Robert Fisk is an award-winning British journalist who can lay claim to the “Mideast expert” sobriquet because he’s been covering the Middle East for more than 35 years.
A PhD in history, Fisk is not one of those reporters who fly in somewhere when things get hot, get a quick briefing from unnamed “officials,” file a report and fly out.
Based in Beirut, Fisk goes to the hot spots and does the legwork. He observes and asks the tough questions of players, bystanders and survivors. He did that when Syrian forces in February 1982 massacred 20,000 citizens under the orders of then-president Hafez al-Assad.
He rushed to the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside Beirut in September that year after Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia massacred between 762 and 3,500 people, mainly Palestinians, in apparent retaliation for the assassination of newly elected Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel.
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Israeli forces who, under the command of Ariel Sharon, had surrounded the camps were blamed for not intervening. Sharon resigned as defence minister after an Israeli commission found him indirectly responsible.
Fisk knows the territory. Having travelled and reported widely, from Egypt to Tajikistan, Fisk is well placed to offer analysis and opinions, which is why the auditorium at McGill University was filled last month when he spoke.
It was part of a 10-city cross-Canada tour sponsored by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East. The group supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli institutions.
On Mali, where Canada has supplied a C-17 transport plane to assist French forces battling Islamic militants and rebel forces in the north, Fisk warned of a quagmire.
“What are we doing in Mali? War there has been going on for 30 years,” he said. The pastoralist and nomadic Tuareg, Arab speakers, and Berber in the north of the country have always refused to be governed by a black government in the south. There is also an “Islamic veil” that hovers around this revolt.
Fisk doubted the word of French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who said troops would only be there “for a few weeks.”
His prediction: “In a year, they’ll still be there. This is a civil war they’re involved in,” and should not be confused with the “war on terror,” a concept he rejects as “a veil.”
His vision of conflicts fought under that veil: “We have lost the war in Iraq. We are losing the war in Afghanistan, and, I promise you, we, “the West,” will lose the war in Mali, and in Algeria.”
On Israel, Fisk scoffed at the term “peace process,” saying there never was a process, and was pessimistic because of ever-expanding Jewish-only West Bank settlements.
“So great is the implantation (of settlements) now in the West Bank, I do not believe there will ever be a Palestinian state.”
He apologized for being blunt, telling his audience, which included Palestinians, Syrians, and Egyptians: “I am sorry to tell you the truth about that.”
Instead of the term Arab Spring, Fisk prefers Arab Awakening, and says it was actually kick-started in March 2005 when “a million Lebanese came onto the streets of Beirut and demanded that the Syrian military leave.
“And they did leave.”
It then spread to Iran, where Fisk was on assignment. Iranians tried, but failed, to stop “this crackpot” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from being re-elected president.
Fisk says it wasn’t the Internet and technology that brought millions into the streets of Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, and not a demand for parliamentary democracy, but a call “for dignity and justice.”
Fisk sums up his journalistic model by rejecting the “both sides of the story, equal space” approach, replacing it with his own philosophy for covering the conflict-ridden Middle East:
“Yes, we should be neutral, we should be objective, on the side of those who suffer,” he said, to sustained applause.
Fisk’s latest book, Age of the Warriors: Selected Writings, is a 2009 compilation of his comment pieces published in the Saturday Independent.