No Beirut Spring

The anti-Syria protests in Lebanon have been packaged as a glossy good-news story - but the truth is more troubling.

Nicholas Frayn

Topics Politics

Since the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri on 14 February, the White House has discovered once more the democratic spirit awakening in the Middle East. The world, according to president George W Bush, ‘is speaking with one voice when it comes to making sure that democracy has a chance to flourish in Lebanon’ (1). Meanwhile secretary of state Condoleezza Rice claims: ‘The Lebanese people are starting to express their aspirations for democracy.… This is something that we support very much.’ (2)

It seems that the USA has found a potential good news story in the Middle East (Lebanese ‘uprising’ against the Syrian-backed government) and jumped on it, in much the same way as it did the election of Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas (3). (Again the USA has conveniently ignored the fact that the Lebanese already elect much of their leadership, albeit under some scrutiny from the Syrians.) The claim appears to have worked: on 1 March the anti-war editorial page of the New York Times was forced to give Bush credit for ‘a year of heartening surprises – each one remarkable in itself, and taken together truly astonishing’ (4).

The New York Times is not wrong that the USA has instigated some movement in the region, where politics has been moribund and regimes entrenched for almost 25 years. But the idea that the Middle East is undergoing a Prague Spring (with Bush guaranteeing a happy ending) can only be supported by a complete misrepresentation of the facts. If we can stop ourselves from getting carried away with the crowds on the Beirut streets, a more troubling picture emerges.

Despite all the mud slung at Syria over the past 10 days, nobody actually knows who killed Rafik Hariri. Hariri was not a member of the anti-Syrian opposition, and was in fact castigated by the Lebanese right as a tool of Damascus (5). Even shortly before his death he was in consultation with the Syrians, perhaps aiming to act as mediator between them and the Lebanese opposition (6). His falling out with the regime, after it extended the term of his rival President Emil Lahoud, may have been frustrating, but nothing suggested the relationship was beyond repair. Nor was Hariri a great supporter of democracy. Among his innovations was a law banning press criticism of ‘Lebanon’s allies’, which included Syria and Saudi Arabia (7).

So the opposition, along with the West, has been opportunistic in its newfound celebration of Hariri as a martyr for national liberation. Still, one can understand Lebanese people’s desire to remove the dead hand of the Syrian regime from their shoulders. Syria has acted as a force of conservatism in the country, arriving in 1976 at the behest of a minority Maronite Catholic government that was about to succumb to leftist and Palestinian forces. Syria’s constraint of such radical groups was welcomed by the West through the period of turbulence that subsequently wracked the country. Today, especially with the withdrawal of Israel from Southern Lebanon in 2000, Syria finds it harder to justify interference in Lebanese affairs to both local and international actors. This is no expression of long-suppressed discontent with the Syrian presence; the very forces now calling for Syria’s expulsion (including mainstream Christian politicians and Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party in Lebanon, as well as the US government), are those that at one time or another welcomed it in.

Indeed, it is not clear that the current demonstrations represent a real expression of majority will. Neither of the two main representatives of Lebanon’s 55 per cent Shi’a majority, Hizbolah and Amal, have joined the opposition to Syria (8). Nor has a significant block of parties representing a leftist and Sunni constituency (9). In reality this protest has much in common with those of the Ukraine in the past presidential election. A relatively small, media-savvy, group takes the initiative, while their regimes are paralysed like frightened rabbits, trapped in the glare of the White House.

For the moment, however, Lebanese politics may be able to cohere itself around an anti-Syrian campaign. As one critical voice put it: ‘Although they espouse “Lebanese Nationalism”, [the opposition] managed to adopt the slogan of their Arab nationalist opponents. “No voice rises above the voice of battle” was a motto used by successive Arab regimes and pan-Arab parties to stifle any call for change not necessarily passing through the “liberation” of Palestine.’ (10) In the long term these voices suggest no policy to reduce Lebanon’s $40billion external debt, its sectarian politics, or its phenomenal brain-drain. What is more, they are treading dangerous, if wearily familiar, ground by relying on external support to pursue their agenda. Already there have been reports of violence from around Lebanon as these issues split the population (11).

The West is happy to champion the superficial talk of democracy from around the region. The New York Times also celebrated the President Mubarak of Egypt’s announcement that he plans to allow opposition candidates to run against him. Good luck to them, but it is not clear exactly what they will be able to do differently in the unlikely eventuality of being elected. Long ago the Egyptian regime swallowed the bitter pill of IMF reform and depends on $2billion of US aid per year – severe constraints for any leadership, democratic or not. And as the opprobrium toward the Lebanon’s Hizbollah or the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat shows, there are limits to how much democracy the West will tolerate in the Middle East. In democratisation, the West reproduces an image of its own system, in which the act of voting itself is what counts, rather than the content of the politics.

Both the Americans and Lebanese should beware. Robert Fisk’s exhaustive account of the country’s extended civil war, Pity the Nation, holds many dire predictions for those who ride to the gallant rescue of Lebanon. His description of America’s retreat after its ill-advised excursion of 1982 has a grim sense of inevitability about it. There will be no opportunity here to escape the quagmire of Iraq. Meanwhile, the Lebanese themselves risk jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, as they seek to replace one political sponsor with another. The grim regime of Syria might have a stultifying effect on the culture of lively Beirut, but at least it values the stability of Lebanon over the chance to turn local politics into a morality play.

(1) Bush Says World Demands That Syria Pull Out of Lebanon, New York Times, 2 March 2005

(2) U.S. turns up heat on Syria,, 2 March 2005

(3) ‘A Blast From the Past’, 10 February 2005

(4) Mideast Climate Change, NYT, 1 March 2005

(5) See ‘Angry Arab’ blog, 17 February 2005

(6) Who killed Rafik Hariri?, Guardian, 23 February 2005

(7) Lebanon’s Sorrow , Washington Post, 19 February 2005

(8) Opposition begins talks with Hizbullah and Amal in attempt to win vital support, The Daily Star, 3 March 2005

(9) See the ‘Angry Arab’ blog, 28 February 2005

(10) After The Assassination Of The Ex-prime Minister: Is The Lebanese Opposition An Alternative?, Ghassan Makarem, Zmag, 23 February 2005

(11) Calm is restored to Tripoli after two days of violence, The Daily Star, 3 March 2005

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Topics Politics


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