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Interview with Tufts Daily, Boston
28 Apr 2005
Donor, former trustee says Lebanon is on right path
By Jonathan Graham
Senior, Staff writer
April 28, 2005

In the wake of Syria’s departure from Lebanon after a 29-year-long occupation, Lebanese Deputy Prime Minister and former Tufts University trustee Issam Fares said he is optimistic about his country’s future and how Syria’s departure will shape it.

Fares has a long involvement with Tufts University. As one of the University’s significant donors and a former trustee, Fares funded the Fares Research Center at the Fletcher School, the Fares Equine Research Center at the School of Veterinary Medicine and the Issam M. Fares Lecture Series.

Fares’ son, Fares Fares, graduated from Tufts in 1993 and currently sits on the University’s Board of Trustees.

Lebanon maintains a relative peace today. Many of the country’s one time warring factions united in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005.

With the Syrian pullout complete, the Lebanese now look ahead to an election that should prove void of Syrian influence but still runs the risk of sinking into violence. Anti-Syrian opposition is hoping to defeat Damascus’ political allies at the ballot box.

Syria still wields influence in Lebanon. President Emile Lahoud is a Syrian ally, Prime Minister Najib Mikati is a close friend of Bashar Assad, the Syrian President, and the current parliament has many pro-Syrians.

Damascus, even after the withdrawal, still faces U.S. demands to end its influence in Lebanon and the United Nations (UN) is calling for the disarmament of its ally, the Hezbollah guerilla group. Hezbollah remains a potent military force and has refused to lay down its weapons, with the reasoning that it is not a militia but a “resistance movement”.

The Lebanese elections are expected to take place in May, and Fares said he expects there to be no delays. Fares said he believes Syria will continue to have a positive role in Lebanese politics. He admitted that there had been “highs and lows” in relations over the past century, but said in an e-mail that “it is in the interest of both countries to always maintain close relations.”

Despite concerns in the international community that the situation in Lebanon could begin to return to violence after the Syrian withdrawal, Fares said he sees no reason to be concerned in the build-up to the national elections. “I see no reason to be nervous,” he said. “I was encouraged and energized by the recent demonstrations as it renewed my faith in the population which expressed their deep commitment to Lebanon, to the democratic process, and to tolerating alternative points of view.”

Fares said he sees Lebanon becoming a “prosperous and dynamic” Arab democracy as it moves forward.

As to whether Fares himself will be running in the elections, Fares said that he would like to have another term “if the voters want me to serve another four years… and if I am called upon to serve in a government that enjoys national support.” Fares said that he has had an active involvement in Lebanon for decades, beginning with his creation of the Lebanese charity, the Fares Foundation, and by stepping into politics in 1996. He termed his original election to office as “the highest honor that I have ever been granted.”

Despite the ethnic strife which has split Lebanon in two throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Fares said that he thinks Lebanon could be a beacon for other countries grappling with racial and cultural divisions. “[Lebanon’s] existence and success is more important today, after [Sept. 11, 2001], as it is a living example of the dialogue of civilizations rather than the clash of civilizations,” Fares said.

The world held its breath last month when millions of Lebanese took to the streets to alternatively call for the removal of Syrian troops and to call for them to remain. Fares said that the back-and-for the protests between Lebanese independence supporters and others who wished for continued Syrian involvement was heartening.

The lack of violence on either side told Fares that all elements of the country want to have a democratic discussion. “Both sets of demonstrations agreed on the need to find out the truth about the assassination and both marched under the Lebanese flag and emphasized the need for national unity,” he said.
“While these demonstrations brought hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of people onto the streets, they proceeded in the most democratic and peaceful manner without any violent incidents to speak of. I was very encouraged by the nationalism and commitment of the Lebanese population.”

He said the ability for Lebanon to maintain peace between its Sunni, Shiite and Christian sects could make it a world leader on how different peoples can come together. “Lebanese example is important to the world, because if Muslim-Christian co-existence fails in the 10.000 square kilometers that make up our country, then how can it succeed in the wider world?” Fares asked.

Fares said that he wants the current changes in Lebanon to bring attention to Lebanon’s 12 million departed immigrants that are “more and more a part of their mother country.” In a country of 4 million inhabitants, Fares said Lebanon needs help with things from politics to economics.

Fares said that he himself left the country only to return. “I was one of those Lebanese that lived and worked abroad for many years; but I carried Lebanon inside me wherever I went, and I decided to return to pay back some of the debt that I owe to the beautiful country that raised me and made me who I am.”