Michael Young, who was taken to Lebanon at age seven by his Lebanese mother after the death of his American father and who has worked most of his career as a journalist there for American publications, brings to life a country in the crossfire of invasions, war, domestic division, incessant sectarian scheming, and often living in fear of its neighbors. Young knows or has known many of the players, politicians, writers, and religious leaders.
A country riven by domestic tensions that have often resulted in assassinations, under the considerable sway of Hezbollah (in alliance with Iran and Syria), frequently set upon by Israel and Syria, nearly destroyed by civil war, Lebanon remains an exception among Arab countries because it is a place where liberal instincts and tolerance struggle to stay alive.
An important and enduring symbol, Lebanon was once the outstanding example of an (almost) democratic society in an inhospitable, dangerous region—a laboratory both for modernity and violence, as a Lebanese intellectual who was later assassinated once put it.
Young relates the growing tension between a domineering Syria and a Lebanese opposition in which charismatic leader and politician Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated and the Independence Intifada—the Cedar Revolution—broke out. His searing account of his country’s confrontation with its domestic and regional demons is one of hope found and possibly lost.
In this stunning narrative, Young tells us what might have been his country’s history, and what it may yet be.
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If men and women began to live their ephemeral dreams, every phantom would become a person with whom to begin a story of pursuits, pretenses, misunderstandings, clashes, oppressions, and the carousel of fantasies would stop.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
THE PEOPLE GATHER at the top of Martyrs Square, near where, some weeks earlier, he had addressed those demanding that the Syrian army leave Lebanon. It is June 4, 2005, and the procession—large but not nearly as large as the journalist Samir Kassir deserves—is there to accompany him in the one starring role (his brashness notwithstanding) that he would have surely preferred to delay.
Two days earlier—it was nearly 11 A.M.—Kassir had sat down in his silver Alfa Romeo in an eastern Beirut neighborhood. One or several people were watching him and detonated a bomb under his car, killing Kassir instantly.
At that moment a great deal was ended: the biting pen of one of Lebanon’s most daring political commentators and a scholar of the modern Middle East; but also the venomous antagonism between Kassir and a Lebanese intelligence official, who a few years earlier had had the writer harassed after being criticized in two impertinent articles. The bullying continued to the end. When he was killed, Kassir was about to pick up a bodyguard—really more a burly driver accompanying him about town.
Not long after Kassir’s assassination, the intelligence official was on the front page of the daily Al-Hayat peddling his version of events in a ten-part interview, as he defended a career brusquely terminated because of the Syrian pullout in April 2005. With his patrons gone, it was said that Major General Jamil al-Sayyed spent much time at the beach—an anteroom to irrelevance for a man moved by the tremors of authority and intrigue. But then things changed. Within weeks the beachcomber had become a jailbird, one of four Lebanese security and intelligence officials arrested as suspects in the February 14 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, Lebanon’s onetime prime minister. Hariri’s killing had prompted weeks of demonstrations against Syria at Martyrs Square, leading to the Syrian departure, Damascus being the prime suspect, indeed the only one, in the crime.
Kassir’s funeral procession makes its way toward Nijmeh Square in Beirut’s downtown area, the location of parliament and the Greek Orthodox St. Georges Church, where the requiem mass will be celebrated. A dozen or so members of the Democratic Left movement, to which Kassir belonged, hold up the casket at arms’ length. Someone shouts, “Applaud the hero,” and we applaud, because Kassir was nothing if not a superior performance. In the Lebanese tradition, when a young man dies, the funeral is often conducted as a wedding never had. There are horns and mourners feigning happiness, while a white casket, usually open, is pumped up and down by pallbearers in a wild salsa of death. Kassir’s casket is being made to dance too, but this is no commemoration of aborted youth. Married twice, with two daughters, Kassir has instead been transformed into a medium of rage, his coffin waved angrily at the doors of parliament—though why parliament is not clear. There is something unbecoming about it all: the manipulation of a dead man; the immoderation that permeates Lebanese grief; a vague sense that the ceremony might dissolve into mayhem. But there is also a sense that this funeral means something, whether Beirut’s streets are packed with onlookers or not.
As I walk toward the church, I see an old man hunched over, framed by a breach in the crowd. It is the newspaper publisher Ghassan Tueni, who hired Kassir in the early 1990s to come work for Al-Nahar, Lebanon’s leading Arabic-language daily. I greet Tueni, who responds with polite absence. The man who has serenaded into the grave most of the prominent Lebanese of the past half-century, who would do the same to his own son, Gebran, six months later, knows that this particular burial reverses the order of things. Kassir was a protÉgÉ, a taxing protÉgÉ for never shying away from a fight, but who was kept on the newspaper’s front page even as he used his column to tear into the prohibitions bolstering Syria’s order in Lebanon. Tueni was at ease with provocation, could rarely abide the smugness of power even as he searched power out, and likely heard in Kassir reverberations of his own effrontery. He stands defeated. I recall that the day before he mumbled a four-word fragment when asked what Kassir’s death meant: “. . . the great Arab prison.”
In an interview with Kassir in June 2004, I asked him whether he thought Lebanon had a message to offer, even though the values of the republic had been vandalized during the years of Syrian hegemony. “I don’t know,” he answered, “but I am sure the Lebanese deserve a better future. At least they deserve to find their own way, in accordance with a rich history that cannot be reduced merely to violence. Yes, we were a laboratory for violence, but we were also, before that, a laboratory for modernity, and in some ways we still are.”
It is a paradox, one intimately understandable to the Lebanese, that the secular, worldly Kassir is to be buried in the ancient rites of the Greek Orthodox Church. The mass begins, but it is the marginalia that draws attention: the late arrival of Saad al-Hariri, the son of Rafiq al-Hariri, greeted by clapping, chased by the hissing of those annoyed with the interruption; the placement of Lebanon’s grandees to determine which politician is sharing a pew with which ambassador; who is around the coffin and who is not. Then comes the ambulatory, slurred eulogy of Bishop George Khodr, also a weekly fixture of Al-Nahar’s front page, reaffirming the church’s dominion over the service.
Ghassan Tueni’s granddaughter reads a tribute that brings on another ovation. Kassir’s former colleague from the Democratic Left, Elias Atallah, follows, but just as he’s about to make a political statement, he is stopped by one of those anonymous dwellers of Lebanese sacristies. Atallah hesitates; he’s been thrown off his stride. No one listens to what comes next. The scene moves to handshakes of sympathy for the family, a disquieting moment after the church has been emptied when the casket is opened for a last look, the procession to the Cemetery of St. Dmitri, only a short walk from Kassir’s home, and his burial in an elevated family vault in the last aisle to the left behind the church, the closing of a story half-read on a humid Saturday at the start of a grimy Lebanese summer.
Theories circulated as to who was behind the blast. One was that Kassir made a good mark because he had close ties to the Syrian opposition and access to Arab satellite channels through his wife, Giselle Khoury, a prominent journalist at the Al-Arabiya station. He also had French citizenship, as well as Lebanese, so his death may have been a message to France to back off from its antagonism toward the Syrian regime—at least that was how French officials perceived it. According to one of Kassir’s friends, his murder was a more general warning: Lebanon must no longer threaten stability in Damascus as it did during the 1950s and ’60s, when Beirut hosted the region’s exiles, becoming a nerve center for coups and malcontents of every stripe. To Kassir’s wife he paid the price because he had designed a poster for the demonstrations organized after Hariri’s killing, demanding the ouster of seven Lebanese officials, including Sayyed, all shown with dour demeanor, an X drawn through their faces.
