Profile: Charbel Nahas, 60 years of dissent

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Former Minister Charbel Nahas. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Maha Zaraket

Published Monday, August 18, 2014

Former Minister Charbel Nahas turned 60 on Saturday. He spent the past few years fighting to embarrass the [Lebanese economic and political] system, in order to break it. Quite often he did not succeed but his actions became fodder for public debate. Today, as he begins his sixth decade, he reminisces to Al-Akhbar about a stage in Lebanon's history, which he recounts by reinterpreting his career.

Former Minister Charbel Nahas gets uncomfortable when asked personal questions, describing his family's celebration of his birthday as a "nice gesture." He quickly tries to steer the conversation in another direction, explaining the importance of his personal experience, "since it has a great impact on the public opinion we form."

This starts from childhood, when parents set preconceived notions for their children and expect results. "If things went smoothly, it will be consistent with their expectations," he explains. "But if these notions get confused, a person will make an effort to use his head and he will be critical of some issues."

The Arabic language

Nahas belongs to the "Charbel generation." He was born in 1954, when Saint Charbel was on his way to being canonized as a saint. His mother chose the name, which was rare back then and was more of a rural name. It was through this name that he found himself in the duality between his mother's rural upbringing and his father's bourgeois family.

This disparity was his first influence; they were two different worlds that would rarely intersect. A child growing up between these two worlds will notice the difference. The first challenge was which language to use, after spending years convinced that "Arabic was the language of one people and French was the language of a completely different people, I had to choose."

The second issue to impact his childhood was the great difference in age between him and his father, who is older than him by more than a half a century. "My father lived through all the events I used to read about in history books and had his own version, which was completely different from what was written." This made Nahas treat these events "at least with scepticism" and he started looking at politicians in power differently. What he heard about them from his father was enough to disperse the aura surrounding their positions.

Despite this awareness, he did not stray far from the track set by his family for his education. He played the role of the "preppy student" his mother had prepared him for. He started with the Jesuits, then College Notre Dame de Jamhour, and then travelled to France to join a polytechnic school for top students to prepare for engineering studies. He spent two years doing the preparatory exams, feeling as if he was in a camp and needed to win a challenge. But as those two years winded down, the Lebanese civil war erupted.

He reacted to the assassination of [Saida MP] Maarouf Saad and started discussing with some of his friends his need to return to Lebanon. "Back then, emigration was not a choice, but a few decided to remain." But before returning, he had to prepare for the task.

"In addition to my studies in engineering (urban planning and infrastructure), I took classes in political sciences, economics, and anthropology." He returned to Lebanon in 1979, with an engineering degree, a PhD in anthropology, in-depth studies in economics, and his polytechnic diploma.

College of Engineering

Nahas arrived in Lebanon during the term of Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss, under president Elias Sarkis. The situation was calming down. He signed a one-year contract with the Development Projects Execution Board and began preparing, along with some colleagues, to set up an engineering school at the Lebanese University, the first to be established after the university began to set up [different] branches due to the war.

He says this period was important. "We created three branches. The first was in the north to break the rule [of starting in Beirut or Mount Lebanon]," he explains. "When we set up the curriculum, we started with the wish to educate an elite capable of adapting to rapid scientific progress, on one hand, and be better than other universities, on the other."

In the first stage, the College of Engineering – Third Branch was located in the School of Education building in UNESCO, "but one of the militias kicked us out." The college was relocated to the Airport Bridge area and, a little bit later, the Israelis began their 1982 invasion. Classes were suspended awaiting rehabilitation.

It was then that Nahas got to know another engineer, al-Fadl Shalak. "I was told he was assigned by a certain financier to clean up the capital. The financier was Rafik Hariri."

The project was completed and Nahas returned to teaching, but not for long. Following the February 6 uprising in 1984, the situation in the college of engineering became unstable. Nahas believes this stage was characterized by two key developments: the establishment of militia authority and sectarian partition on one hand, and the destabilization of the Lebanese lira on the other. "We all knew that the situation will lead to a country different than the one we knew," he recalls.

He continued to teach until 1991, after moving to the First Branch in Tripoli. In the mid-1980s, he had a brief experience with the company OGEH, owned by Hariri. He quickly disagreed with them due to the discussions about reconstructing downtown Beirut and its new role. This led to the closure of his office.

The 1998 municipal elections

He began looking for a new job after moving from Raouche to Achrafieh after being abducted. He was introduced to the banker Maurice Sehnaoui and joined him at Société Générale from 1986 to 1998. As usual, he left work after a "fight." Nahas explains this period in detail, when the new class emerging from the militias was under training.

In the region, the bets on a settlement had collapsed, specifically in 1996. In parallel, the financial process based on loans started to stumble and disagreements between politicians multiplied, "since scarcity breeds competition."

