March 20, 2005 | New York Sun

As Window of Opportunity Opens in Lebanon, Hope Surges

Above a busy shopping street where a bomb blew out the front walls of a building Friday night, injuring nine people, there now stretches a long row of glittering lights. Local authorities have rekindled the decorations left over from Christmas. “They want to show the bombers that they are building,” a policeman guarding the site said.

After three decades that spanned a civil war followed by 15 years of brutality, jailing, and murder under Baathist Syrian dominion, such peaceful rejoinders to violence and repression have so far been the mark of Lebanon's democratic spring. And over the extraordinary five weeks since this Cedar Revolution began, the political landscape has shifted to a degree that leaves many here full of hope – and nervous. “A window of opportunity is opening,” said lawyer Muhamad Mugraby, who two years ago served prison time as part of his long campaign for rule of law in Lebanon. He warned that “Lebanese politicians habitually have been good at closing such windows.”

The main players have by now all had their say, from the withdrawing forces of Syria to the pro-Syrian Hezbollah, to the democratic demonstrators who turned out a million strong in downtown Beirut last Monday, backed at this stage by America, the European Union, and the United Nations. But no one knows yet exactly what a democratic Lebanon might look like, or who precisely might end up running it. There is no single leader of the democratic opposition. Rather, there are at least four or five, and as many as a dozen, top contenders, ranging from Druze chief Walid Jumblatt to the Maronite Patriarch to Bahiya Hariri, the sister of the assassinated former prime minister, Rafik Hariri – whose murder sparked this democratic uprising – to assorted leaders of the press and business community. They have been united in their insistence that Syria leave Lebanon. But beyond endorsing the general call for democracy, they hold widely disparate views about what a free Lebanon should look like.

Across the board, the situation is so volatile that Pro-Syrian President Lahoud, reviled by the democratic protesters, has backed out of attending an Arab summit in Algeria. On a more modest but disturbing note, a professor at a Lebanese university shows up at a Beirut cafe to confide that when he touched on current events, he found “tensions” running high enough among dissenting factions within his own class to leave him worried.

In a country where the name of the capital – Beirut – has served since the mid-1970s as world shorthand for a war zone, there is plenty to worry about. Syria's military and intelligence forces are going, but neither is gone entirely. Terrorist-group-cum-political-party Hezbollah, armed with heavy weapons, is talking peaceful politics, but refuses to disarm. An electoral system flawed to begin with (and rigged by Syria to produce a pro-Syrian regime) is still in place: It remains an open question whether elections will be held on schedule, by late May, let alone whether they will be free and fair. And many Lebanese democrats fear that support from the world's democratic community, especially America, may wane or devolve into yet another deal in which democratic strivings in the Middle East are traded away for the “stability” of dictatorship.

To that list of concerns can be added Lebanon's complex mix of 18 religious groups, or “confessions,” fraught over the years with shifting alliances in which the fault lines – especially between Muslims and Christians – have in the past turned deadly.

And yet, Lebanon has more reason today for hope than at any time in the past. Both this country and the world around it are changing. Beirut is no longer a war zone. In fact, it is a largely rebuilt city, in which one of the new landmarks is the tent encampment in downtown Martyr's Square, referred to these days by the Lebanese as “freedom square,” or “sahat al-hurriya,” where a new generation is demanding the right to join the modern democratic world.

At the site of the bombing that killed Hariri, protesters have been coming not with guns, but with memorial candles. And unlike the last round of efforts to resolve Lebanon's problems, which resulted in the 1990 Taif accord condoning Syrian occupation, this time Syria is to all appearances on the way out. At the former Beirut base of Syrian intelligence, near the Beau Rivage Hotel, Lebanese troops now guard three empty buildings. Just up the road, near the residence of parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, huge posters of the late father and reigning son of Syria's despotic Assad dynasty have been replaced by a sign telling the speaker that Lebanon mourns the loss of Hariri. On Beirut's famed corniche, where more Assad posters once stared down, a Lebanese flag flutters over a vending cart selling pink cotton candy.

The bottom line is that years of pernicious Syrian occupation have provided many Lebanese with a common cause: “Syria out!” It has been enough to unite Sunni Muslims, Druze, and Christians in the desire for a better way of life, to which many here are putting the basic labels of democracy and freedom. And though some see the lack of a single opposition leader as a weak point, there are others who argue that in this coalition may well be the germ of genuine democratic process. More than any other country in the Middle East, Lebanon prior to its 1975 descent into civil war enjoyed the basic liberties and institutions of democracy. What tipped into civil war was the presence in Lebanon of Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization. Arafat is dead, and while Lebanon remains grudging host to a deeply unhappy and armed population of more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees, they are not calling the shots now.

The main concern, voiced here again and again, is that pressure from the free world is needed to keep Syria in retreat, and give the Lebanese room to maneuver their way toward some better form of government. At the American University of Beirut, political science professor Farid Khazen, one of the prominent opposition figures in the academic community, elaborates on this theme. Simply clearing Syria out of the political process, said Mr. Khazen, would go far to address some of the concerns about an electoral system rigged to produce a pro-Syrian regime. “If Syria is out, if Syrian influence declines, people will get the message that now they can vote differently.”

As for the quarrels among the Lebanese themselves, “We had our civil war. It is finished,” said another prominent opposition figure, Gebran Tueni, editor of the pro-democracy newspaper An-Nahar. As Mr. Tueni sees it, Lebanon might well have recovered its democratic ways much sooner, had Syria not stepped in under the label of keeping peace. “Our democracy was completely paralyzed by this occupation,” said Mr. Tueni, who added that in Lebanon, the best hope is not the emergence of a single leader, but of a democratic process in which, not with guns, but through compromise, “we can compete with each other.”

– Claudia Rosett is the Journalist-in-Residence for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies



Lebanon Syria