Were the theories too convenient? Perhaps, but they were also quickly made irrelevant. The moment Kassir was killed, it was his outspokenness, and his outspokenness from the ramparts of his own city, that gave meaning to his death. The Lebanese had believed that the Syrian withdrawal offered them a new start. Kassir himself had recently been imbibing extra doses of optimism, a narcotic he never lacked in the first place, and presumed that the time of telephoned intimidation was almost over. Yet in his death was a warning that little had changed, that there were those who would fight Lebanon’s liberal instincts, after months when those instincts were at the heart of efforts by the Lebanese to shake themselves free of Syria. Kassir had played a leading role in that shaking off. He had also been realistic about its limitations, so that his death affirmed that liberalism set free was also liberalism threatened, because it was itself threatening.
For all the abstract things Samir was to Lebanon, he was also, and quite incidentally, a friend of mine. I first met him at the old offices of Al-Nahar on Hamra Street in 1993, soon after his return from Paris. We mentioned squash and not long afterward began playing together in a run-down club near the remains of a Roman aqueduct in a Beirut suburb. Neither of us was any good, and when we weren’t slashing at thin air, we could at least survey the bird’s nest in the top corner of the court. The aqueduct would later hold meaning for me because Samir mentioned it in his last book, a history of Beirut. It supplied the Roman city with water and Samir’s noticing it was an early step in his mentally reassembling the country he had spent years away from and would later embody better than most.
Samir’s passage from those early days back in Beirut to his murder had many turns, yet also followed a straight line in that what he wrote, as George Orwell put it to describe his own motivations, came from a “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” In his more academic works, particularly his published doctoral thesis on the Lebanese civil war, Samir could sometimes read bone-dry—frigid analysis overwhelming his natural nimbleness, elaborate vocabulary gridlocking the prose. But in his newspaper and magazine articles the heaviness was gone as the urge to sting took over, to turn every article into a pamphlet. That style reflected a mind in ebullition. Samir did many things in the mid-1990s: he was put in charge of Al-Nahar’s publishing branch, before later editing L’Orient-Express, the political and cultural monthly magazine of Lebanon’s French-language daily. He briefly hosted a television interview show; he wrote books; and he taught history at St. Joseph University, which allowed him to create relations with students who would later play such a fundamental role in the 2005 demonstrations and who would look toward him, as they would toward Gebran Tueni, for inspiration.
The ties between Samir and Gebran, distant cousins, were unusual. Gebran had taken over from his father Ghassan as the head of Al-Nahar, and he and Samir did not get on well. That was because in many regards they were alike: both of them conscious of the untapped power of the young, who had largely been ignored by traditional politicians who saw the world as a bargain between leaders; both also men of great egos, elegant narcissists, Samir more knowledgeable of Arab realities than Gebran, prouder of his cosmopolitan Arab identity, with his Palestinian father and Syrian mother, but less charismatic when speaking publicly, more self-conscious about avoiding Gebran’s innate populism; and both viscerally angry with what the Syrian regime had done to Lebanon, its relegation of a country once an archetype of innovation in the Middle East to the status of a protectorate—even if Samir was far more incensed than Gebran with what Syria’s rulers had done in the way of brutalizing their own people. I remember the look on Gebran’s face as he stared down at Samir in his car shortly after the assassination—Samir broken in half, left as an exhibit for over an hour. It was a look of utter dread, perhaps at the realization that their destinies were more linked than either would have liked, for Gebran would not outlive the year, killed in a bomb explosion in December.
A few weeks before Samir’s assassination, he sent out an email with an image of the front page of the Washington Post. The off-lead story was titled “A New Power Rises Across the Middle East.” The photograph above it was of Samir standing at Martyrs Square next to a spray-painted slogan reading WE WANT THE TRUTH. The truth was, of course, the truth about who had killed Rafiq al-Hariri, and Samir had been chosen as a face of the changing Arab world. The cosmopolitan Arab man found amusing this sudden recognition by the Americans, but there was a limit. In one of his last writings he took issue with “a current of ideas inspired by American neo-conservatives [that] holds that one of the factors leading to the backwardness of the Arab world lies in the persistence of Arabism,” by which Samir meant pan-Arabism and the Arab nationalist idea.His was a brighter reading of Arabism, too bright, downplaying how Arab regimes had used the absoluteness of Arab nationalism to justify repressing their peoples.
However, this also showed that Samir, as he headed down toward Martyrs Square after Hariri’s assassination, did so from one of numerous political and cultural vantage points gathering at the location. Panning out, you could see Arabists alongside Lebanese nationalists; dissident communists alongside Christian federalists; religious conservatives alongside hedonistic atheists; Francophones alongside Anglophones, conversing in approximate Arabic; the new faces of the Arab world alongside the old. It was about a moment when myriad strands met in a single spot. Samir and his more prescient comrades understood this—and even better that their efforts were playing out against a backdrop of calculations by politicians on all sides, which they tried to counter through their actions on the ground. Ultimately, their fears were confirmed when calculation won out. If Samir’s death invited a medley of interpretations, we can add one more. Always practical, he was nonetheless corrupted by romanticism. As he stood among those who made possible the popular revolt against Syria, he also wrote its obituary in several of his final articles. In retrospect, that obituary prefaced his own.
I MISTOOK the explosion that killed Rafiq al-Hariri for a sonic boom, as it rattled the wooden curtain box above my balcony window. It was almost 1 P.M. on Monday, February 14, 2005, and I was working in our apartment in eastern Beirut, 3 kilometers (about 2 miles) from the blast. The first sense I got that something had happened was my wife telling me, as she walked into the house, that what she had heard was no sonic boom. By midafternoon we knew that Hariri had been assassinated, that the image many of us had seen on our television screens of the charred remains of a victim being lifted onto a stretcher was of the charred remains of Rafiq al-Hariri. In the car sitting next to him was Basil Fuleihan, formerly an economy minister and a friend from my university days. Basil survived but was so badly burned that when he passed away on April 18, the miracle of his being kept alive seemed a curse. A friend who saw the explosion described cars, heavy armor-plated cars, tossed up dozens of meters into the air, as the shockwave made him feel like the flesh was being torn from his body.
Hariri’s killing struck me as astonishing. His enemies had gone too arrogantly far, without gauging the consequences. Unlike a surprising number of other people who had not known the former prime minister (I had met him only twice), I did not take the assassination personally. But I do recall telling a friend that it was the end for Syria in Lebanon, and feeling that now we had to deal with the enormous vacuum left behind by Hariri, because, like or dislike him, he had filled center court in the country for almost fourteen years. I had never been close to the Hariri entourage, and had criticized the prime minister’s social and economic program in the mid-1990s. But Hariri was no thug; he enjoyed defending his ideas against argumentative journalists, and wouldn’t crack your knees for disagreeing with him. He had a tendency to see the state as a version of himself writ large, and collected people without allowing himself to be played by them. The son of a modest family from the southern port city of Sidon, throughout his social rise he had had the determination and astuteness of the upstart who hasn’t yet acquired a vanity fed by the city. Hariri’s feat was to conquer Beirut, to reinvent himself as a personification of the capital by way of a successful contracting career in Saudi Arabia during the 1980s. But with Syria always looking over his shoulder, Hariri usually won his hands with three aces, never four. Nothing demonstrated this better than the fact that he was now dead, having tried but failed to pick that fourth ace.
