Lebanon's cautionary tale for Arab uprisings
Toppling a regime – something Lebanese achieved with a spontaneous rally of more than 1 million people six years ago today – is just the first step. Today, the March 14 coalition is struggling.
Picture the following: hundreds of thousands of demonstrators take to the streets of a leading Arab capital, demanding a change of regime and greater independence. The regime struggles to check this unexpected opposition, but fails and collapses.Skip to next paragraph
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Egypt? Tunisia? No, this was Lebanon six years ago when on March 14, 2005, some 1 million demonstrators – roughly a quarter of the population – gathered on the streets of Beirut to demand the resignation of the Damascus-backed government and the withdrawal of Syrian troops.
Sparked by the assassination a month earlier of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s “independence uprising” against years of domination by neighboring Syria was unprecedented in the modern Arab world – and successful. Syrian troops pulled out in April 2005 and the Western-backed March 14 parliamentary coalition, named after the date of the rally, went on to win elections and form a national unity government.
But subsequent developments in Lebanon should serve as a cautionary tale to those protesters in Tunis and Cairo who believe that the triumphant toppling of regimes signifies the end of the battle. Six years later, the March 14 coalition is weakened by internal splits, bereft of international and regional support, and looks set to remain outside the next government.
On Sunday, in an attempt to rekindle the spirit of the original 2005 rally and to inject new vitality into the coalition’s flagging fortunes, the March 14 group held a huge demonstration in central Beirut. Adopting a new rallying cry, they called for arms wielded by the powerful militant Shiite Hezbollah to be placed under the authority of the state. March 14 leaders accuse Hezbollah of using its weapons to bully its domestic opponents into submission instead of deterring Israel.
“We still need to achieve freedom, because there cannot be freedom for a people when its state, constitution, security, economy, future, and decisions are subject to the supremacy of weapons and to those who control the weapons,” Saad Hariri, the caretaker prime minister, told cheering crowds assembled in downtown Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square beside the mausoleum where his father, Rafik, lies buried.
Hezbollah blamed for intimidation
Mr. Hariri’s government was brought down in January when the ministers representing the Hezbollah-led opposition collectively resigned. Najib Mikati, a billionaire businessman, narrowly won the nomination of a majority of parliamentarians to head up a new government.
Hariri and his allies blamed Hezbollah for intimidatory tactics to ensure the nomination of Mr. Mikati, the Shiite party’s preferred candidate. Since then, the March 14 coalition has chosen opposition to Hezbollah’s weapons as a cornerstone of its new political platform.
“Hezbollah used to say its weapons were to resist Israel, but now they use them to intimidate anyone who disagrees with them,” says Nabila Sabbah, a 19-year-old student attending the demonstration.