By Jim Quilty
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Lebanon: Talking about a Revolution?

This article is over 17 years, 4 months old
Beirut-based journalist Jim Quilty questions the Washington-spun imagery of the 'Cedar Revolution' in Lebanon.
Issue 295

Most Lebanese were surprised when prime minister Omar Karami resigned on 28 February, two weeks after the assassination of former premier Rafiq Al Hariri. No one was more startled than house speaker Nabih Berri. At the time the leader of the Shia Muslim Amal movement was presiding over a no-confidence parliamentary session that the government seemed destined to win.

Within hours the US State Department obligingly dubbed Karami’s resignation a ‘Cedar Revolution’. The term slots Beirut’s experience into a narrative of peaceful pro-democracy movements stretching back to the fall of the Berlin Wall, filing it alongside Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, Georgia’s Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.

‘Cedar Revolution’ is problematic for a number of reasons. Putting aside the fact that a government’s resignation is hardly revolutionary – for the time being Lebanon’s pro-Syrian state apparatus remains intact – the term is entirely alien to local opposition parlance (opposition deputies called for a ‘Freedom Revolution’).

Such local realities are not paramount in State Department thinking. Given the intractable chaos of US-occupied Iraq, it was vital that Washington appropriate a cheerier narrative for its Middle East policy of regime change. Conveniently enough, in the heady days immediately following Karami’s resignation, analysts speculated as to whether Beirut’s multicoloured revolution might offer a model for regime change across the region.

Lebanon’s realities are far more nuanced than the picture presented in Washington. Lebanon’s opposition and loyalist parties are presently experimenting with mass politics that, so far, is more theatre than consultation. It is closer to monologue by turns than national dialogue and, as such, looks to the international media market as much as a domestic audience. The Washington narrative is well known, but the anatomy of Lebanon’s present political dynamic is worthy of a sketch.

Karami’s resignation and Martyrs’ Square

No one knows why Karami stepped down. It’s likely he simply couldn’t stand the idea of sitting through another three days of being harangued for complicity in the assassination of Hariri – who since his death has been transformed from one of the most contentious of Lebanese politicians to the most beloved.

Karami’s resignation did bring cheers of victory from the thousands of Lebanese youths who, defying a ban on public gatherings, had begun gathering at Martyrs’ Square, in the centre of Beirut, the previous night. It was easy to see this as their victory. For the two weeks following Hariri’s funeral, demonstrators had been writing on white banners, demanding the government’s resignation and Syrian withdrawal. Within a few days, demonstrators had largely complied with orders to drop party banners in favour of the Lebanese flag.

The opposition’s symbolic unity was reinforced by the unanimous adoption of red and white scarves, emulating events in Kiev. The uniformity holds, though there have been some subcurrents. After a couple of weeks Hariri supporters in the Mustaqbal (Future) or Haqiqa (Truth) camp adopted a blue chest ribbon. Equally evocative of Ukraine were the carnival-like atmosphere around Martyrs’ Square for the last two weeks, the cordial relations between the crowds and the ubiquitous security services, and the popular euphoria ignited by this unusual demonstration of Lebanese solidarity.

Intra-sect solidarity has been facilitated by logistical happenstance. Hariri’s corpse is interred near the still-unfinished Muhammad Al Amin Mosque – the massive, neo-Ottoman structure that the former premier helped bankroll. The mosque happens to be adjacent to Martyrs’ Square, an area that has been a lightning rod for protest movements.

In the weeks following the funeral, the demonstrators have been a motley crew of Druze Muslims (Progressive Socialist Party), Christians (Free Patriotic Movement, supporters of exiled former army commander Michel Aoun), opposition Christian Phalangists (fascists), ultra right wing Lebanese forces, right wing National Liberals and Sunni Muslim Hariri supporters. There have also been left wing activists of various confessions and otherwise unaffiliated Lebanese responding to the outrage of assassination on this scale.

There are Shia Muslims among these latter groups. It’s no surprise that the leadership of the Hezbollah resistance organisation and the Syrian-backed Harakat Amal have been absent. Some opposition leaders (and many among the Christian demonstrators) have taken inspiration from the Franco-American sponsored UN Resolution 1559 calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and the disarming of Hezbollah.

Performance activism

Over these two weeks the two-kilometre area between Martyrs’ Square and the scene of Hariri’s assassination became the site of a sort of performance activism. Set up near the site itself, ‘Citizens4Lebanon’ collected a petition of 20,000 signatures demanding the truth behind Hariri’s murder. On 26 February a ‘human chain’ saw people hold hands in a line stretching from the tomb to the bombsite.

The most coordinated piece of performance activism was the 12 March ‘human flag’ tribute to Hariri. Pieces of cardboard (coloured red, white or green on one side and black on the other) were distributed to the 10,000 people assembled in the adjacent Martyrs’ Square.

On cue, the demonstrators flipped their cardboard to form a 3,800-square-metre flag (when the speaker demanded to know the truth about Hariri’s killing) or a black rectangle of the same size (in reference to the opposition’s enemies).