The municipal elections in 1998 was an important step forward. This was due to the popular campaign, Baladi, Baldati, Baladiyati, which had called for the elections. In addition, the elections were approved by a decision of the Constitutional Council.

Nahas ran in the elections with a group of friends, opposing a list formed of all political sides represented by the authorities. The popular reaction to the elections was something "a quarter of which would not happen now on more serious issues." The results of this battle was that he was fired from his job. After a year of negotiations, he received his compensation from Société Générale.

The most important lesson for Nahas from that experience was that he started to see Lebanon, its politicians, people, and institutions in a different manner. Working in the banking sector allowed him insight to the real source of authority. "It is enough to know who owns the money and who does not," he says.

But this time, he did not go back to job-hunting. The compensation he received from the bank allowed him to establish his own research center. However, for a whole year, he could not "make the trade-off between having more freedom of opinion or be committed to the continuity of the establishment." He closed the center and started to prepare studies for organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and others.

Twice a minister

The year 2005 was also pivotal. As a result of the developments [following the assassination of ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri], his Aounist friends suggested he meets General Michel Aoun. There was a mutual need between the two sides. Aoun wanted to benefit from Nahas' experience and Nahas wanted a way out of the system.

He began by organizing training workshops on the financial and economic management of Lebanon and ended up in the government, twice, leaving after a dispute on each occasion.

There are many details about his attempt to use the occasion to break the traditional manner of how institutions in Lebanon are run and his approaches to the issues. However, the bottom line was that he "went too far" in his attempts to change key economic policies and the organization of healthcare, taxes, and so on.

He admits an error in judgement. "I thought that raising a debate around the issue in the public sphere would have a bigger impact than what happened. The reticence did not disappoint and the response was 100 percent."

The crisis escalated and led to his resignation, which he does not regret. "The signature required from me [the transportation allowance] meant agreeing to sell-out on all my ideas. And for what? In exchange for what I chose to symbolize them with? It was out of the question."

The resignation, however, did not pass without reaction, but stopped at regret and solidarity. Nahas does not blame the citizens. "They believe in stereotypes and that things do not change. I think they believe that change is impossible to occur." But does Nahas believe the opposite? "I do not believe that change will happen. I know it is very difficult. But what I am saying is that we should not accept this as truth."

Nahas, who never ceases to stir the pot whenever he has the chance, fought the Spinneys battle and the one related to Télé Liban and the World Cup, in addition to the National Conference for Rescue. He is not satisfied with his achievements. Sixty years later, he confesses that what he dreamt in his youth did not happen. The reasons were many. "I could not conceive that our region and our country in particular will be domesticated, weak, and frail to this degree." However, there is no room for retirement. "I am still young," he declares.

UCC: the dearest accomplishment

Nahas admits that he could not do much in the past years. "But I was able to impede some issues, whether on the level of concepts, draft bills, or dealing with the public budget. I succeeded in some places, such as when I was in the Communications Ministry or promoting issues that were closed, most notably the Union Coordination Committee (UCC)."

"UCC is the most beautiful of all the saplings I tried to plant." The question for Nahas is not raising wages but "putting the system into a corner." The UCC succeeded in doing so and is today "in a different position than when it started. It is a major player and has to think about consolidating its position and achieving an additional step if possible, such as transforming into a union movement."

He refuses to say that he wants it to carry beyond its capacity, especially when he suggested in the most recent statement of the National Conference for Rescue to initiate presidential elections. "I was opening a debate. I thought that, due to the confusion in power, instead of the UCC being part of the problem of holding a parliamentary session, it must take the initiative."

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Does he have an opinion on "one person, one vote" as opposed to the present system of reserving half of Parliament for (alleged) Christians despite their actual demographics?
If I were an engineer and you showed me a building underwhich a huge hole had opened up, so that only one of the main four corner uprights was holding up the whole building, I would say, "Your building is about to fall down."
Can you find any anti-confessionalist in public life in Lebanon to write about? I joke with a friend in Israel that if there was a sane psychiatrist flying in to treat patients there, s/he would be torn limb from limb before s/he could make it off the airplane. His answer was, essentially, that sane psychiatrists would be a security threat.
I'll bet, I'll wager you, and put up the future of your country as the wager stake, that a lot of Lebanese know two things well: that the Taef Accord systematically oppresses the Shia Muslim majority, and that Hezbullah, as the voice of that majority, is doing a pretty good job of running Lebanon, especially considering the billions spent on distraction games by the king (so-called) of Saudi Arabia, the French (about which Charbel Nahas had to choose: which did he choose?), the pathetic US and UK, and the extra-pathetic UN.

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