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'People in Lebanon want to live in dignity'

October 27, 2019

Ziad Saab was once a fighter in the Lebanese civil war. Today, he stands shoulder to shoulder with the demonstrators in Beirut. He says a new electoral law would help to overcome the divisions in Lebanese society.

Ziad Saab
Image: Ziad Saab

DW: You fought in the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990.) Today, you're out on the street with the demonstrators and campaigning for a Lebanon that can overcome the divisions in its society. How great is that societal division today?

Ziad Saab: If you'd asked me this question a month ago, I would probably have answered it differently. At that point, divisions in society had seldom been bigger. Up until a month ago, Lebanon was like a jigsaw puzzle, divided up into lots of little pieces. Now, though, I see things differently. Close alliances are starting to form as a result of the protests, and they're completely changing many people's picture of Lebanon. People are communicating with each other — north to south, west to east. They've taken matters into their own hands, and they're demanding fundamental rights that are needed in every society — whether it's the right to education, freedom of expression, or freedom of information.

People in Lebanon want to live in dignity. They're bonding over their common concerns. The societal implosion that's happening here also has to do with the way the civil war ended in 1990. Afterward, many factors resulted in the establishment of an ugly system led by those who had fought along confessional lines in the war, who subsequently divided the country up among themselves.

Read more: Lebanon’s media landscape - struggling with digitalization and media freedom

You were a commander of the forces of the Communist Party, and you were already fighting on the frontline of the civil war when you were a teenager. Were you aware at the time that this war was also being fought along confessional lines?

When I went to war in 1975, I was 16 years old. I was 14 when I first fired a gun. We knew nothing back then. No lessons were learned from the civil wars pre-1975. These civil wars —the one in 1958, for instance — were never properly addressed. And when the civil war ended in 1990, it wasn't properly addressed afterward either. On the contrary: It wasn't spoken about, except when a politician wanted to instrumentalize a particular event. There isn't even a chapter about the civil war in Lebanese history books. So for years, people have been acting as if nothing happened, by sweeping the topic under the carpet. But it's very present in Lebanese society.

Ziad Saab seen next to a tank in 1985
Ziad Saab, seen here (with glasses) in 1985, wants to address the issues of the civil war to help restore societal peaceImage: Ziad Saab

How are you trying to counteract this with your organization Fighters for Peace?

We're working with civil society to address the issues of the civil war in order to help restore societal peace. We want to enlighten people. They should know their rights. The young generation has overtaken us in this respect. And they're proving at this very moment just how aware they are of the whole situation in this country.

Read more: Lebanon's missing: Will there ever be closure?

What needs to happen in order for Lebanon to change?

Of course, we need to go down a different path, as well — and the demonstrators are embarking on this path right now. Our demands are very clear: The government has to resign, and there has to be an end to confessional division. The Lebanon we're living in now is a country that regularly gets caught up in societal conflicts, and wars as well, because of its divisions. The only way to put an end to this is to introduce a new, sensible electoral law in keeping with the times. We're not asking for anything remarkable. 

Ziad Saab at protests in Beirut in October 2019
Ziad Saab thinks Lebanon is about to changeImage: Ziad Saab

How easy or hard is it for citizens to readjust when everything in the country has run along confessional lines for decades?

A majority of the population didn't vote in the last election. They didn't exercise their right to vote, in part because they knew they couldn't bring about change. Under the electoral law we have at the moment, it'*s only ever the same people who can get into power. It's the only possible outcome. And the people don't want that any more. They want change. They're ready for it.

Do you believe that this revolution will be successful?

There is hope, yes. What was still completely unthinkable just a few weeks ago has now become reality. In Tripoli, which had a reputation as a terrorist stronghold, they're dancing in the streets; the city is showing that the people want to live, that they want happiness in their lives. It's the same in the south, which has always been seen as having a unified political stance. [The Shiite Hezbollah and its partner, the Amal Movement, are strong in the south — Ed.] Something's different this time. And I myself believe that if our demands are not implemented, no ruling party will be able to act in future as if these uprisings never happened. The rulers will have to change.

Ziad Saab is the director of the Lebanese organization Fighters for Peace, which aims to address the issues of the civil war in order to establish peace in society.

The interview was conducted by Diana Hodali.

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