That evening I went to the Hariri residence in the Qoreitem neighborhood to see what the atmosphere was like. As I stood in a crowd outside the door waiting to enter, I heard a young man shout, “If we want to know the truth, it is Syria that killed Hariri.” This was an audacious statement to make then, but not because Syria was innocent, for it was plain that Syria alone had the motive, the means, and the intention of killing Hariri; but because the young man was almost certainly a Sunni Muslim, from a community that had long resisted condemning the Syrians in Lebanon. Inside the building were hundreds of people, as leaders of the opposition to the government of Prime Minister Omar Karami gathered to issue a statement. When it came, the statement held Syria and the pro-Syrian government responsible for the crime, demanded an independent international investigation, called for the government’s resignation, and demanded that Syria withdraw its forces from Lebanon. The last point restated the central demand of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 approved the previous September, which had also called on armed groups in Lebanon to surrender their weapons—a provision directed primarily against Hezbollah. The participants insisted that the Syrian withdrawal take place before parliamentary elections in May and June, and declared a three-day general strike. These ideas would be given a label on Friday the eighteenth, when the opposition declared the launching of the Independence Intifada.
I sat next to a European ambassador who told me he had seen Hariri the previous week and inquired whether he was being careful about his security. Hariri had been confident, the ambassador remembered, persuaded that he was protected by his international connections, particularly French President Jacques Chirac. That didn’t quite square with what Hariri’s ally, the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, said after the killing. Jumblatt had more openly defied Syria than Hariri in recent months and mentioned that he and the former prime minister would discuss which of them would be killed. “He was,” Jumblatt later laconically told me. But if that was Hariri’s thinking, then it indicated no certainty that he was safe, unless he was convinced that Jumblatt would be the unlucky one.
The relationship between Hariri and the Syrian regime had always been complicated. For much of his time as prime minister, Hariri had propped up the postwar Syrian order, if not always by conviction. Syrian rule after 1990 rested on a foundation of Arab and international consensus, and Hariri was the Saudis’ stake in Lebanon. However, the bad blood had grown in the months between passage of Resolution 1559 and the assassination. The previous August, Hariri, who headed a parliamentary bloc, had been summoned to Damascus for a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He was told to approve a constitutional amendment extending the term of President Émile Lahoud, Hariri’s enemy. According to Jumblatt, Assad told the former prime minister: “Lahoud is me, if you and Chirac want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon.” The Syrians held Hariri responsible for Resolution 1559. This overstated things but was true in that Hariri had influence with Chirac, whose government had jointly sponsored the resolution with Washington. Hariri had even quietly congratulated some Security Council members voting in favor.
In reaction to the extension of Lahoud’s mandate, a small group of politicians and parties formed what became the “Bristol Gathering,” for the hotel where they met. This coalition coalesced around a core of longstanding Christian foes of Syria, as well as, for the first time, previous Syrian allies, most prominently Jumblatt, leader to Lebanon’s 200,000-strong Druze community. Hariri officially remained neutral, but in the weeks before his assassination he and his bloc members more openly displayed their sympathy for the Bristol opposition, earning them threats from government ministers and even from the prime minister. Hariri had his eye on the summer legislative elections, hoping he would be able to reconfirm his popularity and widen his margin of maneuver with the Syrians. Yet he and his allies expected, at best, to win a substantial minority in parliament. However, Syria’s perception of its domination of Lebanon was inflexible. The Assad regime’s fear of what Hariri, backed by the international community, might do to this domination; its paranoia with regard to Lebanese Sunni mobilization, fortified by Christian and Druze antipathy, which risked giving the wrong ideas to Syria’s own majority Sunni population ruled by a minority Alawite regime—all this made the former prime minister a premier target. It should have been obvious why Hariri risked more than Jumblatt. He was playing a high-stakes game so that his successes endangered Syria’s twenty-nine-year-old rule over Lebanon as well as Assad’s authority at home. Yet the Syrians were wrong in assuming that his removal would impose tranquility. All it did was bring about the outcome the Syrians had sought to avert: the unity of a majority of Sunnis, Druze, and Christians against Syria.
The Hariri funeral, held on February 16, was billed a popular funeral rather than an official one, to avoid the presence of Émile Lahoud and those who had tried to destroy Hariri. Most Sunnis were not yet ripe to turn against Syria, but they were nearly there. Surrounded by Christian political groups or independents who had spent the postwar years contesting Syrian rule in Lebanon, whose activists had been mistreated with little discernible sympathy from the rest of Lebanese society; surrounded by later arrivals in the opposition to Syria, Walid Jumblatt’s Druze and the more recently established Democratic Left, with its Christian and Muslim members; surrounded by these groups, the Sunnis began to organize and mobilize, even if those who had been with Hariri were still finding their bearings. The absence of any obvious successor to the former prime minister had an impact on how the Sunnis framed their response to the crime. Should the priority be to seek the truth about the killers? Should it be to drive Syria out of Lebanon? Among Hariri’s sister, Bahiyya, a parliamentarian, and his wife, Nazeq, as well as his two eldest sons, Bahaa and Saad, all of whom held a piece of Rafiq al-Hariri’s legacy and financial inheritance, no answers were forthcoming. This allowed the more assertive allies of the Hariris to pilot them into a conflict with Syria the family had not immediately settled on but did not oppose.
As the Hariri funeral procession headed through the streets of western Beirut toward Martyrs Square, those with Syria on their mind began unfurling their banners. An apolitical events organizer, Asma Andraos, who would soon set up a civil society tent in Martyrs Square with her friends, held up, with those friends, signs saying IT’S OBVIOUS. NO? What was obvious to her and her friends was that Syria had killed Hariri. The followers of Michel Aoun, a former commander of the Lebanese army who had launched a failed “liberation war” against Syria in 1989 before being exiled, also held up anti-Syrian slogans. Walid Jumblatt later told an interviewer (with feigned sorrow) just how low Syria had fallen in Lebanon by repeating a rhyming chant he had picked up around him, whose last line referred to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad as a “pimp,” even if Jumblatt stopped short of using the word. The Democratic Left also had its banners, which the marchers had concealed so they would not be confiscated by intelligence agents. Ziad Majed, a Shiite from south Lebanon who was vice president of the Democratic Left, remembered what happened:
We chose our slogans prior to the funeral because we feared people would be silent. . . . I remember when we started our slogans, people around us were shocked, scared, and many tried to change their place in the procession so as not to be associated with us. Then suddenly more and more people began joining in the songs and the slogans against Bashar, Lahoud, against the Baath and for independence. . . . I cannot forget the scene when we passed near [the predominantly Sunni quarter of] Aisha Bakkar, through Munla, and to Karakol Druze, how people started screaming from the balconies when we were chanting against the mukhabarat [the intelligence services] and the Syrian regime and then women started throwing rice and sugar at us. We were probably a group of 150 to 200 when we gathered at Verdun. By Karakol Druze there were thousands with us.
