Habib al-Shartouni, who was convicted for the assassination of Bashir Gemayel after the Lebanese parliament elected him president under the gun-barrels of Israeli tanks in 1982, wants to break the silence in which he has shrouded himself for years.
Since escaping from Roumieh prison in the wake of the collapse of General Michel Aoun’s government in 1990, Shartouni has shunned media and political attention. He spends his time at an undisclosed location with his family, and in reading and writing, while closely following the news from Lebanon and the rest of Arab world and developments in Palestine.
Shartouni spoke to Al-Akhbar about his past, present and future, and about his case, which has been forgotten by his former comrades in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and other advocates of resistance and struggle. Whether that neglect is deliberate, careless, or inadvertent, he has candid questions to ask about why it has been 30 years and it is still unresolved.
“You can’t really call it a campaign, as there is no official entity, political party or sect backing it,” he says. “And you can’t call it ‘my’ cause. It was never about me. It is the cause of a country and society that was facing a threat at a time when the enemy was trying to impose its terms on the entire region,” he says.
Rather, the campaigners “are a group of friends and patriots from outside the party, and also some party members who feel indebted to an action that helped rid the country of the humiliation the occupier tried to impose on it,” he says. These supporters were outraged by the lenient treatment – amounting to “encouragement” -- accorded to Lebanese agents of and collaborators with Israel, and feared what that would mean for the country’s future, he says. But they encountered a host of difficulties and impasses.
They continue, nevertheless, to seek justice for Shartouni within the framework of Lebanese law, and the principles on which the Lebanese state was founded, he maintains.
But why has it taken so long for his case to be pursued in the courts? Have Lebanon’s ostensibly pro-resistance political groups been lax in this regard?
“Right from the start, they have ignored this issue, as though it wasn’t relevant to the launch of the national and then Islamic resistance after 1982,” he says. “Given the timing, after the occupation, it marked a strategic turning-point between two courses: succumbing to a plan to destroy Lebanese and Palestinian resistance and weaken Syria, and subjecting the region to an era of Israeli tutelage; or defeating the occupation and ushering in a different era.”
This could have consolidated national unity and benefited everyone in Lebanon, Shartouni argues, were it not for the terrible mistakes made subsequently, as a result of which the region is being subjected to a fresh foreign onslaught and renewed internecine conflict.
Nevertheless, Shartouni maintains: “Imagine if two-thirds of the country had remained under occupation, with the rest inevitably going the same way, and Bashir Gemayel had become president with absolute power, both constitutionally and on the ground.”
He argues that his is therefore “not so much a legal case, as a political and national one,” though it has been neglected by the very groups that benefited from and acquired power and privilege as a consequence of Bashir Gemayel’s assassination.
The Lebanese constitution should make it possible to enact legislation that acknowledges that “failure to condemn collaboration, even at the very top, threw the door wide open to new collaborators who appeared after the end of the war,” he says.”
He is convinced that “striking at the head of collaboration” at the time helped thwart a scheme to establish a Greater Israel and turn the region into a collection of sectarian mini-states under its tutelage.
“But the party as an institution which formally represents them gradually abandoned the principles and goal established by the leader [Saadeh], even when he was still alive.” It became no different to other Lebanese political parties “which serve the considerations and interests of individuals.” So while boasting of the heroic deeds of its members, it turns its back on those who sacrificed on its behalf and loathes to recognize or feel obligated to them.
“They will probably tell you that Habib Shartouni didn’t give these answers, and that you interviewed someone pretending to be him. As far as they are concerned, I stopped existing in 1982.”
While the party treated him as a burden, he says he took care not to expose it to harm. He suffered 30 years of imprisonment, torture, and exile, losing his family ties and everything he owned, but was never forgiven for simply saying that “I did what I was asked to do.”
Yet he remains committed to the principles of the party’s founder, although he believes the time for the regional unity Saadeh advocated will only come when people become convinced of the need for it, and that it will be some time before that happens.
Shartouni avers that he has not lived in Lebanon since he left jail in 1990. “I have been away from the Lebanese arena for 30 years, despite claims by the Gemayel family and Phalange party that I travel freely in Lebanon and cross the borders whenever I want, or that I was seen in Ashrafieh or wherever. Such talk is only aimed at stoking the kind of antagonisms and loyalties that sustain the sectarian parties.”
He points to the recent Koura by-election as evidence of the LF’s organizational skills. “They knew how to manage the political game and influence the public mood, and managed to win in a district that was historically pro-SSNP, and which for that reason had been subject to a number of attacks by them and their allies,” he says.
Shartouni is confident about the future of the resistance in Lebanon, remarking that it draws on a legacy that dates from the 1930s, though it has had different ideological expressions. But he believes that the greater act of resistance lies in building a state that is capable of defending the country, and that the Lebanese have performed feats of heroism that show they are capable of achieving this.
But if he could go back in time, would he still have done it? “You cannot go back in time,” he replies. “I am not a fan of assassination. But I had to make a sacrifice. His death saved the country. A minority may consider him to have been the leader of the Christian resistance, as though there was a Muslim occupation that made this necessary, or as though we are living in the dark ages of religious wars – not in republics, nations and societies, but only as feuding religious groups – or as if it was even a resistance that used to murder people based on their ID cards, violate their property and honor, and treat all other sections of society as enemies rather than defending them,” he says.
“That was the isolationist school which had its glory-days before its salafi and takfiri counterparts took over its glorious work,” he adds. “They are all a threat to a society composed of minorities.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.