There is no doubt that the cowardly terrorist attack that led to the assassination of former minister Mohammad Chatah on December 28 2013 made him disappear physically, but it is difficult to kidnap the soul of this decent man who was known for his elegance in attitude, openness and strategic thinking.
For the first time, Chatah is not among the Lebanese delegation to Blue peace Forum in the Middle East that is convened today in Istanbul, but his image will remain in the minds of the members of the core Group, for an initiative he believed in and worked for in collaboration with the Indian Research organization, “Strategic Foresight Group”, A group whose members regained through these lines the qualities of the martyr and the memories that “death” cannot conceal.
Chatah used to go to the gate just a few minutes before the airplane he did not like to waste his time waiting, as he told me during a flight to Zurich. At that time, after the plane landed, he went to buy train tickets for the Lebanese delegation who was supposed to head to Bern on September 24 2013, to participate in the field trip that SFG organized in collaboration with the Swiss foreign ministry and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation “SDC”, and the Swedish Agency for International Development Cooperation to a group of political leaders and experts and journalists from Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, United Arab emirates and Saudi Arabia to the Rhine river to witness how Germany and Switzerland manage their trans boundary water resources.
He checked the station where we were supposed to take the train, and he went to drink coffee just to return two minutes before the train moved, saying: “you see, we did not miss the train”.
That exact image is the first thing I remembered when I heard the awful news about his assassination, I felt at that moment, that those who die early , maybe they feel it deep inside themselves, which might explain their passion for life and trying not to waste any moment.
Passion for life was not the only thing that makes the senior advisor to former PM Saad Hariri a special figure. His Royal Highness (HRH) Prince El Hassan bin Talal considered Chatah a patriotic figure who believes in logic, and that dialogue is the only way to resolve our problems in the Arab world. His Royal Highness, who was among the leaders who formed the high level core group of Blue Peace, said: “I met the martyr for the last time during blue peace conference in Jordan at the end of November, there I touched his frank will to work and lay down the basis of good governance, and his belief in the creative common goals and especially issues related to water, and its importance from an economic and political perspective and to make this source a tool for stability”.
“Chatah believed in Blue Peace initiative, and he as a member of its core group, tried to spread its goals in Lebanon and the region”, El Hassan added. Everybody who had attended Blue Peace meetings had a similar impression about Chatah through his contributions as former Turkish former minister Yashar Yakis said, adding that “Mohammed was a soft-spoken, very knowledgeable and wise man”. Everybody attending his meetings always had an excellent impression of his contributions. He was regarded by many Lebanese as a man of dialogue and moderation.
The Lebanese MP Dr. Bassem Shabb agreed with Yakis in describing Chatah. He said: “Chatah was enlightened, knowledgeable, and full of wit and humor, yet at ease in the presence of royalty and dignitaries”. Chatah and Shabb are so similar in their background. They studied at the Evangelical school, IC, AUB, and then the University of Texas for doctoral studies.
Shabb said : ”I went to the Evangelical school in Sidon, while Chatah was in Beirut , and I, being raised in Saida felt more traditional than him, who by most measures would make a better Protestant, but I realized that our political outlook is similar, rooted in a secular and liberal education”.
Shabb added: “Chatah was an excellent speaker who addressed the western mind in its own style and language. He was a living example that modernity in Lebanon and the Levant is a real prospect”, adding: “If nation building is to succeed, each stone would be a Mohammed Chatah”.
“I do think of him and the national loss we all have incurred. I have lost a worthy companion and personal friend”, Shabb continued with grief.
What is astonishing is that all who knew Chatah share the same view about him. His personal friend, Dr. Tawfiq Alhindi, who considers him as his twin in politics, because they share an intellectual harmony said : “Chatah was known for being wise, he acted like a Western politician in his understanding and approach to issues”.
Chatah’s loss was not expected by Strategic Foresight Group. The president of the Indian organization Sundeep Waslekar said: “At first glance we did not believe the news of the assassination of Chatah by terrorists in the centre of Beirut, it is impossible that something like that comes to our mind. For some time we found it impossible to believe. There was a mistake, we were sure. But then, message after message confirmed the tragic news”. He added: “Chatah represented the spirit of life in all our relation with him. It was impossible to think of him in the context of death. I always remember his sense of humour and his words of hope, and untiring advocacy to good governance in all our meetings, and his belief in peace and cooperation“.
He was chosen as a Member of the High Level Group on Blue Peace in the Middle East, and he accepted that invitation because of his belief in regional peace and cooperation. His protégé, Karma Ekmekji, was a regular participant in the Blue Peace process. When Strategic Foresight Group and the Government of Switzerland jointly decided to form the High Level Group, she called me from Beirut, and said: “I have just the perfect leader in mind to advance our work for using water as an instrument of peace in the Middle East“. I asked her to speak to him on our behalf. When Dr Chatah and Karma flew to Amman for the High Level Group formation meeting convened by HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal, he surprised me with his dynamism, his skills to articulate our collective vision and his immense ability to bring hope and joy to our interaction.
Dr Chatah was not a water expert. He was an economist with extensive experience in politics. He immediately understood the economic and political importance of water. He particularly emphasised good governance along with cooperation. In fact, he was the only one to argue in meetings after meetings that better governance within the country, in addition to peace and cooperation within the region would help lead the Middle East to realise its true potential, Sundeep added.
In 2010, when he was Chief Adviser for foreign policy to Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, he became one of the architects of the quadrilateral economic cooperation area agreement between Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Syria. As a person with foresight, he saw value in including Syria into the quadrilateral framework, despite his nausea for authoritarianism. If this experiment had worked, we would have seen one day a region known for robust economic growth and peace.