For the lawyer Nabil Aboucharaf, a Christian with memories of being slapped around by the security services as head of the Amicale de Droit, the student representative body at St. Joseph University’s law faculty, who had once lost 5 kilos (11 pounds) in twenty-four hours after being abducted and mistreated by military intelligence agents, this was a moment he had been waiting for. “Hariri’s assassination showed that there was no cover for anybody. A Sunni leader had been killed and the reaction was rage, but also a sense that this alone could move the Muslims.”
Even before Hariri’s funeral, the vibrations had begun within Lebanese society to ensure that the page of the assassination would not be hastily turned. What occurred in the subsequent weeks showed how the liberal impulses in Lebanese society, when roused, could pack a tremendous wallop. There was the start of a campaign of demonstrations against Syria and its local partners; the establishment of a tent city at Martyrs Square by independents and youths affiliated with political parties to build on the momentum of public outrage; and there was an awareness by some participants that this popular movement needed to be branded, since branding meant defining the demonstrations and imposing on them a unity of purpose and goals.
However, the uprising against Syria was not just a case of a population imposing its liberal will on illiberal adversaries. The move against Damascus began in late 2004 as a revolt by a rump of Lebanese politicians against Lahoud’s extension. The president was unpopular because he had tried to be the sole conduit to Damascus and had often used the army to keep his adversaries in line. The revolt was justified, even admirable, but it was also limited in scope. Hariri’s assassination changed that, for in the month after February 14 it was the public that led the way, that turned the Bristol revolt into a national objection against Syria. The politicians later reasserted their grip on developments before the summer elections, disappointing those who saw in the uprising the basis of a new Lebanon that could rise above the small despotisms of their leaders. That would account for the disagreements in evaluating what the Independence Intifada was about, which to this day mar recollections of that period.
The demonstrations against Syria were also about a place. It was not inevitable that the Lebanese would transform Martyrs Square into the scene of their activities, and yet it was, because there never was anywhere else, physically or symbolically. From its origins dating back to Mameluke times as a public area outside the old city’s walls, the maidan, to its later incarnations under the Ottomans and the French, to the period following Lebanon’s independence, the space that became Martyrs Square had been constantly changing, invisible in its multiple personas. As the sociologist Samir Khalaf reminds us, “the idea of the maidanemerged as a result of human intervention directed not toward the addition of identity, events, or character but rather towards keeping land free and indeterminate and therefore negotiable.” Negotiable spaces are liberal spaces, because freedom is left for their interpretation. That explains why Martyrs Square was so perfect a place for combining the metaphors that the very dissimilar people present at the site brought there after February 14.
There were the more obvious reasons. But were they indeed so obvious? The Hariri family buried Rafiq al-Hariri near Martyrs Square, in a plot of land bought immediately after the assassination, next to the unfinished Mohammed al-Amin Mosque that the former prime minister had erected on the western side of the square. In burying Hariri there, in an area he had played a pivotal role in rebuilding, at the crossroads of predominantly Christian and Muslim quarters of Beirut, on a rare open space in the capital, the family helped set in motion a fortuitous process they had not planned for. The mosque was controversial for having been built out of proportion with surrounding buildings, especially a church; for also being in the classic Ottoman style, which was unfamiliar in Beirut. Initially condemned as an expression of Hariri’s inflated ego, it became after his assassination, next to his mausoleum, a place of convergence, even a practical instrument to trick the pro-Syrian security services. When activists needed to set up a perimeter around their tent city to protect themselves from hostile youths, the pretext used with police was that the building material being trucked in was needed for the mosque.
But the square was also a place of separateness. If Hariri’s tomb drew people from all over, that didn’t mean that those who came to pay their respects necessarily came to partake of Martyrs Square’s other activities. Some did. There were those who drifted from the mausoleum to the tent city to see what was going on. But there were also many who did not, who considered Hariri’s death disconnected from the political demands being formulated only 100 meters (330 feet) away. This tells us something about the events that immediately followed February 14: that the unity of purpose between the divergent forces that later sought to transform Hariri’s killing into leverage to get the Syrians out of Lebanon was never a foregone conclusion.
There were three simultaneous magnets attracting people to Martyrs Square: Hariri’s makeshift mausoleum, the tent city, and the space between and around them open to the tens, then the hundreds, of thousands of unaffiliated demonstrators neither completely of the tent city nor completely of the mausoleum, who for weeks came down to protest, listen, watch, mingle, and enjoy the collapse of all political interdictions. It took organization and a plan to bring and keep these diverse elements together; but it took, above all, an understanding of the symbolic possibilities of Martyrs Square. In retrospect, the most remarkable achievement of the organizers and protestors was to grasp how important it was to allow the square to be whatever one wanted it to be, to materialize from the depths of Lebanon’s untidy pluralism.
Martyrs Square was given its name in honor of Lebanese nationalists hanged by the Turkish governor, Jamal Pasha, in 1915 and 1916. However, as late as the 1970s, when I was growing up, the square was usually referred to as the Burj, the Arabic word for tower, named for a tower once dominating the space. But it was also known (only in French for some reason) as the Place des Canons, the Square of the Cannons (because the Russians in 1772, at war with the Ottoman Empire, had bombed Beirut’s medieval walls from there). During the civil war, Martyrs Square was a front line in the fighting, with Christian militias on its eastern side and predominantly Muslim militias on its western one, earning its names many times over, a place of martyrs and cannons, as gunmen spent a decade and a half obliterating its buildings and landmarks. By war’s end, parts of the old city had been abandoned for so long that they were grown over with vegetation many stories high, a feral Amazonia in the heart of the capital. My only vivid memory of that period, it must have been in 1995 before the rebuilding of the area started, was of strolling with a friend to see what was left, only to discover amid the devastation a ramshackle coffeehouse with the name CafÉ of Peace.
Nor should we underestimate the elegiac stimulations of Martyrs Square, so essential in transforming a place into an idea. Take these lines from an article on the cinemas of the Burj by FarÉs Sassine, the director of the Dar al-Nahar publishing house, recalling what was showing decades ago. “Was she heading toward Weygand Street or was she preparing, or preparing once again, to walk around the square? Was she walking, or was her pace that of a dance? Everything was beyond measure in the Swede with the velvety name painted in oil on the immense sign above the Rivoli Cinema in the year of our Lord 1960: her blond mane, the shoulders broad and bare, the armpits full and the arms asway, the generous breasts, the black dress with a train, a slit down the middle revealing the birth of a thigh, the feet without shoes to allow more sensation, more liberty . . .”
Through vapors of memory and desire, aficionados will recognize Anita Ekberg in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and that thigh, Sassine would later explain with relish, was the origin of our world, from the thigh of that splendid celluloid fertility goddess prancing atop the Rivoli, whose demolition in 1995 would mark the beginning of the reconstruction of Martyrs Square and downtown Beirut. It would have been difficult to warn Sassine that reverie had gotten the better of him, for somewhere in there was the reality of rebirth.
But if those of Sassine’s generation could reach for their memories of Martyrs Square, could convert them into ephemeral dreams, what of the younger generations? What of those in 2005 who had no memories of the prewar area, who were familiar only with the square as a largely vacant space offering an open vista toward the sea, but otherwise neither especially attractive nor evocative? Though the question was not posed in that way, the answer was on the mind of political and civil society activists who met on the day after Hariri’s burial. Their ambition was to turn Martyrs Square into a place where politics and imagination could feed off each other. Ziad Majed later summarized the practical considerations in setting up a permanent tent city at the square. “The idea was to build up momentum after the funeral, and to benefit from the different elements that [Martyrs Square] contains and offers: the tomb of Hariri, the [Mohammed al-Amin] mosque and the [St. Georges Maronite] church nearby; the symbolism of the place and the statue [commemorating the 1915–1916 martyrs]; the good access to media and the neighborhood’s access toAl-Nahar.”