The central feature of the public demonstration has been the campground at Martyrs’ Square since 21 February. Set up by the youth wings of opposition parties, they pledged to hold a round the clock sit-in until Syrian troops were out of the country. Between the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) and Future tents there is also a tent staffed by the Leo Burnett advertising company.

Demonstrators depict a distinct division of labour among the parties. Future (which has the biggest, best-equipped tent) provides the Alpha demonstrators, regarding this as their space, and supplying water and such to the rest of the sit-in. Though many Christian partisans eventually migrated to Martyrs’ Square, Walid Jumblatt’s Druze Muslim supporters are always called upon for events requiring numbers. During lulls – when there is no specific cause for reinforcements – leftish members have taken it on themselves to get the Lebanese flags swinging.

Then there are the emblems. The area has been adorned with banners calling for the government’s resignation, condemning Syria, or simply saying ‘We want the truth’. Visitors and demonstrators have used these banners as media to express their frustration and outrage in the various languages common to Lebanese.

The opposition’s colours were eventually formulated as a sharp, red and white ‘Independence ’05’ logo, designed by Elie Khoury (working in concert with a team of graphic designers associated with Leo Burnett and Saatchi & Saatchi, pro bono). Printed in Arabic and English, the logo began appearing on banners, baseball caps, pins and other consumables. The guile with which opposition leaders have packaged, branded and represented the Cedar Revolution has been an anarchic tour de force. It has kept people on the streets and ensured an image of unity for the international viewing audience.

The anti-Syrian opposition does have numerous eccentricities, however, which will likely make for instability over the medium term. There has been no single leader who really speaks for all the disparate parties and interests. This lack of uniformity has been read positively by the opposition grassroots, who prize the movement’s pluralism. Pluralism, however, easily dissolves into factionalism once the common victory is won. This raises questions as to the lay of the political landscape once the Syrians do leave – in effect whether there will have been any revolution at all.

Performance politics

These structural realities – and the fact that public demonstrations had little bearing on Syria’s decision to withdraw its troops – do not belie the change that has arisen in Lebanon. Since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990, the Lebanese public has been known for the quiet devotion, patience or quiescence with which it bore its rulers’ political excesses. There is something remarkable, then, in the fact that on 8 and 15 March the country witnessed two of its biggest ever street rallies.

The largest of these was an anti-regime rally. A week earlier, though, the title would have gone to a Hezbollah-called demo devoted to thanking Damascus and shaking its fist at UN Resolution 1559. Mass political expression on this scale is a new and exciting development in this country. Superficialities aside, the two events were distinct from one another, but not in the ways partisan commentators have depicted.

Hezbollah didn’t call its 8 March rally until Syrian president Bashar Asad had committed himself to withdrawal. For all the sycophantic excess of some of the speeches, then, the demo effectively said, ‘Thank you. Goodbye,’ not, ‘Please stay.’

In its ritual and iconography, the 8 March Hezbollah rally was not unlike the anti-Syrian demonstrations of the previous weeks. There were no party flags, only the Lebanese cedar. Though there were images of Syrian-backed Lebanese president Emile Lahoud and Bashar Asad aplenty, there were also some of Hariri. As they streamed out of the poor Shia suburbs of Dahiyeh, on foot and by bus, demonstrators wailed Hezbollah and Shia songs, but young men also chanted ‘Abu Baha’ (‘Baha’s father’, a reference to Rafiq Al Hariri), as at opposition rallies.

Demonstrators assembled at Riyad Al Sulh Square, only a few hundred metres from the opposition’s tent city. A triple line of the army, the much feared Internal Security Forces and Hezbollah’s in-house security kept the two groups separate. The demonstrators marked a minute’s silence for the murdered premier and sang the national anthem. It is difficult to estimate how much of this was scripted or arose spontaneously from below.

Young men were heavily represented and most of the women wore veils – suggesting that the vast majority were Hezbollah supporters. But there were also family groups and women, young and old, who were not veiled. The most striking difference between these demonstrators and the 70,000 or so anti-regime activists who gathered at Martyrs’ Square the night before was class.

Though sometimes evident in matters of dress or manner, this difference was mostly registered in means of transportation – Hezbollah supporters travelling by bus or foot rather than the fleets of Mercedes, SUVs and Hummers used by opposition supporters. There was a very strong sense that the Martyrs’ Square rallies were demonstrations of privilege whereas this was one of the dispossessed – albeit a dispossessed being instrumentalised by Hezbollah.

The people came to listen to Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader. He apologised to Syrians for the anti-Damascus protests, condemned UN Resolution 1559 and warned Washington that the Lebanese did not fear the US military, which was already defeated here – a reference to the withdrawal of US forces from Beirut after the car bomb in 1984 that killed 241 Marines.

As if to anticipate the impending debate about the size of the rally, Nasrallah said to the crowd, ‘I ask: Are all those hundreds of thousands of people puppets? Are all these agents for the Syrians and intelligence agencies?’

In fact terrain made it difficult to estimate numbers. Riyad Al Sulh Square, the rally’s focal point, may hold 200-300,000, but people also lined the adjacent flyover, milled about beneath it, and continued to spill into the area throughout the rally. NBN, the pro-Syrian Amal’s television station, put the figure at 1.5 million. A more cautious estimate would be 500-800,000.

