NOW & Zahra Hankir

Talking To: Ziad Majed

Ziad Majed, a senior PhD candidate in political science at Sciences Po in Paris, is the former vice president of the Democratic Left Movement. Having studied economics and Arabic literature at the American University of Beirut, Majed’s expertise is extensive and wide-ranging. Majed co-authored the first UNDP development report following Lebanon’s civil war, and wrote a book on the Beirut Spring of 2005 and a pamphlet on the left in Lebanon.  NOW Lebanon interviews this rising academic and politician about the future development of the Democratic Left Movement and its internal divisions, the status of the left in Lebanon and his views on the current political crisis.

NOW Lebanon: You were formerly the vice president of the Democratic Left Movement. Why are you no longer in that position?

Ziad Majed: There are two reasons for that. The first is personal. I am based for the moment outside Lebanon for academic and other reasons, and I think a vice president should be physically present in the country. The second is political. Even though I approve of the movement being part of the March 14 coalition – when it comes to defending Lebanese independence against the Syrian regime’s attacks and against Hezbollah and its allies’ attempts to impose their views and choices – I think, nevertheless, that the Democratic Left should present alternatives to many existing practices and dominating discourses, and it should, in some moments, make political decisions even if they are not in line with the mainstream March 14 ones. 
NOW: What is the nature of the internal division within the Democratic Left Movement, and how will this division impact the future development of the party? Are there any notable differences between you and the secretary of movement, Elias Atallah?

Majed: The secretary of the movement, Elias Atallah, is active, dynamic, devoted and has been present in all important political moments in the last few years. However, there are different points of view within the movement, and many comrades do not approve of some of the positions he expresses.

This should not in principle affect the development of the movement, as we all agreed when founding it in 2004 to adopt a model allowing for different views to coexist and to form [currents] or movements that could be represented in the national elected bodies where decisions are made.

In the movement’s last general assembly in April 2007, Elias Khoury – a founding member and a leading figure in the movement and in the cultural scene of the country – and I were not able to participate, and we decided not to run for elections. However, we worked, and we are still working, with a large number of members, including the Keep Left youth bloc that was elected to the National Committee (winning around 30% of the votes of the members in Lebanon and 58% of the votes of those living outside the country who participated through internet voting), to present political and economic documents assessing the situation in Lebanon, to issue statements when necessary, and to organize cultural activities.

To explain what our main differences with comrade Elias Atallah and the actual leadership are, I can say the following:

First, while considering that the independence struggle is the top priority today, the role of the Democratic Left (what we consider to be center left economically) is to work also on presenting ideas and suggestions for the reforms needed in the country if we are to build a modern state and protect our independence.

This would necessitate political acts, such as lobbying for an electoral law that is based, or that includes, proportional representation; pressuring for the adoption of an administrative decentralization law that could strengthen municipal authorities and weaken clientelism; presenting plans guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary; and paying attention to socio-economic policies, to the situation in the Lebanese University and in public schools, to the social security, to the respect of the environment, to respect of human rights, women’s rights, Palestinian refugees’ civil rights, and the rejection of all forms of political, cultural and religious censorship, etc…

Unfortunately, these issues are absent from the leadership’s concerns and discourses.

Second, the Democratic Left should be clear on its secular positions, whether in the political, social or cultural spheres. And this is not a luxury today, and it is not popular.

It is true that the old leftist approach to confessionalism was – and continues to be through the positions of some parties and movements – simplistic and superficial in the way it reads the political sociology in Lebanon. But it is also true that if we do not understand the perpetual crises of the confessional system and analyze its inability to find solutions within the state institutions, we will be missing important parts of the picture allowing us to understand the severe crisis that we have been going through since 2006, and we will be adopting the same simplistic approach (from the opposite side this time) of those other leftists who consider that all evils are the outcome of confessionalism itself!

I think the actual leadership of the Democratic Left is falling into the trap of simplification.
Having said that, I do not endorse by any means the calls for us to disengage from alliances with confessional groups (as I don’t like to use the term, with the value judgments that come with it), and I have no problem saying that we are allied to these confessional groups only in the independence struggle against Syria and its allies, but we have different aspirations for the future of the country and its political system from theirs…

Third, the Democratic Left should have a consistent discourse that doesn’t change based on some allies’ fluctuations. This doesn’t presume that no tactics are necessary or that changing a view or developing an opinion are sins. Not at all. But this means that when it comes to crucial issues, clarity is needed from a group like us, whose symbolic capital and political credibility are more important than our real influence on the political scene nowadays. In that sense, we are not obliged to repeat the same rhetoric that some of our big allies repeat, as is happening now. They are leaders of communities, not only of parties, and they sometimes have different concerns. They can also move from one position to the other without fearing a serious accountability problem with their supporters, as these supporters remain united with a feeling of solidarity to face the other communities’ alliances. 