There was something for everyone. The presence of Hariri’s tomb meant the security forces could not readily deny people the right to assemble. The religious sites spoke to the unity of the once-divided participants. The proximity of the Al-Nahar Building, where Gebran Tueni and Samir Kassir worked, allowed the organizers and youths from the tent city to meet in a space closed off to the security forces and coordinate their activities. The nearby Virgin Megastore, located in the old Opera Cinema, a fine example of early 1930s Art Deco architecture, served more prosaic purposes—as restroom and refuge from bad weather. As for the statue of the martyrs, erected in 1960, the work of the Italian sculptor Marino Mazzacurati, its recent history was of interest. It had been damaged during the war, punctured by wayward bullets, before being restored once the war ended, though holes had been left in as a memento. The enmity between Lahoud and Hariri had delayed the statue’s return to its location, but not for long enough to prevent it from becoming a backdrop to the demonstrations. For without the statue as aesthetic anchor and measuring rod, the anti-Syrian protestors would have been lost in the vastness of Martyrs Square.
Rafiq al-Hariri’s funeral was the first sign of division within Lebanese society, as the Shiite community, led by Hezbollah, was largely absent from the public manifestations of grief, as were others loyal to Syria. Hezbollah’s leadership paid its condolences to the Hariri family, but the party knew something menacing was in the air, that Hariri’s murder, if the consequences were not contained, could alter the balance of power in Lebanon to Syria’s disadvantage, and therefore to that of Hezbollah, which had benefited from the Syrian presence to build up a virtually autonomous army and ministate within Lebanese society. The party was also aware that many suspected Hezbollah, with its extensive intelligence capabilities, at least of having been aware of the planning for Hariri’s assassination, if it did not play a more active role in it, at Syria’s request. Hezbollah’s sense of vulnerability would shape its behavior in the following weeks in ways that unintentionally galvanized Syria’s foes.
The establishment of the tent city gave body to the powerful but diffuse moment that had been the funeral. Though it would be easy to overestimate the impact of the tents on later developments, they served an essential early role by defining a space where things could happen, so the intifada against Syria could survive. They also gave political meaning to Hariri’s mausoleum, which gave emotional meaning to the tent city. But most importantly, the tents made it compulsory for a large number of people to set up networks of collaboration, to feed, lodge, and stimulate the youths inside, so they would not abandon the site. For without this, the army and the security services would have been able to segregate Hariri’s burial place from everything around, smothering the uprising in its egg.
Everything seemed to fall into place. Asma Andraos and her colleagues, almost by accident, started a petition at Martyrs Square after finding a white sheet on which they wrote DÉMISSION!—“resignation” in French, meaning the resignation of the government. The petition grew as people added their signatures, until it became some 200 meters (over 600 feet) long. The idea of headlining the petition with a demand for resignation was the brainchild not of a politician, but of a lawyer, Chibli Mallat, who suggested it over the telephone to his brother-in-law, Selim Mouzannar, a jeweler hanging out with Andraos. Before long, Gebran Tueni had added an s to the word, making it plural. These haphazard gestures were sharpening the intifada’s goals, which were those outlined by the opposition at Qoreitem on the night of Hariri’s assassination, but later refined to include the resignation of the four intelligence and security officials—the directors-general of the Internal Security Forces and General Security (the latter the man who had threatened Samir Kassir), as well as the heads of the Presidential Guard and of military intelligence. That was the meaning of Tueni’s added s, even if he was not alone in turning his attention to the security chiefs, nor even the first.
When Andraos and her comrades set up their tent, they spontaneously took on certain duties. Surrounded by youths from political organizations that had fought each other during the civil war, it made sense for the neutral civil society group to act as a moderator, to hand out food and deal with other collective tasks. This was sometimes done in ingenious ways. Initially, food was distributed to the tents, until those in the civil society tent decided to serve the food in their own so that representatives of the political parties, still unsure of what to say to each other, could meet in line and chat while awaiting their servings.
There was also significant assistance from people with ties to opposition leaders and from apolitical figures. Nora Jumblatt, the wife of Walid Jumblatt, played a key role in the protests, organizing walks between the location of Hariri’s assassination and Martyrs Square. She provided a sound system for the tent city, as well as a stage and portable toilets; while the owner of the Virgin Megastore, whose losses from the commotion next door were substantial, supplied electricity and a link to the Internet. The Hariri-led Future Movement footed a large bill for the cost of the demonstrations, as well as for printing posters and other material. A prominent banker opened an account at his bank to collect donations to finance the protests. Even the kitchen employees of a nearby restaurant came in on their day off to prepare, without payment, sandwiches for those in the tent city.
While the intifada picked up momentum, the obstacles remained immense. The army and the internal security forces were controlled by men close to Damascus. The army commander, Michel Suleiman, today Lebanon’s president, was more of an enigma. No adversary of Syria, he was nevertheless not about to split the armed forces and ruin his own reputation by ordering his men to fire on the crowds at Martyrs Square. Instead, he preserved the status quo, never allowing the anti-Syrian protests to overturn the established order.
On the first Monday after Hariri’s murder the opposition called for a march between the St. Georges Hotel, where Hariri had been killed, and Martyrs Square. It was a test to see how many people would show up, but also how many would show up at 12:55 P.M., the moment Hariri was assassinated, in the middle of a working day. With two friends I made my way on foot from the Beirut port to the gathering place, as the army had closed all access roads to traffic. We were surprised to see that there were more people than expected. Someone handed us a red and white scarf, the colors of the Lebanese flag. Soon after 1 P.M. we began walking up the hill toward the Fouad Chehab overpass, the main thoroughfare between eastern and western Beirut, a place that had once been Lebanon’s “sniper’s alley,” long before Sarajevo had its own, but which on that day was serene in the Mediterranean winter sunlight. I looked behind, to see that we were being followed by several rows of riot policemen. Near us was a group chanting (and this was becoming a habit) that Bashar al-Assad was a “pimp,” because the word “pimp” in Arabic rhymes with the word “Beirut,” and the demonstrators were telling Assad that they did not want the pimp in Beirut. On the incline leading down from the overpass toward the old city center and Martyrs Square, we were enclosed by two lines of soldiers. They didn’t look belligerent, but no one could be sure. The marchers broke into “No army in Lebanon except the Lebanese army,” one of those appropriate, neutralizing chants that showed there were some among us who had done this before.
While the numbers of demonstrators that first Monday were inflated, there was more life in the Independence Intifada than anyone had suspected. In fact, some of us left with two impressions from that day: that there was some method to what was going on, suggesting that people were thinking through the protests, its colors, aims, and catchphrases; and a second, more intriguing, impression, namely that a majority of those in the march were Christians, with a smaller number of Druze and Sunnis, as well as Shiites opposed to Hezbollah. And this Christian majority seemed to include a fairly high percentage of people from the educated middle class.
