Jamil Mroue in Conversation with Nick Hackworth
Jamil Mroue is a leading figure in Arab and international media. The son of Kamel Mroue, who was assassinated in Beirut by pro-Naser thugs in 1966 for his liberal defense of Arab values in his papers, al-Hayat and The Daily Star, Jamil Mroue took up the tradition of innovation, independence and vision that his father had charted, reestablishing, in 1990 and 1996 respectively, al-Hayat and The Daily Star, which have now become two of the most influential Middle East newspapers. Mroue also sits on the board of several NGOs and companies.
NH: I’m doing an article on the rebuilding of Beirut over the last 5-10 years, the renaissance of Beirut. How long have you run The Daily Star?
JM: I've run The Daily Star since I resurrected The Daily Star with the resurrection of Beirut, or post-the beginning of the resurrection of Beirut, since 1996.
NH: Have you always been in publishing and newspapers?
JM: Yes. This is a family-owned business that was started by my father in 1946. He produced two newspapers, one in Arabic called al-Hayat, and one in English called The Daily Star. We ceased publication in ‘76, and to simplify things I came back in ‘96 and restarted the Star.
XY: Where did you go during the war?
JM: I was in England, I was in the US, I was in Paris, I was in Holland. All over the place.
NH: And you’re the publisher and you’re the editor as well, or editor-in-chief?
JM: I’m the editor-in-chief. I retain that in order to make sure that I have an editorial say, but we have an editor.
NH: There used to be a British editor until quite recently, right? But he’s gone?
JM: Correct, Peter Grimsditch. He’s gone, he’s in London now, as we speak.
NH: Are you a big fan of the Solidere project? Is your newspaper editorially in favour of the Solidere project?
JM: I’m a huge fan of the Solidere project. I’m not a huge fan of the way it happened.
NH: What was wrong with the way it happened, what might some of your criticisms be?
JM: Some of my criticisms relate to why I am against—, relates to that band on the spectrum of my attitude to Solidere, that does not relate just to Solidere but relates to the country. Let me talk about the positive side. The positive side is that you have, in Solidere, anywhere between forty- and forty-five-thousand stakeholders, in what became Solidere. But prior to that forty-five-thousand stakeholders, you had plots of land and some properties that had thousands in debt. So, there was absolutely no way that these people would have found the capital to rebuild. Or, rather,—let me not say this,—there is nothing that is impossible. But within the view of 1989-91, it was just fictitious that these people would be able to rebuild. Solidere heading this project was a godsend, in the sense that ‘Here’s the money, we’re putting it up,’ and so on. But this was done in a manner that does not—, in a time—and we’re still in that time—that the legal system that would protect people’s rights is not as developed as the prowess of capital. So, this imbalance is where my reservations about Solidere [are]. Everything else—, well, there is another reservation, in terms of the management of Solidere. Solidere is a big plot of land. I think the most efficient way of having—, since the government had gone in this direction, it would have been best to divide that land into two and form two ‘Solideres,’ if you like,—one Solidere and one competitive company to develop the two sites.
NH: Just to create healthy competition?
JM: That would have been a by-product, but more functionally would have made management more capable, because it’s just too big for one management. So, basically, my criticism is that the legal system behind the citizens,—or the absence of the legal system behind the citizens,—and on the other side behind Solidere in order to arbitrate [there should have been] people who aimed to limit the rights of Solidere, so that you rein in the powers of capital – reasonably – and therefore have more or less level ground,—[though] you’re never going to have a perfect level ground. So, the first thing was the law, the second one was the management, and what would have accrued to Solidere and to the country at large by creating a competition.
NH: Would it be a fantasy in the context of Lebanese history of being quite a haven for laissez-faire capitalism, and also a country that has no tradition of strong state government, to have thought that after the war a strong state would have done what Solidere did,—and therefore have profited the people in general as opposed to a private company?
JM: Yes, it would have been—, your use of the word fantasy would have been if the Lebanon that prided itself on being a laissez-faire country was the same one that emerged after the war. It’s not the same country. In the context of 1991, where laissez-faire was historically a plus and a motivator and so on, post-1991 it is a deficiency,—it is like having a flat-tyre. The lack of the law, post-1991-92, to regulate and to have a perspective in terms of its role in the development—whether of Solidere or of other things—, the fact that its soul is still in the old country is inefficiency,—it’s not a plus.
NH: Would it have been at all possible for a strong state to have emerged, though,—or emerge now?
JM: Well, a strong state has already emerged,—it is already here. It is the strongest party in the country. The war developed a pseudo-culture, if you like. [The] trial and error of many things that turned during the war did focus people’s attention with experience, [to the idea] that the state is the solution. So the state emerged in 1992 and is still today in a far more central and pivotal role in society than it used to be during the war.
NH: Would you say that Hariri’s position is more similar to Berlusconi or to someone like Putin?
JM: No, both are irrelevant. They’re a different story altogether.
NH: But someone like Berlusconi has the same kind of executive and commercial power, doesn’t he?
