Interviewing a Legend: Robert Fisk

Written by Sabine Saade | 16 May 2011
Photography: Mohamed NanabhayFisk is “probably the most famous foreign correspondent in Britain”. Photography: Mohamed Nanabhay

14th of April, Down Town Beirut. Sitting next him, I am very aware that I am currently interviewing a legend; the rest of the clients at Paul café are too. They are looking at him, they know him. One even  asks me when my interlocutor excuses himself to take a phone call if indeed that is “al sahafi el mouhem”, the important journalist, and then carries on saying with a laugh, “That man surely knows what’s gonna happen to our country more than us”. Of course he does. It’s Robert Fisk. He’s been in the Middle East for 36 years now; he’s covered every event in the Arab World. He knows its treacherous traps, its hidden jewels, its deceiving lies and its beautiful dawns. He was already in Sabra and Chatila before the massacres ended, he covered both Afghanistan invasions, he interviewed Osama Bin Laden and he was in Tehran in the aftermath of the elections in 2009.

And now, to his astonishment, he’s living through what he defines as the second Arab awakening. “This is history in the making. We’ve almost never seen anything of this scale in the Middle East; Arabs grew up. Because of the increasing percentage of youth, the technology and the improving educational standards, they realised that their governments have been treating them like children for decades while actually the real kids were the leaders themselves. They have been given for years just enough bread and coercion to infantilise them, but it was not enough anymore.” The turning point according to him? “2005 and the Lebanese demand for the Syrians to withdraw from Lebanon: it was the first time we saw hundreds of thousands of Arabs asking for the end of a dictatorship and its outcome proved that mass demonstrations could change politics. Then, the Iranian elections of 2009 happened and led millions of protesters on the streets. Arabs started realising that there was one railway line and they were all on the same transportation services.

The domino effect followed. Arabs have their pride, so if the others could do it, why couldn’t they? And it all slowly began. Opposition movements started growing but were heavily repressed. “The organisation ENOUGH in Egypt has been actively opposing Mubarak rules for more than 6 years now; I was there two years ago and saw police thugs assaulting protesters even back then. It didn’t matter than it took them so long to get to 2011, what matters is that they realised that it could be done.” And so, they lost the fear they vowed to the state. “Once you lose your fear, you can never be re-injected with it; you are inoculated. But all dictators failed to see that.” The result? An awakening that is threatening all of America’s allies and possibly Iran’s.

If Fisk believes that Egypt and Tunisia might be on the right track despite the excesses of Gannouchi and Tantawi, he is more dubious about the future of the revolts in Syria. “While Ben Ali or Mubarak did not create a large broad based elite, Bashar has the Syrian middle class in his pocket. The future of these elites is bound to his reign; if he goes, they might lose their home, their jobs, and their fortune. So why rebel? And we shouldn’t forget that Syria has already established its revolutionary credentials: it supports the Hezbollah and the Hamas and it is the lungs through which Iran breath. Bashar should step up and carry on with reforms, but he won’t.” He can’t. If Bashar Al Assad is, according to Fisk a good man, he is still surrounded by a power elite that restricts his ability to act.

Similarly, the Khalifas in Bahrain can’t do much: even if they would like to give in to the demand of the protesters – mostly Shias – they can’t. “Saudi Arabia won’t let it, and the West doesn’t want it.” The chances for change there are therefore slim. So, instead of actually listening to their people, leaders are foolishly repeating the same mistakes: they unleash the police or the army to coerce the demonstrators, they promise reforms that they never deliver or foolishly accuse foreign interference of being at the heart of the upheavals. Fisk revealed that Ben Ali actually never intended to abdicate. He wanted to drop off his family in Saudi Arabia and take the next plane to Tunisia at 7:30am but the crew that accompanied him to Riyadh flew back at 1.30 am without him. “We’ve seen that so many times, I’ve spent thirty six years reporting this nonsense!

That was exactly the transition that I needed for my next questions. How did he carry on? Robert Fisk was there in West Beirut during the worst part of the Civil War when almost no other western reporter was left. He stayed even during the kidnapping period when his colleague and friend Terry Anderson had been abducted and when he himself was also in danger. He saw the worst side of men and yet he persisted.  “It is a conscious decision that I made. My dad made me very interested in history; he was in the Somme during WW1. I was very much aware that I was covering History when I was in Lebanon. I could make the links between what had happened in Europe in the first half of the 20th century and this. It was like reading a tragic novel, you keep telling yourself one more chapter and I’ll go to bed until you see the first rays of sunlight creeping through your curtains, but you still carry on because you want to know what’s next.

“You know, you don’t see everyday millions of people kissing the ground because they have been freed by their dictator! You asked me about Sabra and Chatila, yes I was there; I knew I witnessing History, I wanted to name the bad guys. It was the same with Afghanistan, Iran Iraq, Azerbaijan, Algeria, Bosnia.. Of course there are bad moments, but you’ve got to be tough, even when people you know are dying. During the last years of the Civil war in Lebanon, I spent 90% of my time worrying about my safety, and the rest writing. But I wanted to hang on. I knew that journalists who leave Lebanon never come back. I decided to stay then, and I am still here now. It is true, sometimes I do ask myself whether I would have preferred to have a more ordinary life in a beautiful, peaceful European city and come back to Beirut asking myself if I did really want this. The answer now is yes.

Read the full, unedited transcript of the interview here.

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