Such a thing was not difficult to understand, since only that category of Lebanese could afford to take time off in the week. But it also pointed to a larger truth about the sociology of the first month of the intifada: While most of those present at Hariri’s funeral were Sunni Muslims, in the month between the funeral and the great demonstration of March 14, when the Sunnis again came out in massive numbers, the spontaneous thrusts of the intifada were kept largely alive by Christians, not least a Christian bourgeoisie residing in the neighborhoods east and southeast of Martyrs Square. That is not to downplay the merits of the other participants or sectarian groups, which each in its own way made the whole possible, but to emphasize the growing complexity of the intifada and its implications for Lebanon’s paradoxical liberalism. What was happening was a delineation of the political, cultural, and sectarian roles in and around Martyrs Square. There was the religiously and politically mixed tent city, which “held” Martyrs Square for the opposition; there were the mostly Christian demonstrators who protested every Monday for a month after the assassination (in addition to daily activities that fewer people attended); and there were the Sunnis, whose attention continued to be drawn mainly to Rafiq al-Hariri’s mausoleum, even as their timorousness vis-À-vis the Syrians began to dissipate.
This wasn’t a tale of dissonance, however; it was an example of how Lebanese society tends to work best through an alignment of parallel interests between its constituent groups, interests usually defined, in the most unmodern of ways, by primary identities—religion, regionalism, social category, education, or various combinations of each. That’s why more than a few people, Lebanese and foreigners alike, sneered when they saw middle-class Christian protestors descending on Martyrs Square from their comfortable neighborhoods, dismissing what was happening as a “Gucci Revolution.” There was something supposedly inauthentic here; true protestors were burly, poor, coarse; they had dirt on their nails as opposed to nail polish. But that mockery told us more about the prejudices of the critics than about the demonstrators themselves, who took to the streets flaunting their paradoxes.
That much of that flaunting came in bright colors, red and white especially, was due to a relatively small group of people who worked on branding the independence intifada, who sometimes paid for this out of their own pockets, but also who worked long hours to design, print, box, and transport the hundreds of thousands of posters, flags, scarves, banners, and placards that gave the demonstrations their visual energy. By the time the Lebanese began their protests against Syria, a number of so-called “color revolutions” had taken place elsewhere, in Georgia, Ukraine, even in Iraq. These events had a limited bearing on what was taking place in Lebanon, but they had a powerful impact in showing how displeasure could be portrayed visually and how the media, particularly the foreign media, could be used to the advantage of those voicing the displeasure. This combining of imagery and political slogans, so they would become a cornerstone of a political stratagem, was new in Lebanon. Those who thought of it displayed a canny understanding that dictatorships, like the one in Damascus, are effective only when imposing the grayness of silence, and that it is almost impossible to silence a population reacting to the same symbols, wearing the same colors, holding up the same signs, and shouting the same slogans, as part of an emotional leviathan that intelligence services can do little to counter.
By coincidence, much of the branding for the Independence Intifada had been prepared before Hariri’s assassination, the intention being to launch the campaign during the summer 2005 parliamentary elections. Samir Kassir played an important role in terms of conceptualization, collaborating with an experienced advertising hand, Eli Khoury, the head of Quantum Communications in Beirut. Together, they had also worked on slogans that Quantum was preparing for the Iraqi elections. In late 2004, with members of the Bristol Gathering, they began planning for what would become the “Independence ’05” brand, to be unveiled at demonstrations during the election period. Resolution 1559 had given them hope that the time was ripe to demand a Syrian withdrawal. As Khoury, with whom I was working, later told me, “the idea of setting a deadline of ’05 was to tell the subconscious, ‘This one is for real.’” For such a campaign to be meaningful, however, Hariri had to endorse it and participate in it. There were signs that the former prime minister had made his choice as 2004 ended, particularly after a failed assassination attempt against a member of the Bristol Gathering. But it was Hariri’s assassination that prematurely kicked off the branding campaign, just as it prompted civil society activists, like Khoury’s counterparts in other ad agencies, to pool their resources and consider what might appeal to the diverse groups protesting against Syria.
The colors of the Independence Intifada were red and white; however, agreement over this obvious color pattern was not immediate. Khoury had wanted the Independence ’05 regalia to be all red, particularly the scarves. According to Khoury, Kassir had argued in favor of red and white, though personally, as his wife recalled, he was not taken by the Lebanese flag motif, which he considered too overtly nationalistic. However, in the first days Nora Jumblatt had already printed red and white scarves, and there were others—the overt nationalists such as Gebran Tueni—who liked red and white, so the colors were adopted. However, there was a different color pattern in the Hariri camp, implying a different set of priorities—for if red and white were the colors of independence from Syria, the sky-blue chosen by the Hariris’ Future Movement accentuated the search for the “truth” of who had killed Rafiq al-Hariri—the word emblazoned on the scarves and buttons worn by most Sunnis. The Hariris were still adrift, and their differentiating themselves from the other protestors was a matter of no small exasperation to those wearing the red and white, who wanted the truth certainly, but who above all wanted Syria out. Even years after the intifada, this would still be a sore point for some participants in the Martyrs Square events, held up as an example of the lack of solidarity from the Hariris, proof that the former prime minister’s family had taken too much time to break with Syria.
The judgment is severe. There was no doubt that the Hariri camp, without a recognized leader at the time, was unsure of its options immediately after Rafiq al-Hariri’s killing, just as there was no question that its allies saw the assassination as the galvanizing event that could force a Syrian pullout. In that context it was understandable that the Hariris would hesitate before being railroaded into an intifada they had not really thought through, and about which, we should add, their Saudi patrons might think differently; just as it was understandable that those focused on Syria would grow impatient with seeing the Hariris dither, when it was obvious who had murdered the former prime minister. This misunderstanding would feed into the political divisions that followed the termination of the intifada against Syria, magnified by the parliamentary elections of summer 2005. Yet somehow the sky-blue and the red and white would find their equilibrium before then, as the public generally proved less attuned to the nuances of colors than the advertisers and politicians. The Sunnis, no less than the Christians and Druze, were already well advanced in their enmity toward the Assad regime by the time the crowning event of the uprising against Syria took place: the demonstration of March 14, in which hundreds of thousands, perhaps nearer a million, Lebanese gathered at Martyrs Square. The Hariris, caught up in their own affairs, were behind the curve of their community on Syria. The Sunnis may have worn sky-blue, but by March 14 most of them were thinking in red and white.
IN LATE February, I was assigned to do a portrait of the Svengali of the intifada against Syria. I had asked the New York Times Magazine before Hariri’s assassination whether they would be interested in an article on Walid Jumblatt, who had turned against his Syrian allies several months earlier. The answer was no, the magazine had more pressing stories. However, once Hariri was killed, Lebanon became a pressing story and Jumblatt an American one. I set an appointment to meet with the person whose decisions had, in one way or another, affected the lives of most Lebanese since 1977, the year his father, Kamal, was assassinated—not surprisingly by the Syrians.