“Even though he was a critic of the Assad regime, he never used the Blue Peace platform for his politics. He always hoped that Syria would have good governance sooner rather than later, and it would join the movement for peace in the region”, Sundeep continued.
Alhindi said that Chatah refused to intervene in the Syrian crisis despite his declared stance against Assad, adding:”he used to say that we can only support the Syrian people on their demands for freedom and democracy, and not interfere militarily in the field to avoid the consequences of this intervention.”
Chatah was well aware that the Syrian crisis will hinder the process of Blue peace, as he told me in an interview in our way from Switzerland to Germany. In that interview that was partially published, he did not give up. Since the situation now is not likely to launch great cooperation, I suggest to “keeping the subject under observation until we reach to political stability and conflict resolution”.
Taking that into consideration, the media should hold the torch and spread awareness and to alert citizens on the importance of water in economic terms, until the circumstances become appropriate.
He always dreamt that the Middle Eastern countries would be inspired by the European Union. He recognized a light in the tunnel with the first steps of establishing a framework for cooperation at the infrastructure level between Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, five years ago.
He said: “There have been indicators similar to those undertaken by the European Union in the fifties. Europeans did not move to the effective management from the first day. Four years ago, we hoped to take steps first among the countries where there is an overlap between its aquifers and rivers, especially Lebanon and Syria, and of course, Israel should be outside the framework of cooperation”.
Chatah felt that his dream may become true after an Indian organization launched Blue Peace initiative, “to anticipate the major problem in the water sector, amid expectations of increased drought due to climate change, and increasing demand for water, proposing the establishment of cooperative management for water and promoting peaceful relations between the countries of the Middle East. The main problematic issue that water will be the cause of conflicts in the Middle East, and water cooperation would be a gateway to peace. On the way from Basel, Switzerland to Koblenz in Germany, Chatah did not conceal his admiration to the management of the Rhine River Basin. The Rhine is, in his view, an example of the successful management of Transboundary waters, in terms of maintenance of the river and protection of it from pollution, and applying harmonized standards and management.
He pointed to the issue of the differences between the countries who share the Rhine River, and the competition among them and the multiplicity of languages of population. Differences “did not prevent the countries that share the Rhine basin from maintaining a good quality of water, and using it for agriculture, navigation and building dams.” He said: “In our countries, it is not just a conflict on quotas between the upstream and downstream countries, but the management of the water does not rise to what is required. Water remains a secondary issue amid continuing conflicts and wars. Even in countries that are not experiencing wars, General management does not exist”.
He added: “Just as Switzerland is a water castle for Europe, Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East, which has a self-sufficiency of water because it has several rivers in it, but it suffers from mismanagement of its waters, as well as the pollution of estuaries and loss of quantities of water, and the lack of networks required, and the pollution of the Litani river.”
At the level of regional cooperation, the situation is not better. Chatah pointed out that the meetings with a number of Swiss parliament members and at Swiss State Department was for consultation, and they wanted to see the benefit from the support that comes from the funds of Swiss people.
Chatah’s interest in the Swiss model was due to the fact that the country, after ethnic and racial conflicts, is proud in engaging all the different ethnic groups in a society considered as one of the most successful European societies. Success Experience based on strong policy of neutrality, Chatah hoped that the Lebanese people can be inspired of. Ending with his famous quote: “the salvation of Lebanon will only be through dissociating it from regional and international storms”.
Chatah hoped that neutrality becomes reality. He outlined his vision of that during a presentation just a few days before his assassination in Tuesday’s session that preceded the assassination, as MP Mohammad Qabbani, revealed. Qabbani said: “Chatah felt the need to engage in a strategic planning in approaching the crisis in Lebanon, and to move from reaction to action”.
In his turn, Alhindi recalled that Chatah found in the era of the late President Fouad Chehab, who succeeded in allowing Lebanon to adapt a neutral policy at the external level, away form-west axis and the axis of late Egyptian president Abdel Nasser , a model of inspiration to commit to a policy of dissociation , to ensure the stability of Lebanon.
Qabbani considers Chatah’s loss who “was not only a politician or diplomat or academic professor , but he was a combination of all of that, and his strategic views and the information he gathered accurately from the media and research centres, and through his personal and diplomatic relations, which he built during his diplomatic career between Beirut and Washington. “
Sundeep is really sad that such a force of moderation was attacked by forces of extremism in this dastardly act. Those who committed this heinous crime have done a disservice to themselves. They have taken away an influential leader who could build bridges and see reason.
A high price Chatah paid after Lebanon has become a battlefield of a proxy war between regional powers, and valuable Lebanese political figures and many innocent civilians are killed for a cause that is not theirs in Lebanon, in this oasis of sophisticated society in the heart of the Middle East.
Alhindi said that “Chatah wanted to return to Washington to form a lobby to exert pressure on the Congress to push the Obama administration to change its policy towards Lebanon … he wanted a real test for the intentions of the Iranian President Hassan Rohani and expansion of the Islamic Republic in the region.”
In the end, Dr Chatah paid the ultimate price. One day when the region turns a new leaf, his portrait will be there in the Hall of Fame among those who made a different future possible. But we will always miss him as a dear, fun loving and eloquent friend, Sundeep said.
And it is not just the participants in blue peace process who will recognize the vacuum that Chatah caused due to his early forced departure, a departure that may lead SFG to organize an award in his name to pay him tribute as , Dr. Walid Saleh, the Head of the MENA Regional Program at The United Nations University-Institute for Water, Enviroment and Health, suggested as recognition for Chatah’s efforts, and to keep the flame of hope for a better Middle East, which Chatah represented.