A consistency of positions should be adopted, whether on how we read the 2005 elections and alliances; how we deal with Hezbollah, Parliament Speaker Berri and the Aounist movement; or how we deal with the presidential elections, the respect of the constitution and of the civil nature of political power in Lebanon…

There are other differences as well, but until now, we are all – on both sides – trying to live with them!

NOW: How do you position yourself toward Hezbollah, taking into consideration your views on the resistance as were published in a statement you issued about the July War?

Majed: I think Hezbollah is a very complex phenomenon. It is at the same time a Lebanese political party that participates in municipalities, parliament and recently the government (until its ministers resigned), and a military organization well equipped and trained by Iran. It is also a network of social, educational and religious institutions that structured the mindset of a whole generation of Shia and that “architectured” the physical space they occupy, especially in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

Moreover, Hezbollah succeeded in recent years in enlarging its support among its community due to the efficiency of its resistance against Israel in the 1990s and to the exacerbation of confessional tensions in Lebanese society in the last three to four years. In addition to all this, Hezbollah is involved regionally in conflicts as the strong ally, and sometimes the strong tool, of Iran and the Syrian regime.

That is why I believe that the party illustrates two different realities at the same time: the one of a “mini state” within Lebanon that has its own institutions, its strong army and its foreign policy, and the one of a Shia political party representing its community in the confessional Lebanese system.

In its first “reality,” I think Hezbollah is a real threat to Lebanese society – at least the way I see it as a secular citizen – and is the major, but not the only, obstacle in front of building a modern state in the country.

As for its second reality, the party is acting in a “déjà vu” manner in modern Lebanese history, trying to increase its influence on the official state institutions and win more representation in them to protect its mini state and its community’s so-called rights. Unfortunately, its leaders did not draw lessons from the experiences of other communities’ leaders in the past. And worse, they are not recognizing the damage they caused to the country when allying themselves with an enemy of its sovereignty and stability: the Syrian regime.

Modestly, I think my articles in An-Nahar, and later my interviews on LBC on Hezbollah and the “Shia question” in Lebanon were among the first ones on the matter, and I defend every single word I said in them. However, I believe that… the war we went through in July 2006, following Hezbollah’s operation behind the Blue Line, was extremely dangerous for Lebanon, and was dramatically misunderstood, not in terms of the destruction and casualties it caused – those are evident – but in terms of the internal political, social and contractual dynamics, divorces and interactions…

March 14 forces were right in condemning Hezbollah’s decision to start a war without consulting the Lebanese about it and to impose its consequences on the whole population, while only the Syrian regime and Iran could benefit politically from it. However, when the Israelis retaliated brutally against Lebanon, its civilians, its economy and infrastructure, and when they were fully covered (and sometimes encouraged) by the US administration, March 14 should have taken clear positions condemning the American strategy supporting Israeli attacks, concentrating on two issues: the immediate and unconditional ceasefire, and the liberation of newly-occupied territories. There were hesitations in calling for that in the beginning, and the two meetings with Secretary Rice and Assistant Secretary Welch in the middle of the war were terrible mistakes. For these reasons, I issued the statement with Elias Khoury about the war. We couldn’t remain silent, and anyway, regardless of Hezbollah and the despotic regimes sponsoring it, we believe that facing the invasion of Lebanese territories is a duty that all national institutions should assume.

Unfortunately, many people didn’t understand at the time the necessity of setting priorities in their positions, and Hezbollah’s arrogance and aggressiveness didn’t help much in creating national unity and common ground to face that war and the challenges [that arose afterward].

To conclude on that, I still believe that the only solution to stop using Lebanon as a mail box between Iran, the Syrian regime and the United States is through a clear definition of our position in the region. Lebanon cannot afford but to be neutral toward axes (which are not clashing for legitimate Palestinian reasons, as some might pretend), and at the same time to be very supportive of the Palestinian cause through diplomacy, politics, media and all other peaceful tools, not only for the sake of justice, but also for Lebanon’s own interest. Hezbollah fighters, who fought efficiently and bravely against the Israelis, should join the Lebanese army, and the monopoly of weapons and their usage, as well as the war-and-peace decisions, should be [left in the] hands of the Lebanese government… But honestly, and because of what I mentioned earlier on the double reality of Hezbollah and its regional loyalties, I don’t see this happening soon….

NOW: Can you briefly comment on the status of the left in Lebanon? Is this an era of decline?

Majed: I think there are three “lefts” in Lebanon:

First is the traditional left: the communist and nationalistic one that is allied directly or indirectly with the March 8 camp under regional pretexts.

Second is the independent left that is made up of unorganized individuals, intellectuals, NGO activists and student clubs. This one is more into culture and social activism. It is not willing (or capable) of becoming a political actor for different reasons.

