Interview with Wa'il Kheir: "The Lebanese Are Heroes"
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
Middle East Quarterly: In December 1996, you were taken into detention for a week. What do you understand was the purpose your arrest?
Wa'il Kheir: There were no charges levied against me, so I cannot be sure. My best guess is that it was a mistake as a result of a clampdown on the opposition. As an active and vocal human rights organization, the foundation started to receive reports about that clamp-down, and of course, we disseminated this information to the international human rights network.
Opposition figure Dory Chamoun, head of the National Liberal Party, was probably one of the political leaders on the top of the list, so the Lebanese security and army intelligence started detaining his followers. In the two or three days before my detention, Chamoun called me on a daily basis to update me on developments. I presume Chamoun's telephone line was tapped. (Tapping telephone lines is something the government admits to doing.) I suppose they detained me as somebody who was disturbing the interests of the government. They wanted to put an end to what they consider nonsense-my human rights work. I was detained in the classical fashion: a knock on the door in the early hours of the morning.
MEQ: According to one news report, you were arrested along with some 47 other opposition figures;1 according to another,2 your travails resulted from an armed attack on a bus of Syrian workers in Lebanon a week earlier, leaving one dead and seven injured. Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to the president of Lebanon3 in which it portrayed your arrest as a means to put pressure on you to whitewash government actions. What do you understand as the purpose of your detention?
Kheir: Those are just pretexts. The real motive was intimidation. The Lebanese government cracks down on people it does not appreciate. It doesn't make any sense that I was arrested in connection with the bus incident; I don't know from which side a gun shoots. They didn't even ask me about this. They focused rather on why we defended Samir Ja'ja', one of the Christian political leaders. It was difficult for individuals of their political mentality to understand that we are not biased in our defense or accusation of anybody but defend individuals whose rights we suspect are violated.
MEQ: It does not happen every day that a human rights figure is thrown into prison without charges. Please tell us about your experiences in detention. Specifically, were you tortured in a literal sense?
Kheir: No, not in my case or in the case of others whom I interviewed. Neither myself or any of the people I know were beaten, flogged, etc. Still it was physically very painful to have iron handcuffs on your hands for long hours over many days, as I did. In the case of the others, hands were cuffed throughout their detentions; one person was handcuffed for more than ten days. They would also keep us standing for hours, and we had to sleep on blankets on the floor throughout the detention.
The followers of the Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces, are usually very badly treated.
MEQ: How were you treated?
Kheir: Well, of course, they violated all kinds of covenants. Not only was I detained without a warrant, but they used handcuffs. Handcuffs are only to be used when you transport somebody from one place to another; or if the person would constitute a danger to his life or the lives of others if his hands were free. Anything apart from this specific, limited use of handcuffs is torture, banned by the covenants.
During my captivity I was completely cut off from the rest of the world. They blindfolded me from the time we left my home, and I was put in a cellar for the duration of my detention. I couldn't tell where I was and didn't know night from day. They even gave me food at irregular times so I could not measure the flow of time. I was also harassed. They would order me, "Move on, move on, move on." But how could I move on when I was blindfolded and handcuffed?
I was not allowed to speak out but had to give a signal when I wanted to speak and the guard would come to me. Probably they understood from reading the political literature that prisoners gain courage feeling the presence of another detainee. So they isolate you as much as they can. Anything can cross your the mind when you are blindfolded and handcuffed all the time, completely cut off from normal life.
MEQ: What do you surmise were your jailers' goals?
Kheir: All these things work to break down a human being. I felt so helpless, so vulnerable. My detention was a faithful replica of what one reads in the political literature of this century-Arthur Koestler, Solzhenitzyn, Neroda et al.-particularly the part dealing with the breaking down of the detainee.
MEQ: Why were you released so quickly?
Kheir: I think it was the international outcry, including pressure from diplomats and by human rights organizations. I was surprised how active the U.S. State Department was on the issue; I was told that it had more contact with the Lebanese government that week than at any time since 1990. The European Community, Germany especially, was very active.
MEQ: What did it do?