JM: Yes, but it’s a different kettle of fish, and so it’s not the same thing. OK, you can say this one has money, this one has money, this one has media, this one has media,—but the countries are different. They’re fairly different, and their experiences of the war make it different. It is not the same, no. you can draw parallels with all kinds of things, but there is specificity to every situation.
NH: Do you think here then it’s specifically unhealthy that someone has so much corporate power, and is also in an executive position.
JM: No. In a small country like ours, I don’t think so. Ours is more—. The source of capital for Hariri is not Lebanon. He made his money in Saudi. So, basically, what he entered into was a situation where, in a weakened legal structure, and the weakened role of the legal system in Lebanon, proportionately that amplified his power, which,—if the legal system is or has been or will be revived, his power will be checked,—no question about that.
NH: So it’s basically just a question of time, the specific circumstances of where he emerged.
JM: No. Well—, OK, if we’re concentrating on him. But what I’m talking about is the country. As far as I’m concerned, it still holds that in this patch of time that we are in now, that the world is in now, and in the patch of time that we are in now in Lebanon, having passed through experiences of war, the fact that we have a weakened judiciary is a detriment to the state, to the political process, to the productivity of the citizenry, and it is a plus to those who have power, whether that power is Syrian-militia-derived, or money-derived.
NH: Is anything being done to strengthen the judiciary now?
JM: I don’t see it. There has been and there is an effort by the European Union, who have offered us money to reform our judicial process. Not the laws, they have nothing to do with the laws, the laws are good.
NH: Their enforcement. Judicial power has to be backed by coercive power. That means there has to be a strong police and Lebanese army to back any judicial power, no?
JM: Well, judicial power is a decision by society that decides that we are going to operate according to recognised rules and regulations, so it is first and foremost a political decision, before talking about its tools of maintenance. What you are talking about are the tools of maintenance. But if the political decision is there, and there is absolutely no reason in my mind why it shouldn’t be there—. In fact, it has been my mantra for eight years now that to demonise the political class and its full-time card-carrying politicians—. That word ‘politics,’ now its content includes environment, includes health, includes education, these are politics. But we are still now unfortunately in a stage where those are segregated from being at the centre of the political process. One of the main reasons for that, and it’s not the only reason, is that the political decision to actually run this business of the country has not adopted a procedure,—the rule of law as an integral part of the political process.
XY: What about the relationship between the president and the prime minister?
JM: Well, these are personal fiefdoms, and personal fiefdoms with the absence of the law. Whoever can bite the other first gets the headline.
NH: If there was a stronger sense of the rule of law, do you personally think that would create a more truly competitive laissez-faire capitalist environment here? You personally, in terms of your political opinions, is that something you want to see, or would you like to see something more of like a centre-left European country, less capitalist and more interested in social welfare and social justice?
JM: I am of the school that feels that the government cannot work simply to be a tool of the fortunate and the well-endowed, whether financially or politically. We live in a society today—especially in Lebanon, far more than others—where the burden of what we’re carrying as debt can only be repaid by the citizenry. There is no oil, there is no diamond. So if the citizenry is hampered by patches of influence, then its ability to be creative and venture into businesses that would generate, in the concept of laissez-faire, which is the nature of this land, and has been since time-immemorial,—there is nothing new about laissez-faire in our part of the world,—it was in fact your part of the world that imported it from this part of the world,—and this is maintained, it is still here,—except that in this patch of time you cannot do it simply on the reminisces of the code of ethic that would have been operative in a strong and central way in the bazaar, because the tradition is no longer available. Incidentally, education—whether you like it or not—, walking down the street, or where you spend your time, deviate you from imbibing the essence of what is called religion, and that can only be replaced by the rule of law.
NH: And you would like to see more social justice,--or you’re happy with a—?
JM: There is no way you can conduct—especially in Lebanon—a productive government without a very clear sense of social justice.
NH: To the extent of a welfare-state?
JM: No,—welfare-state is a function of a patch of time that—, well, it has passed,—whether it will come again I don’t know. A welfare-state, where the state is the mother, is no longer something that is current across the world, but it used to be certainly in the late-50s and into the 60s and early-70s,—the dilemma of Western democracies, if you like. But that is no longer the case. Those ‘on the receiving end’ of society have been proven time and time again, if left on that level, will cause more problems than if they are on the participating side of society. The translation of participation is through the rule of law, and is considered for their rights as being unfortunate or less-endowed. It’s not ideological to respond to you in the sense of your question being borne out of the ideological dilemma of the Sixties and Seventies. It has emerged now, in the Nineties and Two-Thousands,—it has emerged to where it is,—basically, proper management or improper management. It’s a question of proficiency.
NH: One of the criticisms of this kind of rebuilding,—from what we could see,—we interviewed Farouk Kamal, who’s building the Marina Towers, and the properties they’re building—, the price range for some of the top apartments is like $2.5-15 million. The area we walked around, the food is quite expensive. It looks like the rebuilding is for the elite, basically, and maybe for wealthy Lebanese expatriates. Will that wealth trickle down? Will the poor in Beirut benefit from this?