My feelings about Jumblatt were mixed. Not yet thirty when he became leader of the Druze, he had the reputation then of being a lightweight, a playboy. Yet Jumblatt proved as imposing as his father, less feted as an intellectual, but in some ways shrewder politically for having understood the lessons of his father’s murder, a murder that imposed humility with respect to Syria, but also with respect to the convolutions of Lebanon itself, that Kamal Jumblatt for a moment had thought he could prevail over. Walid Jumblatt’s men had been at the vanguard of militia abuse during the war, and were responsible for a brutal round of sectarian cleansing in 1983 against the Christians, leading to the expulsion of virtually the entire community from the Shouf and Aley districts. My wife and her family were among the many who could not return to their home for a decade. On my first visit there after the war, I drove through expanses razed to the ground, in one instance a village whose highest feature was the road sign at its entrance. But it was also true that in the logic of the war, Jumblatt and the Druze had protected their turf against Christian militias that had entered the Shouf and Aley in 1982 behind the Israeli army, the Druze having behaved no better or worse than others in those bestial years. And in the peculiar logic of the postwar period—but which made perfect sense given Lebanon’s counterpoint—it was Jumblatt who returned the Christians to the mountains as minister for the displaced.
Now Jumblatt had allied himself with his Christian enemies from the war years, and I wanted to see what he was all about. What I saw was Lebanon’s great pessimist, its Cassandra, who had made it alive through the wreckage of the war by virtue of his litheness and hard-nosedness, an ability to manipulate inconsistency, his eyelids forever sagging under the weight of his impossible choices. Those who described Jumblatt tended to be drawn to his stylishness and irreverence, his jeans and Western habits that played so aesthetically off the primeval relationship he entertained with his own community. Jumblatt was a tribal patriarch to his followers, and despite the “progressive” visuals, he was among the most conservative of leaders; he gave a great deal to the Druze but demanded near complete obedience in exchange, a daunting memory enforcing that contract on a daily basis. He was also someone whose sense of derision concealed how disciplined he was when imparting information, how focused he was in shaping the message he wanted to get out, so that in our first meeting he did not offer much more in private than in public. Jumblatt was under a sentence of death, but without sentimentality he sought to use that to strengthen his hand, to build up an impression that America, or if not America at least the readers of the New York Times, should want to be on Walid Jumblatt’s side against Bashar al-Assad. America was little mentioned in our exchange, but it was at the forefront of Jumblatt’s thinking, because he knew that America and American public opinion were among the few effective counterweights to Syria. He recounted the details of Hariri’s murder, presaged his own by asserting “not a single Jumblatt died in his bed, my father would say,” a phrase he would often repeat without any intention of confirming it himself. And he divulged what might lie ahead by adding, despite condemning the Assad regime: “We must cut a deal with Syria; those who went after Hariri won’t leave Lebanon so easily.”
At one point Jumblatt remarked that Ahmad Chalabi might become defense minister of Iraq. He worried that Chalabi’s appointment would enhance Iraqi federalism, which could have adverse effects throughout the region, particularly in Lebanon, where it might harm communal relations. Here was Jumblatt scouring the horizon for calamitous icebergs that might sink him and his own, the natural reflex of the minoritarian. As I would later learn, that first encounter, which would be followed by many more as we became friendlier, told me little about that enigmatic political acrobat perched on his high rock alone, whose every premonitory move was dissected by those trying to get a sense of Lebanon’s political winds. He had become the dominant leader of an emancipation movement he would infuse with life, then ride, then deflate—testament all to an exceptional political mind, yet the mind of someone whose single-minded motive remained, as the Lebanese filled Martyrs Square in larger numbers, as their intifada took on new layers of symbolic meaning, each more idealistic than the last, as Walid Jumblatt was transformed—in fact transformed himself—into the atypical incarnation of that idealism; whose single-minded motive remained protecting his Druze community and his leadership over that community. This betrayed a poverty of low expectations but also reticence toward what Jumblatt expected he could achieve, toward what a Druze and the Druze could achieve; but also what could be achieved by Lebanon’s system, whose exasperating rules, strangely enough, Jumblatt respected more than most, more than his father anyway; and reticence about what the Independence Intifada could achieve amid the loose talk of revolution circulating around Martyrs Square, no less audacious than a barefoot Anita Ekberg in her yearning for more sensation, more liberty.
There was something anomalous in Walid Jumblatt’s sudden turnaround with regard to the United States, just as there was something anomalous in Samir Kassir’s writing slogans for Iraqi parliamentary elections organized under American occupation. Both were self-declared men of the left, although in Jumblatt’s case that concept could be elastic. However, their political markers, like those of most Lebanese who participated in the intifada against Syria, had little to do with America—even as they read American books and magazines, watched American movies, and otherwise drank from the fountain of American knowledge. Yet in 2005 most Lebanese found themselves aligned against the temper in much of the Middle East. Where the region reviled America for what it had done in Iraq, or so everyone told us, the Bush administration’s willingness to help push the Syrians out of Lebanon created a very different reaction among many Lebanese. America was the ally against Syria they had spent decades waiting for, after Washington had upheld Syrian hegemony for much of that time. Of course, there were a substantial number of Lebanese who did not like America, who could not be ignored for doing so, but it would be fair to say that a majority in the weeks after Hariri’s assassination had a more pragmatic reading of their situation. The United States, but also the France of Jacques Chirac, Hariri’s chum, were leading an international effort to force Syria to withdraw and bolster Lebanese sovereignty, and not many in Beirut were picky about whom they were in bed with. So as the Arab world, and not just the Arab world, railed against America, against Bush, the Lebanese, like the Iraqis, used America to help create a new order—whether America was appreciated or not, thanked or not. That’s why a leftist like Kassir wrote Iraqi election slogans with his friend Eli Khoury; it’s why he welcomed the ouster of Saddam Hussein (then lamented America’s wasted opportunities afterward); and it’s why the feudal leftist Jumblatt, far less of an optimist on such matters, nonetheless had the dexterity to tell the Americans what they wanted to hear, if only to keep Lebanon alive in their attentions, when he explained to the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, “I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world.”
It was not the start of a new Arab world, as Jumblatt knew for having spent decades navigating the old one, and for having warned that Hariri’s assassins would not abandon Lebanon so lightly. However, it was a moment when the notion didn’t seem quite so ridiculous. One reason was that the international community, through the Security Council, established legal scaffolding to uphold Lebanon’s post-Syria stability. The United Nations ordered a preliminary investigation of the Hariri assassination, a demand of the opposition, sending to Beirut an Irish deputy police commissioner, Peter Fitzgerald, to report on what had happened. He concluded
that the Lebanese security services and the Syrian Military Intelligence bear the primary responsibility for the lack of security, protection, law and order in Lebanon. The Lebanese security services have demonstrated serious and systematic negligence in carrying out the duties usually performed by a professional national security apparatus. . . . The Syrian Military Intelligence shares this responsibility to the extent of its involvement in running the security services in Lebanon.
Fitzgerald did not directly accuse Syria of killing Hariri, but he didn’t need to when affirming that security in Lebanon was in Syrian hands, and that it took “considerable finance, military precision in its execution, [and] substantial logistical support” to carry out the assassination. In other words, it took a conspiracy that the omnipresent Syrian and Lebanese security services could hardly have avoided noticing. And if there were lingering doubts, Fitzgerald accused Lebanese officials of tampering with the evidence at the crime scene, in a ham-fisted cover-up effort. On the basis of the report, the Security Council passed Resolution 1595 establishing a U.N. investigation to look into the assassination, naming the German judge Detlev Mehlis as its first commissioner. This was a novelty in the Middle East, where political crimes had always gone unpunished. Within weeks the Lebanese security chiefs were obliged to resign, another novelty in a region where security officials are untouchable.