Kheir: In France, 208 senators and deputies signed a petition for my release, as did many others. The ambassador of the European Union, briefed on my case by the German ambassador, happened to be in Lebanon and saw the foreign minister during my incarceration. At that meeting, he told the foreign minister, "Your Excellency, I must point out to you that we cannot sign agreements with governments that violate human rights." The foreign minister disputed this point ("Where does it say so in the agreement? This hasn't come to my attention."), but the European ambassador pointed it out to him and stood firm. "I want you now to take me to where Kheir is detained. I wish to see how he is doing." The foreign minister informed him that my being jailed was a mistake that would soon be righted. On the way out the European ambassador told the German ambassador, that he would be leaving Lebanon but if "there is no happy ending to this incident, let me know and I'll return to Lebanon."
MEQ: Was your human rights work the key factor in your release?
Kheir: Yes, but there is a wider context to my detention. Unwittingly, the authorities struck at a number of respectable symbols. Dory Chamoun is not a politician who can be framed as easily as the other ones, for there is no blood on his hands; he did not rob, or summarily execute anybody. Compared to his political peers, he's a respectable person.
They also targetted a leading Beirut liberal daily, An-Nahar, by detaining one of its reporters. Both Chamoun and An-Nahar have their own local networks and contacts abroad. The authorities had to backtrack when human rights organizations and other influential parties locally and abroad reacted so vocally against the detentions.
MEQ: You are saying international pressure works?
Kheir: Yes. Or, rather, the spotlight of international publicity aimed at such violations inevitably yields positive results.
MEQ: How did people in Lebanon respond to your release? Did they shun you?
Kheir: Hardly. I thought that after my release I would find my wife and my son at home, plus my sisters and some friends, no more. I thought everyone else would keep their distance from a political prisoner who was released. After all, that's what you read about Soviet Russia, the Third Reich, Latin American dictatorships, and all the others.
But the reaction of Lebanese society was amazing. Unlike political detainees in Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, or Third World dictatorships, whom everybody avoids after their release, people streamed into my house with cakes, champagne, flowers, and everything you can think of. Hundreds of people obviously did so to challenge the authorities. It's not like there was a coup d'état and the ex-regime found itself in prison. No, the same jailers, the same security structure was still there and as energetic as before. Yet society challenged that structure.
Allow me to give you some examples. During my incarceration, the dean of the School of Theology of the Holy Spirit University declined an invitation by President Hirawi and did not hide his reasons. "I cannot be part of a celebration when a member of my faculty is unjustly detained," he communicated to the president. A well-known singer of classical music performing in Jordan at that time dedicated her last piece to "Wa'il Kheir, who is spending Christmas in prison, rather than with his family, for his defense of the rights of human beings."
I don't think many former prisoners could cite similar experiences. The Lebanese, no doubt about that, are real heroes.
MEQ: Does a civil society exist in Lebanon?
Kheir: Yes, and this illustrates the positive side of the Lebanese case. Unlike the rest of the Arab Middle East, where the state is so strong it crushes civil society, in Lebanon civil society is stronger than the state.
Take education: the most important educational institutions in Lebanon, whether elementary, intermediate, or university level, are privately owned. It was almost a century after the first private university was founded in Lebanon in 1866 that the Lebanese government established a state university. Still nobody disputes the superiority of the privately-owned schools. The same goes for hospitals, where there is no comparison between privately-owned and state-owned hospitals, and other institutions.
MEQ: How did a civil society endure through the civil war?
Kheir: The very structure of the Lebanese society-and the institution of the extended family in particular-helped the Lebanese survive sixteen or so years of war.
Civil society was left on its own when everything-the central government, the army, the administration, the courts-collapsed. It not only managed to survive but certain sectors thrived. The media, for instance, fared better than before. This is a case where civil society functions much better in the absence of the state.
MEQ: At the same time Lebanon fought a longer civil war than almost any other in recent memory. Isn't there a paradox here? How can a strong civil society exist in a country that has ripped itself apart?
Kheir: The war in Lebanon was not a civil war in the dictionary sense of the term; Lebanese often fought non-Lebanese, which helped rally civil society. Also, perhaps the war went on so long precisely because all the parties that make up the civil societies are strong. The very duration of the civil war shows that society is strong, that it can pass through an extended period of agony and remain intact.
