people supporting the leaders of their corresponding religious sects, ignoring and turning a blind eye to their corruption. This has lately increased with the intensification of the political crisis where people are considering economic issues to be of secondary importance due to the unstable security situation both internally and with respect to Israel. In fact, sectarianism seems to be increasing as the leaders are taking advantage of the situation to instil in the people fear from the other sects, and thus further expand their influence.

LW: In the eyes of the Western media, the Lebanese resistance was embodied by the Islamic movement, Hezbollah. What's your view on the role of Hezbollah? Do you believe it plays any progressive role in Lebanon today?

KF: Hezbollah's major role is that relating to Israel. Though I couldn't but support their resistance when Israel was attacking Lebanon, I can't agree with their general ideology.

Though Hezbollah has proved that it can defend Lebanon when attacked, it still adopts a policy that I believe benefits the Israeli ruling class by giving it further excuses to wage more wars. The language Hezbollah uses cannot but cause the Israeli people to be afraid of it. Also, during the war, one of Hezbollah's tactics was to target Israeli civilians in response to Israel's targeting of civilians so that Israelis pressure their government to stop the attack. It is true that the Israeli army also targeted civilians (1500 dead wasn't a mistake), but adopting the same strategy I think backfires on Hezbollah in the long term.

In addition, Hezbollah bases its ideology on religious beliefs; their fighters go to battle believing that they will be in heaven as soon as they die. While this is sufficient for the individual person to fight with tenacity in a war, it is not necessary; during the Israeli occupation of much of Lebanon in 1982, many leftist and nationalist groups resisted very well against it and in fact the Lebanese Communist Party was crucial in beginning joint resistance work of different parties.

Also, I believe that Hezbollah's economic policy would not be different from that in Iran where we see workers being oppressed. Although they currently have a big network providing social services, it is just part of their populist methods and not any part of a bigger economic plan that can help in solving the problems of the people.

LW: The Lebanese Communist Party is, I believe, one of the largest in the Middle East. What role did it play in the resistance to Israel's invasion? Has it grown as a result of its role? Do you believe it plays any progressive role in Lebanon today?

KF: Like most communist parties in the world, the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP) suffered a huge blow with the fall of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, that blow also coincided with the beginning of the strong Syrian influence after the end of the Lebanese civil war. Syria worked on weakening most parties that transcended sectarian limits so that they could tighten their grip on the country further; they gave the task of resistance against the Israeli occupation in the south exclusively to Hezbollah (Shiites), the management of the economy to Hariri and his bloc (Sunnis), they oppressed Christians, etc... So the LCP was weakened and became entangled in a mesh of different problems inside the party.

During the latest invasion, the party did whatever they could do especially in terms of the media. Their radio "Voice of the People" supported the resistance with national songs and such things, and all the time their signal was repeatedly interfered by the Israeli military who used it to transmit anti-Hezbollah messages. They also played a role in relief campaigns for the refugees, and there are even some reports I am not sure of that they sent some fighters to the ground.

Yet, the party has still not reformed itself after the fall of the Soviet Union and it still adopts a Stalinist approach. In fact, in the past few years many prominent party members have been sacked for disagreeing with the general policy of the party. Also, the party is not actively trying to present an alternative to all the sectarian blocs in Lebanon and their policies, apart from occasionally mentioning how they differ on some very specific topics (such as the issue of the government in Lebanon) from the different groups in Lebanon.

LW: As you may be aware, attitudes vary on the British left regarding Hezbollah, Hamas and similar movements. During Israel's attack on Lebanon, some parts of the anti-war movement marched under the banner "We are all Hezbollah". What is your view of sections of the Left in the West giving uncritical support to Hezbollah? Does it help the Lebanese masses in their struggle?

KF: One of the main problems in Lebanon is that the resistance is only in the hands of Hezbollah, which is a religious party. This has caused people from other sects to fear the fact that one sect has a large amount of weapons, and is pushing them to ask for the disarmament of Hezbollah instead of seeing its benefits. I don't think that not having a body capable of resisting is the solution. I think what is needed is a national movement which anybody can join, which is under the command of the Lebanese army though adopting some of the resistance strategies and whose job it is to help in defending in case of an attack.

The Lebanese masses need to get rid of their major enemy which is sectarianism, and I don't believe that supporting sectarian parties could help in anyway. So maybe it would be better if the British and International left marched under the banner "We are all resistance".

LW: I believe you've been able to organise some discussion with like-minded students at your university. What's the nature of your group? What level of support have you attracted, and what difficulties have you encountered in operating in Lebanon?

KF: Well, when I began university I joined a leftist group called No Frontiers. This group is a progressive student organization which is independent from any political party outside the university. It has embraced an active politics of human rights and social equality through its engagement in the political, social, and cultural life at the university. Basic principles and spaces of activism include: human rights, social and gender equality, civil and sexual liberties, environmental awareness, sustainable development, secularism, internationalism, anti-war movements and anti-globalization struggles.

Since its establishment in 1997 it has attracted a number of leftist students and has been actively involved in the university. It has been participating in the Students' Representative Council (SRC) elections inside the university and has twice won the Vice-presidency position in the university (the highest that can be attained by a student).

Although lately it has been recruiting fewer students due to the extreme political polarization in the country it still managed to gain 4 out of 95 seats in the last SRC elections.

LW: Thanks for your answers. They're very interesting, and thorough. I hope we keep in touch, and can continue to build links with each other.