Lebanon: Revolution on Everyone's Mind But Not on Anyone's Agenda

Lebanon: Revolution on Everyone's Mind But Not on Anyone's Agenda

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The scene that played out in downtown Beirut last Sunday was one that has become familiar in many Arab cities during this time of revolt. Hundreds of thousands of people -- mainly young men and women -- gathered in the main square of the capital city. Emotions ran high. There was no lack of shouted slogans and banners calling for freedom and empowerment. Speeches referred to the Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan revolutions.

But the aim of this public display was different than those in the rest of the Arab world. The calls in Beirut were not for an overthrow of the government, but for a stronger state, a more effective government and an exclusive national security role for the army and security forces. And the overall aim of the gathering was to create another political coalition in the country.

History of Lebanon's Political Divide

The organizers of the event belonged to the March 14 coalition. The name refers to the date of the uprising that followed the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri, who was killed in a massive car bomb explosion in Beirut on Valentine’s Day 2005. Participants in that uprising accused the Syrian regime and its allies in Lebanon of perpetrating the assassination, and eventually forced the Syrian army out of Lebanon after 30 years of heavy military presence. Previous to that uprising, Syria's military presence and role as the major power broker in Lebanon -- its tiny neighbor that was ravaged by 15 years of civil war (1975 to 1990) -- had been understood and accepted by the United States and most of the international community.

The ousting of Syrian forces left the country in political chaos and caused a severe divide between Hariri followers and the pro-Syrian coalition, March 8, named for the day a large demonstration was held to thank the Syrians for their role in Lebanon. The March 8 coalition was led by the strong, well-armed, Iranian-backed Hezbollah party.

The division between these two coalitions, now deeply entrenched, is not only political. It reflects a profound, multi-faceted sectarian divide among the many religious groups, most notably the recent split between Muslims along Shiite-Sunni lines.

Further complicating the situation is the central role of Hezbollah in the armed resistance that forced the Israeli occupation out of south Lebanon in May 2000. That unprecedented accomplishment made national heroes of Hezbollah, who enjoyed widespread support in Lebanon that persisted until the party turned its efforts to domestic politics. Hezbollah's departure from Lebanon eventually led to confrontations between other political players concerning the future of Hezbollah’s weapons, military network, and intelligence organization.

The assassination of Hariri and the withdrawal of the Syrians brought this debate to the forefront of Lebanese politics. The July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah prompted by the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah, and the devastation that engulfed Lebanon as a result of that war, made both Lebanese coalitions more extreme in their views. The March 14 coalition called for disarming Hezbollah and leaving the defense of Lebanon to the government, while the March 8 coalition insisted on the necessity of the resistance to “deter the Israeli aggression.”

Meanwhile, the investigations of Hariri’s assassination as well as that of several anti-Syrian politicians and intellectuals led to the formation of an international tribunal to try the suspects of Hariri’s killing. The Syrian government was quick to reject those international efforts, calling instead for a Lebanese investigation and trial which was refused by the Lebanese government. This new dispute led to the resignation of the ministers representing the March 8 coalition in the Lebanese government and raised tensions to a new level. The international tribunal became the litmus test for political players, with Hezbollah calling it an “Israeli court” and the March 14 coalition supporting it as the legitimate path to finding truth and delivering justice for the victims of the assassinations.
In such an atmosphere as this, it became almost impossible to create or retain a national government capable of actually governing. The final chapter in this saga led to another crisis when March 14 lost the legislative majority and was forced out of the government to be replaced by March 8. Against this convoluted backdrop, the Arab uprisings elsewhere became another subject of political drama. March 8 tagged the Iranian line on the revolution as a “popular refusal of American and Western injustice.” The other side considered it a “historical step forward toward the long awaited establishment of the rule of law and civic engagement in the Arab world.”

How to Reconcile Such a Rift?

Trying to answer that question at the enormous gathering in Beirut last Sunday was as difficult as understanding Lebanese politics, or for that matter, assessing the influence of the revolutionary trend. Although references to the revolution were abundant in the speeches and slogans, there was no sense of a way out of the Lebanese political box. The overwhelming view among participants was that the 2005 uprising was the spark of the revolution here, and the accomplishment of its aims would be sufficient to meet the revolution’s ultimate goal: Democracy.

At Sunday’s demonstration, Wissam Nasser, a recent university graduate, said he was marching to ensure better economic opportunities and to improve his chances of finding a job in his field. “This won’t happen without justice and a representative government functioning without the threat of a military veto imposed by Hezbollah,” he said.

Fairuz Al-Shell, a principal of a public school, was happy to see two of her students participating with their parents in the event. “This is how every child should be raised. They should know the importance of civic engagement. They should believe in the power of the people,” she said. But how will this lead to the desired changes? She had no answer other than, “We have to do something.”

Eli Khoury, a businessman, was more pessimistic.  “Nothing will change, but I am here to show them that we’re not intimidated by their weapons,” he said. Next to him was a young woman wearing a dress in the colors of the Lebanese flag.  She voiced her objection to what Mr. Khoury said: “No, the change is absolutely coming. There is no more room for demagogues, no room for oppression in the name of struggle and regional conflicts. We want to live free in our country, free from fear and unrest,” she asserted.

What about the revolution? The answer is not to be found in Beirut. Here, the country is still busy with local politics. And after the successful gathering on Sunday, March 13, attentions will shift to see how the other side will flex its muscles.