Third is the Democratic Left, formed by our movement and many other informal groups of individuals who consider building an independent and democratic state based on a classical Hegelian model a top priority. This left is either in the March 14 alliance or close to its political stances – even if with critiques and doubts.

Anyway, all of the “three lefts” do not have masses behind them, nor do they have a decisive impact on the political [games]. This is not only the case in Lebanon, with its complicated political life, but also in the majority of third-world countries where societies haven’t reached contractual relations to construct institutions, reject violence in internal disputes or accept alternation of power through elections – for different reasons (some are related to internal structures and practices, to religious and social ties, and some to regional conflicts and international interventions).

The left is in that sense more a cultural position than a political one, and its influence is mainly in intellectual circles and among students.

The real challenge for me is how to reconcile it with real politics without abandoning ethical and cultural guidelines to increase its influence and presence… For that, I believe that the Democratic Left Movement, from a social democratic position, should try to work differently, to campaign differently, and to present an alternative to the hegemonic political culture if it wants to have a bigger role one day, and if it wants to pressure for reforms without illusions.

I think one of our achievements until now is that we brought part of the left to the Independence Intifada, and this was important symbolically and had an impact on student and some secular circles. That is why we were punished severely, and the first assassination after the Syrian military withdrawal targeted Samir Kassir, our brilliant intellectual, friend and courageous comrade who founded with us the Democratic Left Movement. The second assassination targeted Georges Hawi, another leftist leader who was trying to bring the communist party, or at least part of it, to join efforts with us…

NOW: What are your views on the current crisis in Lebanon?

Majed: The actual crisis is mainly the result of the Syrian regime’s attempt to block the political process in Lebanon, through assassinations, chaos and a political vacuum in institutions, in order to negotiate with some Western and Arab countries – specifically the US and Saudi Arabia – over the future of the international tribunal. I don’t think the Syrian regime has any other priority for the moment. Its obsession is the tribunal, and it is gambling on time, on international fatigue from Lebanese news and on the end of the momentum that was created by the Bush-Chirac-backed 1559 resolution. To this end, they agreed with the Iranians, who are challenging the US to protect their nuclear program and their geo-strategic ambitions, on using Lebanon by using their allies to send messages and to attract offers and negotiations.

But the crisis is also the result of the incapacity of the Lebanese system to find solutions within its institutions to the political blockade it is facing due to its confessional nature. The two Shia groups who have the monopoly over Shia representation (due to the majoritarian electoral law, without denying their representation) decided to boycott the institutions. They blocked the parliament, paralyzed the government, and with their strong Christian ally – who is feeding illusions and nostalgia among Christians, describing to them their “marginalization” as a result of the Hariri-Sunni phenomenon – they were able to block the election of a new president.

So, the Syrian regime has been able, through brutal terrorism, through counting on its allies, but also due to some inconveniences of the political system in place in Beirut, to make our lives very difficult.

Facing that, the US is not acting firmly because its priority in the region is Iraq, where both the Syrians and the Iranians have been cooperative with them! Anyway, their credibility is questionable in Lebanon [because of] their support for Israel, which is stating clearly – and sometimes lobbying for that in the US – that it has no problem with the Syrian regime, and that it would rather see it in place than seeing an unknown and untested one in the future.

Saudi Arabia is trying to face the Syrians, but also due to the Sunni-Shia tensions, it has to compromise regularly with the Iranians, and it cannot be decisive if other Gulf and Arab countries do not act in support of its regional policies (regardless of how I think of its political regime and previous roles in the region).

I think we are left quite alone for the time to defend our independence, and the French or the Arab League initiatives cannot be alternatives to US-Syrian-Iranian or Saudi-Syrian negotiations. From the beginning, I was against getting into the politics of regional axes. Unfortunately, many believe that we were obliged to do so or that it was unavoidable. I am not that sure…

NOW: What do you envision for Lebanon in the near future?

Majed: We are now hostages of the regional situation. We are also hostages of a paralyzed political system. That shows the existential ties of Hezbollah and the Iran-Syria axis. It also shows the naïveté of those who think we can isolate ourselves from our entourage, while at the same time we call for a US intervention to face Iran and Syria! It is exactly because of this that I am an advocate of neutrality, since the Lebanese are divided in their support for foreign forces – and I am definitely not talking about Israel/Palestine here. I’ve already clarified this before.

Moreover, that shows also that the reform of the political system is not a luxury, as some may think, but a vital measure for the future if we really want to have a viable state.

Honestly, the present situation is the outcome of many accumulations, factors, and sometimes, mistakes. I don’t see any light in the near future. I think we are in a long tunnel. We have to wait, to firmly defend our positions, to avoid escalation of violence – whether physical or verbal – and to reject compromises on our legitimate rights to live in an independent nation, while wishing that at the same time there will be regional solutions and measures that would diminish the pressure on us.