Furthermore, there is something else that serves as a source of democracy in Lebanon and its guarantor: the confessional system-a Middle Eastern version of your tripartite government with its checks and balances. In Lebanon, everything has a religious quality; even football teams implicitly represent one or other of the confessional groups. Which tunes one hums is usually determined by the religious affiliation of the singer. The way you relate to nature, to the other sex, to children-all these different concepts are defined by religious affiliation.
It is an inescapable fact of life in Lebanon, as in the rest of the Middle East, that the basic political unit has always been and remains the religious community. Any successful political system must rest on this reality and not try to ignore, avoid, or circumvent it.
MEQ: You endorse confessionalism?
Kheir: Yes. Although any intellectual finds it slightly embarrassing to defend the confessional system, I have no doubt that it is the basis of democracy in Lebanon. If the government abolishes the confessional system and imposes a unitary state, that will be the end of democracy in Lebanon. Eliminating confessionalism in the political realm through legal decrees and state decisions will only bring it back with a vengeance. First, affiliations would still adhere along religious lines. Look what happened in Yugoslavia, where decades of atheistic policies did nothing at all to reduce confessional feelings. Second, it will be ultimately nothing more than a façade for the domination of Lebanon by one religious group.
MEQ: Please be more explicit.
Kheir: A unitary state would allow the majority religion-in our case, the Muslims-to impose its will unchallenged on the rest of the country. Secularism is a very attractive slogan but unworkable for us Lebanese.
CHRISTIANS AND MUSLIMS
MEQ: Lebanon began life as a Christian polity. Is it still in any sense still a Christian country?
Kheir: No, Christians are losing their grip and are almost entirely excluded from decision making. Some Christians fill key public administrative posts, but their function seems to be to undermine other Christians; it's easier to accomplish this process of undermining through a Christian than a non-Christian. Samir Ja'ja', a Christian political leader, has been tried and convicted of trumped-up charges and both the hearing magistrate and the head of the court are Christians.
MEQ: Have Christians maintained their position outside of the political arena?
Kheir: In the economy too, the role of Christians is declining. It's all connected: if you are excluded from power, you cannot promulgate rulings favorable to your economic interests. In the army the senior officer corps has a majority of Christians, though not in sensitive positions; the vast majority in the army are no longer Christians and at the top ranks the numbers are decreasing. In the university, Christians are still strong and maintaining ground, though there, too, they are subjected to a lot of pressure. Having said all this, Lebanon remains the Middle Eastern country where Christians continue to enjoy the most freedom.
MEQ: Beirut was once called the Paris of the Middle East. Does anything of that old identity live on today?
Kheir: No, I don't recognize much of Paris in the Beirut of today. The French way of life, once associated with Beirut's social life, with a certain class of people, and with a certain religious denomination, is vanishing.
MEQ: Is this transformation of Lebanese life something inevitable?
Kheir: No, if it had been handled differently from the outset, things could have ended up very differently. There was nothing inevitable about this sad ending of the Lebanese way of life and probably the Lebanese polity.
MEQ: Please characterize the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and compare it to other occupations around the world. Is it particularly harsh or benign, or middling?
Kheir: No occupation can be benign. Syria's occupation of Lebanon takes a harsh turn whenever its grip over the country is challenged.
From the technical point of view, the Syrian occupation is an impressive achievement; most striking is the perseverance Damascus has displayed in achieving its long-standing goal to control Lebanon. This is especially noteworthy when one considers that the whole of the international community has approved the occupation at a moment when the world is moving in an unprecedented fashion toward granting autonomy and independence to all peoples.
MEQ: Do Lebanese feel the Syrian presence in their daily life?
Kheir: Very much so, touching practically every facet of daily life. Aside from politics, it is most pronounced in the economic sphere, where Syrians present an across-the-board economic competition. You find Syrians everywhere, from the beggar in the street to the owners of huge contracting companies. Lebanese business and Lebanese labor are constantly undermined by Syrian heavy-handedness. The Syrians' misbehavior in the economic realm exceeds even that of European colonizers-at least their exploitation was usually accompanied by a building up of the physical infrastructure and public administration.
MEQ: So the primary presence is an economic one, not one of security?
