Lebanese turmoil withers 'Beirut Spring' optimism

But many young activists are still struggling to maintain the movement that followed in the wake of Hariri's death.

Jamal Saidi/Reuters
Shattered: The movement that formed in the wake of ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s death has been overshadowed by almost daily violence. Lebanese soldiers were deployed to end rioting in a Sunni-Shiite neighborhood over the weekend.

Rafik Hariri's assassination three years ago triggered an uprising in Lebanon. Following the death of the former prime minister, young Lebanese poured onto the streets in a movement that not only pushed out Syrian troops, but also gave rise to a new optimism for political change known as Beirut Spring.

Since then, however, much of the ambition of those young protesters has been eroded by a devastating war with Israel, political turmoil, and ongoing violence.

"Spring 2005 was a very euphoric moment for all of us," says Asma Andraos, president of 05Amam, a civil society group. "Everything was going to suddenly change from a feudal and [client-state] country into a modern democratic transparent country. I think we were all very naive."

Leaders of the anti-Syrian March 14 parliamentary coalition had hoped that a rally last week in downtown Beirut to mark Mr. Hariri's death would rekindle the movement's spirit. But the event was overshadowed by the funeral for Imad Mughnieh, a Hizbullah leader killed in Damascus two days earlier. And many Lebanese who participated in the rallies of the Beirut Spring stayed home, partly because of weather, but also out of a sense of disillusion at the turmoil engulfing Lebanon.

Political deadlock between March 14 and the Hizbullah-led pro-Syrian opposition is continuing to stoke tensions here. The country has been without a president since November, the rate of bomb attacks has increased, and scuffles and shootings between rival groups break out nearly every day.

Now, even though the heady days of Beirut Spring are long gone and the situation here seems to present new obstacles every day, those civil society activists still cling to the idealism that they embraced three years ago.

05Amam recently organized a mock municipal council in a school in an impoverished area of north Lebanon, teaching students about democracy, voting, and accountability. The group hopes to expand the scheme to cover three mixed schools of Christians and Muslims.

Hayya Bina, Arabic for "Let's Go," is one group that has adopted a harder political edge to its campaign to abolish sectarianism. It is focusing its efforts on weakening Hizbullah's influence over Lebanon's Shiites by supporting new independent voices within the community.

"Frankly, Hizbullah scares other communities," says Inga Schei, an American activist with Hayya Bina. "It frightens them back into their sectarian holes."

Confronting powerful Hizbullah is a daunting challenge, but Schei says that Lebanese civil society groups "have become synonymous with a lack of action."

Rudy Jaafar, a board member of Nahwa al-Muwatiniya, Arabic for "Toward Citizenship," says that "the work of NGOs has not been made any easier because of the situation. It has been difficult for us to get projects going and get the people we need because people are leaving the country, especially the young. And there are problems with security, problems with funds."

Most Lebanese – while generally supporting the ideas that motivate the civil society groups – have more pressing priorities given the deteriorating economy and security climate in the country.

"Changing the system is not really the priority anymore [in people's minds]," says Ms. Andraos, of 05Amam. "The priority is making sure you're not blown up."

One group was formed as a direct result of the worsening violence in Lebanon. Khalass, Arabic for "Enough," was established in the wake of a deadly university riot in January 2007 in which Sunnis and Shiites fought each other on the streets of Beirut. The riot, which ended with seven dead and an Army-imposed curfew, served as a vivid warning to Lebanon's political leaders of the tensions building among their respective partisans.

"Khalass was based on the fear and frustration of young people that the same [sectarian] leaders that created war between 1975 and 1990 are doing the same thing again in 2007 and 2008," says Gilbert Doumit, a Khalass activist.

The group circulated a petition calling for an amicable solution to the crisis which drew 40,000 signatures and, last November, in the run-up to the scheduled presidential election, held sit-ins outside parliament and a mock funeral procession past the homes of politicians. But Doumit admits that while people privately sympathize with Khalass, turning that latent support into direct action and influence is proving a challenge.

Optimism in Lebanon is an increasingly scarce commodity amid continuing street clashes in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods, hostile tit-for-tat rhetoric from politicians, and a political impasse that only seems to be worsening. Despite this, civil society activists vow to press on.

"You have two options, leave or stay," says Andraos. "If stay, you can sit at home and complain, or you can get out and do something."

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