I can talk more on what we should do internally, and I have published many papers on that, but regionally, it would be pretentious to speculate or to talk as if one is a regional actor!

Finally, I hope that internal dialogue would start to at least agree on rejecting violence and civil confrontation, if we are not able to discuss other issues. And I think a popular campaign against civil war is a priority that students and the youth should work on…

  • Isa

    Brilliant interview!!! I have always enjoyed reading Majed, and I just discovered this interview - that seems a bit old - but still very accurate.

    April 28, 2010

  • hana

    I have reread this interview many times. I think it is the best piece I read on Lebanon and its crises for long time now. It is well written, positions are well articlulated and presented by Mr. Majed, and the ideas he defends are ours as a generation dreaming of a better Lebanon. I can understand why people like sami who defends Hizbollah and the Syrian regime got irritated and had nothing to say but repeat some ridiculous arguments. I think the democratic left as represented by Ziad Majed and the martyr Samir Kassir is the hope we have for our country.

    April 24, 2008

  • Assim

    To Sami You are confessional, obsessed with the Shia, The only hope for this country is with secularism, with the democratic left, not the communist, and with people like Ziad.

    March 7, 2008

  • jade

    nabil, bilal and sami: what's your joined IQ score? i mean, added up (decimals don't show up on IQ tests).

    February 29, 2008

  • pierre

    well I liked the interview , the man is very moderated , and speaks clearly his points....and I want to say to sami that considered the shiites in lebanon exclusive for the hezb and the 7arakeh...no this is not right the shiites have the right to be outside of the "hezeb , 7arakeh" thing ... like ziad this young man he can be in a party with people from other religous background and it is not true that if the shiites are a majority today that they can rule the country, we are talking here about a democracy that gives each community in lebann the right to participate in the governance of this country

    February 17, 2008

  • Sami

    Tell us your sources for your statistics.Proportional means you get representation according to you numbers, if you are 40% of the population you then should get 40% of the seats, correct me if i am wrong.I fLebanon is not a confessional representation then why is the president a Marooni, why not put there the qualified person no matter what confession he has?

    February 16, 2008

  • Sami

    Give us the sources of your statistics.The whole world including the CIA agrees that the Shiaa in Lebanon are the largest sect except you.Proportional representation means if you are 40% of the population you should get 40% of the MP seats.Lebanon is based on confessional representation why else do the Maroonis get 34 MP's while the Shiaa get 27 and the Sunni 27?Ours is not a democracy it is a confessional representation ya fat7al.

    February 15, 2008

  • Assem Khalifeh

    Excellent interview. To Monsieur Sami, you don't understand proportional representation, the chiia in lebanon are 29% not the majority, and you know nothing about Ziad. He has always been a leftist but was never in the communist party; he also never build his political position based on confessional lines, as it seem you do.

    February 15, 2008

  • Sami

    Dont forget that Ziad is a communist and fought the LF/Kataeb at one time, he is anti Marooni as well so dont hug him too much as he will stabb you in the back.

    February 14, 2008

  • Michel

    Let us hope that his fate is not that of Kassir, Hawi or Gebran. we need more of this type of thinking if we are to ever build a modern and democratic state.

    February 14, 2008

  • helene

    This is a great interview. My question however, is what to do to overcome confessionalsm? I don't think secularism is possible in the muslim countries, or mixed countries. Anyway, Regards to Mr. Majed and good job Now Lebanon!

    February 13, 2008

  • helene

    Brilliant piece. Articulated, serene and clear, as usual Mr. Majed. I think however that moving to secularism in Lebanon is something really difficult, if not impossible. Good luck anyway.

    February 12, 2008

  • hana

    I would like to thank Zahra Hankir for this excellent interview. Ziad Majed represents some hope for those lebanese looking for the future, and for the needed reforms. I think people like him could bring secular and progressive youth back to politics in the terrible moments our country is going through.

    February 11, 2008

  • Sami

    I stopped reading this little man when he mentioned "proportional representation" while taking a stand against Hizeb.How hippocratic can one be.If proportional representation is granted to the opposition then they will get 45% of the cabinet not the third only.And if the Shiaa are allowed to be represented proportionally then they will rule Lebanon, someone please explain this left movement which is lead by a Marooni but mainly composed of Shiaa.

    February 11, 2008

  • Yasmina

    I think this is the sort of voice that NOW Lebanon should work on promoting, as opposed to that of other figures (such as al-assad, gemayel, etc) who really have little or no analysis to add to the current political situation and whose views are entirely tautological and/or reinforce divisions rather than challenge them. Majed's views are a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stifling environment of political debate- probably given that his arguments are backed by academic thinking- and i look forward to watching his career evolve.

    February 9, 2008