Kheir: It is neither exclusively this nor that. Syria's presence is primarily political, and the security components flow from that. In addition, maintaining economic control requires keeping firm control of the country. In this respect, security is not an end in itself.
MEQ: Does one have a sense in Lebanon that the Syrians are all around and are watching?
Kheir: Very much so. The Big Brother syndrome, Damascus style, operates there.
MEQ: How so?
Kheir: For the average citizen-someone not very interested in politics-the Syrian presence takes an economic form; he need not fear the security presence in a very concrete or direct way. For the intelligentsia and the politicians, the presence is much more burdensome.
MEQ: What political activities are you allowed to engage in?
Kheir: For the most part you can write what you wish, for example against President Ilyas Hirawi or Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri; these are subjects the Syrians do not care about. I'm not at all a believer in the conspiratorial interpretation of things, but I have the impression that the Syrians don't mind if a member of parliament criticizes Hariri; this is one way to keep him dependent on Damascus.
That said, some issues they are very zealous about.
MEQ: Which issues?
Kheir: Three in particular. The reputation of President Hafiz al-Asad and his family; this is an absolutely taboo subject; there must be no mention of anything negative. Of course, you are encouraged to laud and praise him as much as you like. Second, anything that deals with the Syrians' armed presence in Lebanon. Third, news or views about corruption in Syria; this is something they will never tolerate. The Syrians deal very harshly with any transgression in these three categories.
MEQ: And if you do raise one of these issues, what happens?
Kheir: The Lebanese authorities will handle you first. The Syrians have plenty of security agreements with the Lebanese and are training the Lebanese to look after Syria's interests. They allow the Lebanese a chance to smooth out the problem. If they can't, then Syrians enter. Or if it pertains to an activity that's of very major concern for the Syrians, then they handle the case from the first.
MEQ: Do the Syrians get involved in any other cases?
Kheir: The Foundation for Human and Humanitarian Rights finds that the Syrians also directly handle three categories of people. First, they deal with the pro-Iraqi Ba'thists. Second, they handle pro-Arafat Palestinians, and they do so ruthlessly. For pro-Arafat Palestinians, the only safe place is south of the Litani River, near Sidon, where Syrian security personnel cannot enter due to arrangements made with Israel many years ago. Instead, the Syrians deal with them by gunning them down, which is why in 'Ayn al-Hilwa every now and then you read about assassinations. We all know it is the Syrian way to decapitate their enemies among the Palestinians.
Third, they deal with the Muslim fundamentalists of Tripoli. There are no mountains between Tripoli and the central part of Syria, making the port of Tripoli the natural opening to central Syria and creating many links between the two areas. All the Sufi orders of Hama are in Tripoli, and Hama was a hotbed of fundamentalism, the only real threat to the regime. So the Syrians are quite conscious of the danger posed by fundamentalists in Tripoli, as opposed to those of other Lebanese cities.
MEQ: Human Rights Watch stated some years ago that "the record of violations in Syrian-controlled Lebanon has been worse than in Syria."4 In your view, is this the case now?
Kheir: No, in Lebanon it's still better. At least there is a chance to operate in ways you cannot in Syria. Things acceptable for us are high treason there. Every now and then, international organizations issue whole lists about people who are put in various kinds of prisons-some of them terrible prisons-just because of their human rights activities. In Lebanon we probably gain from the fact that we are not all that important for the Syrian leaders.
MEQ: Do Lebanese vanish in the sense that Argentineans once disappeared?5
Kheir: Not exactly. Our records don't show people being thrown from military planes over the sea, but a number of Lebanese are in Syrian custody. Even Lebanese government officials acknowledge these charges. President Hirawi admitted that 210 individuals are detained without trial in Syria's prisons, and Prime Minister Hariri repeated the same number. Our impression at the Foundation is that the numbers are much higher, but at least that admission is something that human rights organizations can build on.
MEQ: What about Hizbullah, Amal, the other fundamentalist groups? Do they enforce restrictions in Lebanon against behavior they disapprove of?
Kheir: Of course. But you must distinguish between Hizbullah and Amal. Amal has over the years diminished to the point that it merely represents the interests of Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament, and his corrupt followers.