Aside from Dahiyeh, Shia protestors were mobilised in the Bekaa Valley and the south, occupied by Israel for 20 years. Christian supporters of outgoing interior minister Sulayman Franjieh also drove down from the north to join the rally.

Opposition spokesmen dismissed the numbers. Some, like Al Nahar, Lebanon’s equivalent of the Daily Telegraph, reported that Syrian nationals had been bussed across the border. There do seem to have been Syrians at the 8 March protest, but in negligible numbers.

Popular discourse has it that Hezbollah demonstrators are coerced, ordered or paid to go out. The 8 March protest was no different. This representation of Hezbollah supporters as ignorant villagers should be treated sceptically, being eerily reminiscent of pre-war classist-sectarian projections embedded in urban exclusivity.

Clearly the hostility many disenfranchised Shia (indeed many opposition supporters) feel toward UN Resolution 1559, widely perceived to be pro-Israeli, is authentic. Demonstrators on 8 March left the scene immediately after Nasrallah’s speech. Some suggest this proves how politically disengaged they are. It might also suggest how uncomfortable many of them feel in the upmarket heart of the capital.

Opposition supporters responded to Hezbollah’s rally with resignation or rationalisation. When Lahoud appointed Karami to form a new government the next day, the mood changed to outrage and determination to not let Hezbollah have the last word.

Before 14 March SMS text messages (an effective mobilising tool in mobile-dense Lebanon) shot out across the country to encourage people to come out. Word trickled out from the Shouf mountain range that Jumblatt’s PSP lieutenants were ordered not to leave their villages unless they had 10,000 supporters in tow.

Bourgeois demonstrators clogged the arteries north of Beirut and private yachts from the wealthy areas of Jounieh and Jbayl moored at Beirut Marina. Future organisers financed buses to ferry people from the most remote mountain villages to Beirut for the day. Working class demonstrators walked downtown from West Beirut’s Sunni and Druze neighbourhoods. Volunteers painted faces with Lebanese flags (adding to the carnival aspect) while a thousand more (decked out in chic red and white vests, the latest variation on Elie Khoury’s branding theme) worked to focus the throngs around Martyrs’ Square.

It was now the turn of pro-opposition organs to estimate the numbers at between 1 and 2 million people. Again, accurate estimates were nearly impossible as the numbers overflowed the venue-over 800,000 seems fitting. Such estimates are irrelevant in any case. The numbers were surely larger and more socially and confessionally varied than at the 8 March rally.

Civil society

It is difficult to underestimate the importance of last month’s events. They have been important to ‘the opposition’ or Hezbollah less than to the activist habit of mind that is essential to the success of a participatory democracy. That said, Lebanon’s present pattern of mass politics has little future. Tit for tat popular mobilisations are no replacement for governance. At some point the various fragments that make up this polity will have to abandon theatre for politics.

The opposition is murmuring that the poll scheduled for May could be delayed until the conditions are in place for free elections – the removal of Lahoud and the commanders of his security apparatus. Such a development would be more deserving of the word ‘revolution’ than any premier’s resignation.

More challenging than anything the people have accomplished in the last month will be to maintain a voice in the political process once it stops being entertaining carnival and becomes inconvenient or dangerous. The greatest challenge of all will see the population question whether the political parties now occupying the field really represent their interests.

Jim Quilty is the Beirut correspondent for Middle East International.

Left alternative

In the face of Washington’s attempts to redirect movements for change in the Middle East in its interest, the left has launched a campaign to fight sectarianism in Lebanon. No to War and Racism, Yes to Secular Democracy was launched at public meetings across the country by the International Socialist Group (Lebanon), the Communist Party youth section , student groups from the Arab University and Balamand University and NGOs.

The demonstrations calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon were organised by sectarian parties, including the right wing Phalanges, which are whipping up racism. The backing given to them by George Bush, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac is in danger of leading the country into another civil war.

Neither the opposition nor the pro-Syrian government represents the interest of ordinary people. Both sides include sectarian parties that were organised militias during the civil war, and have supported neoliberal polices. Over the last 30 years both blocs have at different times co-operated with Syrian and Lebanese secret police.

The campaign calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence personnel from Lebanon, but does not want them replaced by US or Israeli troops. The campaign rejects foreign intervention of any kind and rejects UN resolution 1559 calling for the disarmament of Hizbullah. No to War and Racism, Yes to Secular Democracy is part of the international movement against capitalism and imperialism.

The campaign calls for proportional representation and secular government; the extension of the Labour Laws to protect all workers, including Syrian workers and workers from other nationalities; the right to establish political parties and civil society organisations free from state control; cancellation of the media laws that prohibit the right to publish newsletters, magazines and newspapers; raising the minimum wage from $200 a month to $450 a month; civil rights for all refugees in Lebanon, including Palestinian refugees; equal rights for women; an end to World Bank, WTO and IMF policies that are driving large sections of the population into poverty.

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