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Mohsen Ibrahim and the Dying Beirut

Mohsen Ibrahim and the Dying Beirut

Monday, 8 June, 2020 - 10:00
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

At first, I tried not to believe what I saw and heard. I wished it was a TV prank. I also wished that the scene of events would be unfamiliar to me. I was not lucky. I know the streets, and I almost know the buildings. It is Beirut. A terrible feeling of embarrassment overwhelmed me. I was afraid that the children would see what I was seeing and be shocked by the reality of the country that I have been trying to enroot in their minds.


I was embarrassed while I was thousands of miles away. Young motorists spread across the city’s neighborhoods looking for an opportunity to clash with their fellow citizens. Among them were those who used verbal insults against symbols of the other sect. Insults evoked the venoms of history and poured them over the wounds of the present. And there is always someone who responds with the same rhetoric.


And with the profane words, gunshots were heard. The painful scene was taking place in the streets of Beirut, trying to awaken the Shiite-Sunni confrontation line, which resurged in the current century due to the increasing number of the daredevils and the retreat of the wise.


In another part of the city, another shameful incident was taking place. This was on the line of contact between Shiyyah and Ain el-Remmaneh, where the first bullets of the Lebanese war were fired in 1975. Here, Shiites and Christians wrestled. At record speed, the sound of gunshots was heard, and the war rhetoric and its hatred were evoked. I happened to know this street. Unfortunately, it separates two sects and different perceptions of the fate of the weapons of the resistance and the role of Hezbollah, especially after it became clear that General Michel Aoun did not bring to the Baabda Palace a possible solution to this serious dispute over the future of Lebanon, its location and coexistence between its communities.


The truth is that Beirut is dying. It dies as an experience in coexistence. Its economy is perishing. And its security is crumbling. Unemployment is at its highest record and bread is getting harder to obtain.


On the practical level, the state joined the corrupt in stealing the people’s savings.


Beirut is dying. Its banking sector is collapsing. Its bright universities are preparing for a bad fate. The city no longer promises anything for the future. Those, who did not emigrate, envy those who did.


Two days before these shocking Beirut developments, I was immersed in the memories of the late Mohsen Ibrahim, the secretary-general of the Communist Work Organization, who possessed the exceptional ability to read and analyze, even if our views diverged fundamentally.


His death brought up memories to a generation of Lebanese people, who had not yet abandoned their attachment to their homeland. Beirut knows well this southern boy, who had led its demonstrations, spoke to its youth, and filled the city with articles, battles and analyses.


Beirut knows well the man whose will was not broken in the Israeli invasion of the city in June 1982.


The man who, along with Georges Hawi, the secretary-general of the Lebanese Communist Party, launched a call for national resistance from the residence of Kamal Jumblatt in Beirut, happened to pass away in June, the month that also marks the assassination of Hawi and Samir Kassir.


Mohsen Ibrahim corrects the story. He denies that he played with Georges Hawi a role in inciting Kamal Jumblatt to take a tough stance in his last meeting with Hafez al-Assad. He says they both asked Jumblatt not to spark tensions with the Syrian president. He confirms that Yasser Arafat was afraid for his ally Jumblatt, and he believed that his meeting with Assad might save him from a fate similar to his own.


Mohsen Ibrahim was Beirut’s diary when the city was bustling with life and players were racing to find in it a location or a recognition.


Jamal Abdel Nasser, who had a close relationship with Ibrahim, was keen on his image on the Beirut scene. Ibrahim said that the Egyptian leader was always asking him about Lebanon after first starting the conversation by inquiring about Kamal Jumblatt, and skimming through the Lebanese An-Nahar newspaper, and the articles of its editor-in-chief, Michel Abu Jaoudeh.


Ibrahim concluded that Abdel Nasser considered that Beirut gives some legitimacy to the Arab leadership.


“That’s why the dream of having Beirut’s recognition haunted all those who contracted the Nasser syndrome. Gaddafi yearned for it, Saddam wanted it and Assad caught it after questioning its intentions,” he said.


Sometimes, an air of sympathy bonds the journalist to the politician. This is what happened. The meeting with Mohsen Ibrahim was interesting and rewarding, regardless of the man’s approach. He had the ability to detail, summarize and draw images with words… The talent to spice up the conversation with a sharp or amusing account.


On top of that, he had the most extensive experience in Arab affairs among his fellow politicians. His circle of friends extended from Algiers to Aden. Delving into his memories was an enjoyable and rich experience. He talks, corrects and wittily recounts: “We once had a delicate task to convince Gaddafi that Habash was an authentic Arab, even if his name was Georges!”


He continues: “When in Libya, I was always concerned about persuading Walid Jumblatt not to leave before the end of our visit, as he got bored shortly after our arrival.”


Sometimes he surprises you with comments such as “Arafat used to consider Hafez al-Assad as the head of an important country called Syria, but he considered himself a symbol of a cause that is broader than maps, and there was no chemistry between the two men.”


He also says that two people “did not expect the Iranian role to reach what it has, namely Hafez al-Assad and Rafik Hariri.”


I asked Mohsen Ibrahim about why Arafat had chosen the Oslo option, and he said: “He read the international situation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He read the regional situation after Iraq was punished for the invasion of Kuwait. He analyzed the Arab situation, the balance of international powers and financial conditions, and feared his cause would fall into oblivion. He viewed waiting for any Palestinian inch as a guarantee…”


Mohsen Ibrahim had a special bond to the Palestinian cause. He had a special relationship with Arafat, which continued with President Mahmoud Abbas. He refrained from engaging in any political activity on the Lebanese scene since the 1980s, satisfied with devoting himself to writing revisions, in which he admitted gaps and errors.


Mohsen Ibrahim’s story is long and exciting. The cruelest thing about it is not the death of the man, but the death of the city that embraced his speeches, battles and dreams.


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