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.

Bilal Hussein/AP
Lebanese people carry national flags as they attend a rally in Beirut's Martyrs' Square, Lebanon, on Sunday, March 13. Thousands of flag-waving Lebanese gathered in Beirut's main square Sunday to mark the sixth anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a killing that sparked a cascade of political turmoil in the Middle East.

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.

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.

Martyrs’ Square was a sea of red and white Lebanese flags, a familiar sight from the original rallies six years ago. But the numbers appeared to be in the tens of thousands, predictably well short of the original 1 million figure. On one side of the square were the giant portraits of nine prominent supporters of March 14 who were assassinated between 2005 and 2008. Other billboards carried slogans saying, “No to sedition, no to the hegemony of weapons, no to treachery.”

Yet tackling Hezbollah’s weapons today is a formidable undertaking and March 14 could struggle to replicate the dynamism of six years ago to sustain its new endeavor.

Hezbollah 'doesn't feel threatened'

Hezbollah insists that its weapons are necessary to defend against the possibility of future aggression by Israel. Mikati’s new government, once it is formed, is likely to respect Hezbollah’s interests, which include the preservation of its military assets and deflecting pressure from an international tribunal investigating Rafik Hariri’s murder. The tribunal is expected to issue a first set of indictments in the coming months which reportedly will name several members of Hezbollah.

Several billboards have been erected in recent days around Beirut carrying the slogan “Israel also wants to get rid of weapons,” insinuating that March 14 shares the same goal as the Jewish state in wanting Hezbollah disarmed.

A source close to the Shiite party said that Hezbollah temporarily placed its cadres on alert on Sunday as a contingency, but said the atmosphere was relaxed.

“Hezbollah’s laughing at them and doesn’t feel threatened at all,” the source said.

The demonstration did indeed have a festive air. Many participants sat on plastic seats and chatted amiably in the brilliant spring sunshine as the thunderous speeches of successive politicians, interspersed with boisterous musical interludes, were relayed over loud speakers and large television screens. Most of those attending had been bussed in from all over Lebanon.

In contrast, the Beirut Spring of 2005 was a spontaneous reaction of shock and anger to Rafik Hariri’s murder in a truck bomb explosion that was widely blamed on Syria. The US and France quickly capitalized on the anti-Syrian uprising, dubbing it the “Cedar Revolution” and offering political backing to the March 14 coalition.

Less international support for March 14

Analysts say that the March 14 coalition cannot expect the same level of support today that it once enjoyed under the former administrations of presidents George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac. Both countries have more pressing concerns in the Arab world and elsewhere.

So, too, do March 14’s regional supporters, which included Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt under President Hosni Mubarak. With Mubarak gone and the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Jordan eying nascent unrest in their own countries, the priorities of March 14 diminish in comparison.

“In this sense, the real challenge in front of Hariri is not the success of the Sunday gathering,” wrote Imad Marmal, a columnist with Lebanon’s As Safir daily, “but to find a convincing answer to the obvious question: What about the next day?”

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