‘A Hero For Some Is Not For Others’: In Conversation with H. E. Rami Mortada

Molly Bolding 8 February 2019
Image Credit: Jay Mens, MENAF

His Excellency Rami Mortada is the current Ambassador of Lebanon to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, who has served in a host of international relations roles around the world since his legal studies in Beirut and Paris. I sat down with him at the end of his talk with the Middle East and North Africa Forum at Gonville and Caius College.

Image Credit: Jay Mens, MENAF

As photographed above, the Ambassador spent a long time speaking with Lebanese students and others after the event, which made me curious about the attraction of such a relatively small event to such a significant political figure.

“I always find a value added in such events [as these] because firstly it’s an occasion to get people to better know your country, which is very important – especially in academia – and students always ask the right questions, because they and their knowledge are fresh and [the questions] aren’t opinionated…so I always very gladly reply positively to such events and I think it’s a very good venue.”

H. E. Mr Mortada was first promoted to his prestigious role as Ambassador in 2012, and in an interview with Diplomat Magazine he was quoted as saying that “the UK is a close partner with Lebanon, but the current state of relations doesn’t match their potential”. I asked him if his views had changed at all in the seven years since, and what that ‘potential’ looks like to him today.

“I still think we can do better with the UK – the UK has a historical legacy in our region, in the Arab world and particularly in Lebanon. Recently the relations have not been in as broad a scope as they could have been,” the Ambassador said carefully, “and that’s also our mistake, from our side. So I think the potential is big and now, with the changes in the UK – I’m referring to Brexit – whatever you may think of it, and whatever the outcome will be, I think it’s an opportunity for the UK to look around in this world and see what opportunities could exist [outside of Europe], in some parts of the world where until now are underdiscovered or are not adequately visited.”

Brexit is the unavoidable subject in this day and age but, having brought it up, the Ambassador’s unique vantage point as a close ally of, but outsider to the UK made me wonder how he viewed the process as a whole.

“Obviously [Brexit] has a transformative effect on the UK – the UK has already raised the slogan of ‘Global Britain’. This is something that could be positive because against the backdrop of what’s happening globally nowadays, there is a need for a UK that is a beacon for stability and rules-based international order. There is a need for global actors like the UK to be a source of continuity and serenity in global affairs. That’s the role that the UK could play post-Brexit.”

When I posited whether this potentially could make the UK a kind of moderator on the world stage, the Ambassador nodded. “A moderator – someone who can guarantee that whatever inherited international order we have will still go on to work against the disruption which has become the rule of the game in world affairs today. So there is a need for such a responsible actor.”

Mr Mortada paused as he finalised the image: “I think there is a very positive element here…even if you are a hard Brexiteer, this would never lead you to becoming an isolationist. No-one is saying that the UK should look inward if we leave the EU, but rather the opposite – leading the UK towards becoming more global rather than isolating [itself].”

In the same Diplomat Magazine interview, H. E. Mr Mortada had also stated his belief that “the Lebanese model can be useful for the future of the region”. Given the conflict that has surrounded Lebanese civil life and politics in recent years, I was keen to unpack his image of this model. The Ambassador was equally keen to extol the virtues of the system, which in his view exemplifies the religious and political tolerance that Lebanon manages to maintain.

“The greatest benefits [of this ‘model’] is to bring together different components in a peaceful and fruitful interaction. This of course has a downside, the downside being that the system is slow: sometimes it’s inefficient, sometimes it lacks the possibility of making decisions in a timely manner, but the essence of the ‘model’ is that [there can be] peaceful coexistence of the components, coming from different sectarian and religious cultural backgrounds. That is the founding philosophy, if you like, of this model. This could be useful for the region because that is the challenge for the region – how to bring together these components and put them in one political context and invite them to co-operate peacefully and positively. So that’s the contribution of the Lebanese political system to the region.”

As Mr Mortada had implied, and my background reading for this interview had suggested, Lebanon has some fascinating statistics on religious and ethnic diversity – the country was most recently recorded as roughly 26% Sunni Muslim, 25% Shia Muslim, 40% Christian in a host of different denominations, and a small Jewish population who remained mostly in Beirut even after the Lebanese Civil War. I asked the Ambassador what lessons he thought other Arab nations, and indeed countries across the rest of the world, could learn from this almost unparalleled level of diversity in a time where religious tolerance, particularly in the Western world, is a tense subject of discussion.

“The lesson that can be learned is that religion could be a blessing, because it is a reservoir of values, but at the same time religious and political instrumentalisation is not. So what you should take from religion are the core values, and as you become more religious, you become a better citizen, because that’s what religion is all about. The spirituality in religion is something very good, and it should bring you closer to the other, rather than be a divide. That’s the main lesson that should be learned.”

Other observations I made from my research on Lebanon is that Lebanese history is recent history: the country was only founded on the 22nd November 1943, after it’s emancipation from the French empirical control after significant international pressure. I got a sense from the Ambassador that this had had an impact on the way the Lebanese people feel about their own, fairly fraught, history.

“There is always consciousness within Lebanon that ‘Lebanon’ as an entity is much older than ‘Lebanon’ the country – this is, even factually, true. Before the modern Lebanon came out, the state of Lebanon was established at the beginning of the 20th century. The concept of Lebanon existed, even beyond it’s borders – there has always been a Lebanon of some kind, and it always had a separate cultural identity; some sort of political autonomy even. So the Lebanese are aware of that, and they are proud of belonging to this glorious history…At the same time as being proud, they don’t always see eye to eye, they don’t agree on all the aspects of their history.” I probed the possibility that this creates tensions between the different groups he had described. His summary was neat and proverbial. “Who is a hero for some is not for others…but this is normal in a pluri-cultural society and I think some effort should be deployed in order to bring different views together over one version of history, that’s very important.”

Leading on from this, my final question was one of hope: what, in the Ambassador’s view, is changing in terms of the way we perceive each other as nations?

“I think the challenge with modern technology and media today is we tend to look for the easy truth and the easy perception…no-one does a fact check today, you just take whatever you find on Google as an absolute truth. In principle it is truth, but every truth has nuances. So what I caution is that one should not deal with absolute perceptions as absolute truths. That’s one of the downsides of modern communication: take Twitter for example. How can I explain an idea in 280 characters? Whether I’m fluent in Tweeting [or not], every idea needs to be unpacked. People are getting used to these ready-mixed ideas, ‘fast meals’ in politics, and that’s very dangerous.”

Check out the Ambassador’s Twitter here!

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