JM: No. It is being built from the phenomenon that is specific to Lebanon, which is you go to the Gulf or to Africa, you make your money and you come back, independent of—, you don’t make it out of this society. You bring it back here, and of course to the market of interests in the Arab countries that are interested in buying. It will not filter down, unless you generate businesses alongside the fancy expensive housing. The only way that we’re going to do that,—again we turn back to that most important entry point, it is not the destination, it is the entry point, the necessary but not sufficient condition, which is the rule of law.
NH: What is going to bring around an improvement in the status of the rule of law in Lebanese political culture?
JM: Well, pressure from ourselves and from other people.
NH: Democratic pressure.
JM: Yes, nothing else. There is also an objective,—well, objective in the sense of being the burden of the dead. Our GDP legally is about $17-18 billion,—if you count everything else it’s about $27 billion. A $27 billion GDP with an active population that has the tradition of impressive entrepreneurship,—a $41 billion debt is not something that is beyond its means. It can do it, but it cannot do it if it is shackled by influences making the scenery of business irregular and uneven.
NH: Presumably Beirut and Lebanon’s business plan would be some kind of return to what it was before, which was, one, a financial centre for the Middle East,—and two, a tourist and entertainment area. Are those objectives possible while the Israeli-Palestinian problem continues?
JM: I have two problems with what you said. The first is about turning back. There is no such thing, you simply can’t. For every time, you have got to come out with a concept for a country.
NH: And banking and tourism won’t be the two major industries?
JM: The word banking, in its present workings, in the context of the modern world, in this patch of time, is not localised. There’s no such thing any more as ‘the city.’ Because of the technology there is no longer a ‘banking sector,’ there’s no such thing. That a certain area would concentrate some of its work in this direction, that is fine, that would apply to Lebanon as well, it is an opportunity. When you look at the spectrum of available services that Lebanon can render, certainly one of them is a concentration or an emphasis on banking, meaning facilitating it as a service industry. [There’s also] tourism, facilitating it as a service industry, education health, capitalising on the differentiation in weather and culture, a Saudi cannot take his wife walking in Dubai, but he can walk till he keels over here with his wife, and nobody will bother him! [Laughs] So these are things that we need to capitalise on. So, I would therefore look at banking and tourism as just options within many options that could emerge and would emerge if you, under the circumstances of the rule of law, used the talent of the Lebanese in creating a service industry that does not need oil or any raw material. What it needs is human beings educated in that which is sellable in our patch of time. That could be a cyber industry, and that could be a packaging industry, or transport, all kinds of things. But one has to look. The invisible hand of the marketplace can only find its expression once you have a political decision that will allow citizens to take initiatives and be protected within the general context of the rule of law of a society,—that their endeavours will not be distorted or thwarted by undue influence, political [or otherwise].
NH: Are you optimistic about Beirut and Lebanon’s future for the next five or ten years?
NH: You’re not? Why not?
JM: Because in this patch of time, again, it is an absolute requirement, it is a basic necessary condition, that you have a strong political commitment to the process of the law. It is not something that is optional. Again, in this patch of time, in twenty years time I could read my odds, and tell you ‘Get me an oligarch!’ [Laughs] Fifty years ago I would say something else. Today, if you’re going to come here, and sell this magazine, you want to make sure that if I sell this magazine I’m going to pay you back, not pilfer the money and there’s fuck all you can do! For example.
NH: Is the continuing instability [in Lebanon and the wider region] a direct threat to Lebanon’s future or current prosperity?
JM: Life has a weird way of making danger a twin of opportunity. Life is that way. Buy when the guns are firing, sell when the guns are silent. This instability, and of course 9/11, has educated the world that in essence there is no place that you have total security. In the British context, we know of three or four bombs right down in the city, that jeopardised the city for weeks. When you add them up. So everybody in the world knows that there is a level of insecurity. In the specific case of Lebanon, if well utilised, again definitely with the background of the rule of law, brings in an opportunity that is unique. It is unique because of the general insecurity post-9/11, that educated investors everywhere, who wished to engage in the business of investing, that there is a level of insecurity that is global, has also created, for the time being, a cultural divide that makes people ill-at-ease. I am sure some of your friends in London to whom you mentioned, ‘I’m going to Lebanon’ popped their eyes and said ‘You’re going to Lebanon! Are you crazy!’ [Laughs] Again, if you talk to people in this part of the world and you say, ‘OK I’m taking my children to enjoy a vacation in Sweden,’ they will say, ‘Aren't you afraid they will be against you? Somebody will do something?’ This has created an opportunity for Lebanon, because Lebanon’s character is something that is an attraction, because it is a placebo for being in the west. Also, in terms of business, you would have—if we manage our affairs properly, taking advantage of this schism that currently exists,—it’s not going to be there forever,—then people with money in the Middle East would find it attractive, if we get our house in order, to invest here. So this danger that we’re talking about presents for Lebanon – uniquely, in a sense – a window of opportunity that can be highly useful.
NH: The geographical location as well, Lebanon is a bridge between east and west.
JM: In terms of time. But there is no longer ‘east’ and ‘west,’ except that there is a feeling – generally now more accentuated – that Lebanon should take advantage of. It’s as simple as that, in cold-blooded, calculating terms.