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Deeper interests behind the Lebanese protests

This article is over 17 years, 3 months old
Ghasan Makarem, a Lebanese socialist, responds to US claims that democratic reform is sweeping the Arab world
Issue 1942

The demonstrations calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon converge on Martyrs Square in downtown Beirut. The square is better known as Solidere, after the multi-billion dollar property company partially owned by former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Hariri, who was assassinated on 14 February, is interred in the mosque he built next to the square. Every day thousands gather to pray and demonstrate against the assassination of the man the media call the “saviour” of Lebanon.

But Hariri’s neo-liberal policies left the country with $40 billion debt, 30 percent unemployment, and an unbridgeable gap between the 5 percent who have everything and the vast majority who have nothing.


Martyrs Square has become the focus of the “cedar revolution”. People gather and listen to opposition politicians as they berate Syria. The youth wing of the militias that make up the opposition have set up a camp where they spend their day watching events on large video screens supplied by Hariri’s TV company.

The opposition, backed by George Bush and French president Jaques Chirac, seized on Hariri’s assassination to force out the Syrian-backed government. Many inside the opposition are bitter about being frozen out of the privatisation bonaza that has devastated the Lebanese economy.

With Hariri dead and the government out of the way, the balance of power in the Lebanese ruling class has shifted to the opposition led by Walid Jumblatt. He is the son of the former leader of the Druze Muslim sect, who was assassinated by Syria in 1977. That same year, Walid Jumblatt went to Syria and “forgave” them for killing his father.

In return, they made him the leader of the National Movement and gave him full support, through rigged elections and threats to opponents, during Lebanon’s civil war.

Walid Jumblatt is a member of the Lebanese parliament, an ex-minister, and the head of the Progressive Socialist Party. He is also a large property owner and one of Lebanon’s multi-millionaires.

But perhaps he is best known as the leader of the militia that cleansed its region of Christians during the civil war. He admitted to this on many occasions, reminding us that he is protected by the amnesty law put in place in 1989 to end Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.

The other leader of the opposition is Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and commander of the Lebanese army during the civil war. In 1989 he launched a “war of liberation” from Syrian occupation.

His timing was very bad. The US, his main ally, withdrew support in return for Syrian backing in the first Gulf War. Syrian troops removed Aoun from Lebanon with the approval of the US.

While Walid Jumblatt controls the Druze sect, Aoun controls a large portion of the Christian population who blame Syria’s presence in Lebanon for many of their ills. His Free Patriotic Movement is part of the “Bristol Meeting” — a gathering of former militias, including the far right Phalange.

The regime, better known as “the loyalists”, is headed by the president Emile Lahoud and is backed by Syrian Baathists, nationalists, some Christian leaders and the Amal Movement.

This movement is headed by the speaker of the parliament and is responsible for its fair share of war crimes. The opposition say they have come together to save Lebanon from the Syrians. Their main target are Syrian economic migrants employed in the businesses of people such as Hariri and Jumblatt.


At least 11 Syrian workers have been murdered over the past two weeks. The opposition claim that, since Lebanon is fighting for its independence, these attacks are acceptable. Missing from the demonstrations are the Shias who make up Lebanon’s largest, and poorest, religious group.

Many Shias fear the “cedar revolution” is being hijacked by the US and its allies to disarm Hizbollah, the resistance organisation that drove the Israelis out of south Lebanon. Many also fear that the US is determined to invade Syria.

The great majority of those who gather daily at Hariri’s grave are there out of a genuine concern that the growing political crisis could lead the country into another civil war.

Many people are unhappy about Syrian interference in Lebanon and the presence of thousands of Syrian troops and the hated secret police—the mukhabarat.

Not all the demonstrators belong to the parties who make up the opposition or support their politics. There is no question that Syrian presence in the country and their sponsorship of a faction of the ruling class should end.

But we cannot let the genuine calls for peace and freedom be hijacked by Lebanese war criminals, the US and France.

For more on the Middle East, read Alex Callinicos and Chris Harman in this issue.

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