Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Recent history of Lebanon - Part 5

Here is part 5 of the recent history of Lebanon. The previous installment of this series can be found here.

The period right after the murder of Rafiq Hariri turned out to be chaotic, to say the least. First, there was Tent City with its demonstrators constantly under the threat of being removed by force, politicians and other leaders making statements that were, literally, unheard of before and then the unexpected submission of Prime Minister Omar Karami. All throughout these weeks, the Lebanese were increasingly open about their demand that Syria should leave the country.

As is usual in a confused situation like this, rumors were flying everywhere. Most of them could be ignored outright, but suddenly the buzz was that Syria was considering retreating out of Lebanon. “Could this rumor be true?”, the Lebanese were wondering. The story gained more steam when the next rumor was heard: Syrian president Assad would give a speech before his parliament to make a ‘special announcement’.

This sealed it for many Lebanese. Assad would talk about the Syrian withdrawal. Yet others were not that sure. There had been so many wild rumors before, and this one was the wildest by far, so surely it couldn’t be true. The Syrians had been in Lebanon since 1976 and why should they leave now? The speech by Assad was broadcasted live on most Lebanese TV stations and the rumors turned out to be true: Assad confirmed that Syria would reduce its troops with the aim of full removal soon.

The reactions were as to be expected: many cynical Lebanese pointed out that ‘soon’ could easily mean ‘for as long as it pleases Assad’. Others were worried that the Syrian exit would bring even more chaos. After all, they had been a stabilizing factor in Lebanon since so many years.

Contrary to what most expected, the Syrians did withdraw amazingly fast from Lebanon. It was less than a month after the murder on Rafiq Hariri that Hezbollah and other pro Syrian parties organized a ‘Goodbye Party’ to thank Syria for all the dedication and sacrifices it had made to ‘bring peace and stability’ to Lebanon. The turnout on March 8, 2005, was nothing less than huge: an estimated 500,000 people came to Downtown. Assuming there are some 3.5 million people living in Lebanon, it meant that 1 in 7 Lebanese participated in the Goodbye Party. Never before had Lebanon witnessed such a large gathering of people.

Despite this enormous success, the event made painfully clear how isolated the pro Syrians were in Lebanon: most of the people present were Shiites while many other Lebanese scoffed at the Goodbye Party since they were glad the Syrians were out. Another fact also became clear, namely that the Shiites were a force to be reckoned with, perhaps even more so now that Syria has left. In that sense, the demonstration on March 8 sent a clear message for the upcoming elections that Syria might have left Lebanon, but that 1 in 7 Lebanese were still highly favorable to their neighbor.

That message was not lost on the other Lebanese and in response to the Goodbye Party they organized their own demonstration a week later: on March 14, 2005, more than a million people gathered in Downtown Beirut to demonstrate for a Lebanon clear from foreign influence, especially Syrian’s. A little bit less than 1 in 3 Lebanese participated in the demonstration, much more than the week before. It was said to be the largest demonstration ever in the Arab world, both in absolute numbers as in percentage of total population.

To be fair to both demonstrations, though, not everybody agreed to these numbers: the March 8 demonstration was said to have somewhere around 150,000 demonstrators, while the March 14 was estimated to be around 300,000. These approximations were based on aerial pictures and assumption as to how many people fit a square meter. But facts often lose out when myths are needed and so both demonstrations would go down in history as having such high amounts of people attending.

While the demonstration on March 8 was organized by pro government parties and was thus not hindered by the Lebanese authorities, the demonstration on March 14 was officially declared illegal by President Lahoud and the rumors were that he had given the army orders to prevent the gathering of people in Downtown on that day. Like before in Tent City, many people were somewhat afraid as to what might happen: would the army act against innocent civilians?

At first, it did seem that the authorities had taken plenty of preventative measures to block the flow of demonstrators towards Downtown: road blocks and barbed wire were erected on all roads and they were manned by armed soldiers. However, when faced with such an overwhelming amount of unarmed Lebanese, often whole families including toddlers, the army commander decided against stopping the people.

This made for great television and the anti Syria stations were repeatedly broadcasting footage of soldiers opening up the barricaded and removing the barbed wire, or pointing out alternative roads so the demonstrators could access Downtown easier. It was a clear message to the public to join the demonstrations now that it became visible that the army would not act. It also contributed to the ‘Power to the People’ feeling of that period and it reduced the status of President Lahoud ever further. After all, it was his instruction that was so openly discarded by the army.

At the end of the day, the Lebanese scene was enriched with two new expressions: the March 8 Movement that was pro Syria and the March 14 Movement that was anti Syria. The schism everyone thought they could overcome after the murder of Rafiq Hariri had become all too real. Nothing was left of the desire for unity that was so intensely expressed in Tent City only a few weeks ago.

See here for the next episode.