Has Lebanon's Cedar revolt come undone?
Hizbullah now occupies the Beirut squares where the 'Cedar Revolution' helped end Syrian dominance in 2005.
BEIRUT, LEBANON — Rita Awad was one of Lebanon's "Cedar revolutionaries" when she participated in the mass street demonstrations in spring 2005 that led Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.
Now, Ms. Awad is back on the street. And in a quirk of Lebanese politics, she is demonstrating alongside pro-Syrian supporters against a government dominated by the leaders that she once rallied behind.
"When the Syrians were here [in the 1990s], we were the only ones fighting, and now we are here fighting the government," says Awad, a member of the Free Patriotic Movement led by Michel Aoun, a retired Christian general and now an ally of the militant Shiite Hizbullah party that is spearheading Lebanon's opposition.
While the political landscape has shifted and alliances have changed from two years ago, it's clear that Hizbullah has taken a page from the Cedar Revolution's playbook.
It has called thousands of antigovernment protesters to the streets for open-ended protests calling for more government seats for the opposition, or, failing that, fresh elections and an end to the rule of the March 14 coalition, which was swept into power after Syrian troops left the country.
"We are copying their system," says Ali Hamdan, an official with the Amal Movement, the Shiite group allied to Hizbullah. "The March 14 [leaders] have to realize that they don't have a monopoly on revolution."
The Cedar Revolution was a reaction of outrage at the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister who was killed in a bomb explosion on Valentine's Day 2005. A week later, tens of thousands of Lebanese marched through the streets of Beirut in an unprecedented rally to demand an end to Syrian political and military control.
The revolution was slickly organized with an ad agency that helped shape the campaign, adopting the colors red and white along with a slogan "Independence '05." The protests were notable for attracting a large number of middle-class professionals, people not normally associated with street demonstrations. Christian women dressed in chic black dresses stood alongside head-scarved Muslims. A tent city, dubbed "Camp Freedom," was established a few yards from Mr. Hariri's tomb. The month-long demonstrations ended on March 14 with a rally attended by nearly 1 million protesters.
The rallies brought down the pro-Syrian government and eventually forced Damascus to withdraw its troops, signaling the breakup of nearly three decades of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon.
Now, Hizbullah occupies that public theater. It and other Lebanese opposition launched a street campaign on Dec. 1 with a rally that brought some 800,000 people to Beirut. Rows of white tents sprang up, covering two city squares as protesters vowed to stay put until their demands were met.
Unlike the participants of the Cedar Revolution, the vast majority of the opposition's supporters are drawn from the poor rural areas of south and east Lebanon, lending a class-based distinction to the sit-in. For many, it's the first time they have seen Beirut's city center, whose cobble-stoned streets lined with expensive boutiques, restaurants, and cafes normally cater to the wealthy.
Some Cedar Revolution activists are attempting to counter the political crisis with a campaign dubbed "I love life."
Billboards around the country carry the slogan written in red and white letters in Arabic, English, and French. The campaign, says ad executive and campaigner Elie Khoury, is intended to rally the "politically homeless" and will soon be sending the message overseas. "We want to tell the world that, regardless of whatever they see on their TV screens, the Lebanese want to live and move ahead," he says.
On New Year's Eve, some 15,000 people attended a pop concert organized by the "I love life" campaign. At midnight, the Beirut seafront was lit by a massive fireworks. Not to be outdone, opposition supporters launched their fireworks moments later, bathing downtown Beirut in flashes of color.
The opposition had hoped that the government's resolve would crumble in the opening days of the sit-in. But it has refused to yield and is locked into a war of attrition that has left the country on edge. Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the patriarch of the Maronite church, said in a Christmas message that the "anarchy" gripping Lebanon was "a mess unprecedented in Lebanese history."
Some Lebanese analysts say that the opposition's campaign is losing momentum, forcing it either to reach a compromise with the government or step up its actions. Opposition leaders have warned that the campaign could escalate into civil disobedience.
But Ahmad Fatfat, Lebanon's minister of sport and a prominent member of the March 14 coalition, says that the opposition has misunderstood the effect of street protests. "They are using the same tactics, the same mobilization of people," he says. "But this tactic won't solve any the problems. It worked against an external problem like Syria, but it won't work in domestic politics."
The Cedar Revolution succeeded partly because it was backed by the West and leading Arab countries against an isolated Syria. Furthermore, analysts say, Lebanon's political pluralism makes it almost impossible for one group to impose its will on the others, which is why politics here traditionally is one of consensus and dealmaking.
"This is what makes Lebanon different from other Arab countries," says Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Relations at the American University of Beirut. "This standoff has two parties with roughly equal support and backed by foreign countries. Both sides are looking for a way out and that will only come about with a negotiated deal."