Saturday, August 09, 2003

From the archives: As I was buying a newspaper today, I crossed paths with the minister and Phalange Party leader Karim Pakradouni, two bodyguards in tow. Pakradouni was Flamingo-like in his white polo shirt and slacks, and struck up a conversation with whatever moved in his blast zone.

In tribute, I reprint below a portrait I drew of him several months ago in the Daily Star, which earned the owner of the paper a telephone call from a Pakradouni associate (and the usual gratitude from me).

The perils of Karim
Several years ago a friend and I were invited to interview Karim Pakradouni at his home. I had just reviewed his latest book where I described Pakradouni as a chameleon, a man of contradictions, and, in so many words, an opportunist. When I asked whether he thought the review was fair, he hardly missed a beat before answering: “Yes, yes.”

Of course that was Pakradouni being versatile, since it was obvious he had not read the review and couldn’t care less whether it had been fair or not. But had he read it, Pakradouni would probably have answered in the same way, since a defensive rejoinder would have required a direct approach deeply distasteful to a spirited rogue who thrives on oblique movement.

In those days Pakradouni was still the number-two man in the Phalange Party, deputy to the no less elastic George Saadeh. By a stroke of luck, and opportune political backing, Pakradouni has since scaled the unanticipated, if scarcely dizzying heights of party leadership, and today finds himself a government minister. This has pushed him into unfamiliar territory, since to buttress his trembling power base the chameleon has turned into a demagogue.

The instrument of this metamorphosis is the debate over “balanced development.” As minister for administrative development, Pakradouni has called for the more even geographical distribution of state funding, framing the issue as one of constitutional necessity. In fact, he’s been playing confessional politics, provoking a cabinet row last week after contending that more government money went to schools in Muslim areas of Beirut than in Christian ones. He followed this up Wednesday by stating that the bulk of state funds for expropriation purposes were earmarked for Beirut, at the expense of Christian areas outside.

Pakradouni has to pay his way in the government, and what better means to satisfy his benefactor, President Emile Lahoud, than to stick it to Prime Minister Rafik Hariri? However, the Phalange leader also has other constituencies to please, because he knows that his popularity is as thin as his consistency. Pakradouni probably assumes that if he is to leverage his ministerial portfolio into a parliamentary seat, he must become a spokesman for Christian resentment.

Can he succeed? Pakradouni’s past might provide an answer. Like Claudius, who feigned idiocy to survive his murderous nephew Caligula and become emperor, Pakradouni emerged strengthened from the internecine Lebanese Forces wars of the 1980s. An Armenian Orthodox, he was regarded as too communally weak to threaten the ruffians fighting for the militia’s leadership. That’s why Pakradouni politically (and physically) outlasted virtually all the men he served: Elie Hobeiqa and Samir Geagea, but also three presidents--Elias Sarkis, Bashir Gemayel, and his current arch enemy, Amine Gemayel.

But this journeyman’s political journey began before the war. Pakradouni was instrumental in initiating contacts between the Phalange and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the early 1970s, and he did the same with Syria once the war started in 1975. After such a variegated tour it was stunning to hear Pakradouni once say, in answer to a question as to how he could change his politics so often, that it was not he who had changed, but the surrounding circumstances, to which he had had to adapt.

The only problem with Pakradouni’s reputation for flightiness is that it has made him incapable of generating loyalty. Always too clever by half, the Phalange leader has now been co-opted by the president’s men, useful only for as long as he plays their game. With or without them, however, he is politically irrelevant as an autonomous force, his only real merit being that he is living proof of Lebanon’s good-natured promotion of the ideologically amoral.

Pakradouni’s rise merits recognition in another regard, namely as a provocation against Lebanon’s sectarian system. That an Armenian, and an Orthodox no less, should stand at the head of an essentially Maronite Catholic party, is a splendid reminder of how the postwar Lebanese political order disdains even a semblance of legitimacy. On the contrary, illegitimacy is what guaranteed Pakradouni’s ascent. What better man to acquire than one who could only assemble a few thousand votes in Beirut during the 1996 parliamentary elections?

So, the answer seems obvious: Pakradouni will not succeed in surfing into parliament on a wave of Christian popularity. He may well end up in that august institution (which teems with men far worse than he), but not thanks to any freshly minted esteem. That’s Pakradouni’s dilemma: he’s been for so long considered the ultimate middleman that it’s almost impossible to take him seriously as one of those whose interests must be mediated.

The only thing the Christian demagogue act will do is irritate Hariri. It’s a pity, but also very instructive, that the leader of a once venerable party should today find himself reduced to a mere gadfly. Then again who thought Karim Pakradouni would ever make it this far in the first place?

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