Hizbullah is different: it is the most successful militia in the history of Lebanon. It offers complete services to the Shi'a, and it is not as corrupt as other militias. In fact, some tell me they are quite ethical. The only thing that people don't like about Hizbullah, and I fully share the feeling, is their interference in the personal affairs of people: how to dress, what to drink, what to eat, what to believe or not believe, etc.
MEQ: Does Hizbullah also interfere with the way Christians live?
Kheir: Yes, at least for those Christians living in predominantly Hizbullah areas.
MEQ: Does Hizbullah apply the Shari'a to Christians?
Kheir: A small Christian community in a suburb of Beirut, of course, has to adjust its behavior to accord with Hizbullah orders.
MEQ: For example, a Christian there cannot drink alcohol?
Kheir: No, he can't, at least not openly. Restaurants in Muslim areas hardly sell liquor. This was never the case before in Lebanon, by the way, even under the Turks.
HUMAN RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS
MEQ: Until recently, the Arabic-speaking countries were conspicuous by their absence of human rights organizations. Now these exist in at least five places: Tunisia, Egypt, the West Bank, Jordan, and Lebanon. To what do you ascribe this development?
Kheir: Many Arab regimes are taking a liberal turn in their economic policies. It becomes very difficult to separate economic liberalization from political liberalization. The revolution in communications also makes it more difficult to maintain closed and programmed societies. In the five places you mention these developments encouraged the initiation of some native human rights activity.
MEQ: It's the regimes, then, that have changed?
Kheir: Only in the sense that they are easing back some of the pressures. The media in Egypt is much freer now than it was under Gamal Abdel Nasser or during the early days of Anwar as-Sadat. You can now stomach reading the Jordanian press.
MEQ: This means there's now room for human rights organizations?
Kheir: Yes. The reduced pressures also cast a positive light on human rights activities. It is getting better but not all over the Arab world. As you point out, they exist in only five regions. The remaining Arab countries still have no human rights groups. And even the existing organizations are in jeopardy: during their past two annual conferences, the Arab ministers of interior meeting in Tunis decided that they wanted to put an end to these human rights organizations, which they say are "financed by Western countries."
MEQ: Is that accusation true? Are they financed by Western countries?
Kheir: Some organizations, such as the Egyptian groups, do get financial assistance from donors in Western countries, but they are not on anyone's payroll and are not part of any conspiracy to undermine their governments. In our case, we are a corporate study center and we charge for our services. So we don't get Western donations.
MEQ: Do the various human rights organizations see eye-to-eye on the issues confronting them?
Kheir: Not entirely. The Egyptian Society for Human Rights in its early years only selected human rights issues that it expected would enhance the cause of Arab nationalism.
For instance, it defended Sulayman Khatir, the military guard who opened fire on seven Israelis in the Sinai in 1983. I was furious when I read of the Egyptian organization's position, and I sent a very unfriendly letter saying, I don't understand why you would defend the killing of seven tourists-children and women in their bathing suits-as a heroic act. Muhammad Fa'iq, the Egyptian secretary-general at the time, answered with a very legalistic response, "Our society does not discriminate between peoples and religions as per article so-and-so of our by-laws," and the like. The real reason they defended Khatir was because his victims were Jews. We chose not to work very closely with them as a result.
However, that is in the past, and now the groups are more professional and come closer to maintaining international standards.
MEQ: What has been the impact of your own organization?
Kheir: We work on a number of levels, the most important being grass-roots education. Hundreds of students every year at two universities take a credit course on human rights. And when you teach human rights in Beirut, you teach not just the Lebanese but the whole Middle East; my students come from as far away as the Caucasus and Algeria. So, the only way to spread this gospel to the whole Middle East is in Lebanon.
MEQ: And the general impact of human rights organizations in the Arab countries?
Kheir: It takes time to have an impact, but you can see the effect build. Egyptian human rights organizations denounced in no uncertain terms recent attempts in their country on the lives of Copts, a response that has no precedent. These protests help to spread a climate of liberalism and promote the idea that each human has value, regardless of religious affiliation. This concept is not deeply rooted in the Middle East, but it has to start somewhere. And it's now started.
1 Reuters, Dec. 24, 1996.
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