Friday, November 16, 2007

Recent history of Lebanon - Part 6

Here is part 6 of the recent history of Lebanon. The previous installment of this series can be found here.

The mass demonstrations of March 14 could not but result in a clear victory during the May elections; at least, that was the thought shared by most Lebanese. There was a small problem, though: What did March 14 want, exactly?

Besides being anti-Syria, what else did they stand for? Many points remained unclear, such as the position of president Lahoud. Some people within March 14 felt strongly about his resignation while others were not so opinionated on this matter. The fragile unity that was created on March 14 was already under threat of falling apart over such issues.

And thus the March 14 politicians did what all Lebanese politicians do best: make powerful speeches with many demands but ignore to work on implementing their own suggestions. Calling for Lahoud to step down, but not mentioning who should replace him. Saying things should be better from now on, but being silent on the details. Strongly demand a full review of the current political framework but not saying how it should be changed. And so on and so forth.

As an immigrant in Lebanon, it is easy for me to criticize the country, especially in hindsight. Yet, it was striking to see how much the average Lebanese was blinded by the Cedar Revolution: Syria was gone, others openly calling for Lahoud to step down, leaders saying that the political system is corrupt…what a sudden freedom!

Only a few months before, people would have laughed at you if you suggested that Syria should leave Lebanon and the police would have arrested you if you insulted the president. Now, however, we had people on TV stating that Lahoud was a bad president and that he should leave because of incompetence. Also, a true avalanche of pictures and movies appeared, mostly on the Internet and distributed by e-mail, containing cartoons of Lahoud and other politicians making fun of them. At first, these were passed along carefully and secretively out of a realistic fear of being arrested. Later on, people shook off their concerns and started forwarding these pictures as much as they could.

The euphoria of ‘breaking the law’ cannot be overestimated: one has to realize that Lebanon, despite claiming to be the only democracy in the Middle East (or at least, in the Arab world), had only little freedom of speech. Journalists were arrested for insulting the president. Also, the insulting of ‘friendly countries’ like Syria was forbidden and punishable by prison. So, to start sending pictures that were clearly insulting to Lahoud (e.g., Lahoud wearing a bathing suit in the colors of the Syrian flag, the president depicted as a dog, Lahoud being raped by Assad, etc) could surely be considered a change of scenery, to say the least.

Perhaps a direct result of this euphoria was a lack of in-depth analysis when evaluating the performance and plans of the March 14 opposition. Nothing was criticized; instead, everything March 14 did and didn’t do was welcomed with open arms. Or rather, the Lebanese were too busy enjoying their new-found freedom to even bother with the plans of March 14. Vice versa, the opposition politicians were not forced by the public to come up with anything relevant.

An additional factor in the optimistic chaos at that time was the return of Michel Aoun. He has always been somewhat of a controversial figure. First, by accepting the position of prime minister. This post is normally reserved for a Sunni Muslim and many felt Aoun should not have accepted it when the president at the time, Amine Gemayel, offered it to him. Second, by using the Lebanese army, which had been neutral up until that time, for fighting a war that was impossible to win against powerful Syria. This war was considered to be more of an ego trip for Aoun than a serious attempt to improve the situation for the Lebanese. From a strategic point of view, it was a senseless undertaking that ended thousands of lives of soldiers and civilians, and one which tarnished his reputation.

Still, his anti-Syria politics has brought Aoun much support among the Lebanese population, especially among Christians. Also among Muslims he has gained quite a bit of support for using the army to stop the various militias that were plundering the country. His politics can be described as anti-establishment and this also helped boost his popularity: finally a politician who dared to criticize the other politicians, most of them considered to be part of an elite group who are only looking out after themselves. For sure, this was a message that resonated well across sects with the average voter.

After his failed War of Liberation he was offered exile by France where he lived a comfortable live in Paris while making strong anti-Syria statements every now and then. Because of criminal charges against Aoun, he couldn’t return to Lebanon out of fear of being arrested upon arrival. Hence, when the public prosecutor dropped the charges, he went back immediately. And just in time as well: he returned early May 2005 and could thus participate in the elections scheduled for later that month.

This triggered many rumors: why would the pro-Syria government all of a sudden drop all charges and allow this staunch anti-Syria politician to run for Parliament during these crucial times. Could it be that a backdoor deal was made whereby Aoun was allowed to return on the condition of dropping his anti-Syria rhetoric?

See here for the next episode.