It was a very different Bush administration acting in Lebanon than the one that had planned and executed the invasion of Iraq. The United States adopted a template of intervention in Lebanon that it had avoided in Iraq. The administration worked through the U.N., in consultation with other nations, in the shadow of an international consensus, in support of international law and justice. There were those who could never be satisfied with anything George W. Bush did, who would criticize Washington’s behavior in Lebanon as a case of unnecessarily alienating Syria, of giving much too much credence to the Martyrs Square demonstrators while ignoring the Shiites. But by and large, this was the outlook of a minority then. Only when the Bush administration’s difficulties in the Middle East began multiplying did the dissenters gain ground. The worsening situation in Iraq in 2006 combined with the Syrian backlash in Lebanon and the summer war that year between Hezbollah and Israel led to a new perception overseas that the intifada against Syria had been an interlude that the administration had exploited to defend its failed Middle Eastern democratization project—Bush’s so-called “Freedom Agenda.”
In 2006, Francis Fukuyama published America at the Crossroads, his essay denouncing the behavior of American neoconservatives in the administration. While the much-discussed book covered issues beyond the Middle East, Iraq was Fukuyama’s Exhibit A against the neocons. America at the Crossroads received notice because Fukuyama had been an intimate of the neocon household, had even signed on to a letter drafted only days after the 9/11 attacks by the right-wing Project for the New American Century (PNAC) advocating the removal of Saddam Hussein by force, because that had to be part of “any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors.” Strangely enough, Fukuyama wrote, he was “never persuaded of the rationale for the Iraq war”—strange because he failed to mention his participation in that particular PNAC letter, which expressed a rationale for the Iraq war.
But it was Fukuyama’s skepticism toward democratization in the Middle East that demonstrated how American political realists had reentered the Washington debate over the region, mainly to tell the administration that Arab societies did not have institutions to “move from an amorphous longing for freedom to a well-functioning, consolidated democratic political system with a modern economy.” Maybe, but Lebanon was as good an example confirming Fukuyama’s judgment as exposing its central flaw, namely that societies caught up in the fragrances of emancipation don’t pause to consider where they stand in terms of their institutional evolution. But Fukuyama was only echoing what other prominent American realists were saying, and the fact that they tended to be conservative and had once been Cold War warriors lent their statements authority. Which is why it hit closer to home for George W. Bush when a former national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, told the New York Observer in 2004: “[T]he notion that within every human being beats this primeval instinct for democracy has not ever been demonstrated to me.” Scowcroft had served under President George H. W. Bush, and they had together looked away when Saddam Hussein crushed the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings against his regime following the Gulf War of 1991. Both felt more comfortable with predictable connections to the region’s despots than with woolly concepts such as “freedom” and “democracy.” And in this they echoed a half-century of U.S. policy toward the Arab world.
The discussion in America went largely unheard by those who had been at Martyrs Square. But they were at its very heart, because what the disbelievers were questioning was the value of universal principles in foreign policy: Were liberty and democracy, or simply liberal pluralism, ideas the United States was obligated to defend and spread worldwide, and if so how? There was no agreement in Washington, let alone in the international community, over the way to answer the question with regard to Lebanon. The Bush administration had shown interest in the Lebanese experiment of 2005, which began only a month after George W. Bush had vowed, in his second inaugural address, that “[a]ll who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” But Bush became less passionate about going after Arab autocrats, since the ones in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan were useful in helping contain Iran, once it emerged as a regional nuisance after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in August 2005.
It was not that Bush was insincere. Lebanon lent momentary conviction to his inaugural pledge, which perhaps explained why he remained so tenacious about its liberal promise when the Lebanese themselves had started doubting it. But Lebanon and its intifada had also taken Bush by surprise. Until the Lebanese uprising against Syria, the president, like Brent Scowcroft, had not seen very many symptoms of an Arab world yearning for liberty. There were the Iraqi elections, of course, but they had really taken place against the United States, an affirmation of the Iraqis’ desire to release themselves from Bush’s wellspring of democracy. Lebanon was less ambiguous in showing, to those who wanted to believe, the potential for democratic idealism in the Arab world, one that did not need to be directed against the United States. If Washington’s old enemies, the leftists like Jumblatt, were prophesying a new Arab world, then it might be true.
But Lebanon was never about the United States, just as the manner in which the Independence Intifada was represented internationally was not about Lebanon. The power of modern emancipation movements is their ability to generate narratives the media can pick up on, render arresting, and make understandable to home audiences. In that process truth is lost, but both sides get what they want. Those pursuing emancipation get publicity and access to the airwaves, and media get a good story. The instinct of the Lebanese was not to resort to violence after Hariri was murdered; it was to take up the terrible weapon of opinion by lending romance to their endeavors, so outsiders would take sides. This not only revealed a liberal outlook, it revealed a grasp of how modern politics work.
It was not all about image, however. Personalities could make a difference, and few were more influential in Beirut at the time than the U.S. ambassador, Jeffrey Feltman. He had arrived in the summer of 2004, and his second meeting with Rafiq al-Hariri occurred on that August day when the former prime minister was called to Damascus and instructed to vote in favor of Émile Lahoud’s extension. The encounter perplexed Feltman, a relatively young Ohioan in his first ambassadorial posting, after serving in Hungary, Iraq, and Israel. Feltman was still finding his feet in the tortuous ways of Lebanese politics, and he and a visiting State Department official, Elizabeth Dibble, were not sure how to read Hariri. Washington was impatient to know what the Syrians had told him, because the administration was preparing the groundwork for Resolution 1559. It must have been a perplexing meeting for Hariri as well, facing two envoys he didn’t know well, so soon after he had been threatened in Damascus for sympathizing with an international effort to get the Syrians out of Lebanon. For someone who suspected that his own home was bugged, he must have also worried that this conversation with representatives of a country leading that effort might soon find its way to the desk of a Syrian intelligence officer.
Feltman came to know Hariri better, but, more important, he came to know the Syrians better and what they were capable of doing. This made him sensitive to the risks the Lebanese took after the assassination. As Feltman later put it, “I believe strongly that it was the combination of international and local pressure that made the Syrian withdrawal inevitable. Had the international community been looking the other way when Rafiq Hariri was murdered, Syria’s proxies in Lebanon would have crushed even mass demonstrations. . . . But had the international community been working on its own, without an active partner in the Lebanese people, I’m not sure we would have been able to get that first step of a Syrian withdrawal. . . . I’m proud that the international community played an important supporting role, but I don’t forget that it was the Lebanese who led the process.”
What Feltman outlined was a more sensible model for democratization in the Arab world than one achieved through a unilateral resort to outside force or, conversely, sole reliance on domestic pressures in Arab societies. But there was no polemical intent on his part; only a keen sense of the limitations of absolute ideas from a foreign policy practitioner on the ground. What Feltman was hinting at, and what the Lebanese at Martyrs Square made more explicit, as did the Iraqis at the ballot box, was that to have a fighting chance of succeeding, efforts at emancipation in the Middle East sometimes had to combine a domestic popular impetus with outside coercion. There were surely exceptions to this rule, places where both components were lacking or where their combination would flounder. However, in Lebanon everything somehow came together at the right time and in the right place, and by so doing showed how myopic were those who echoed that “democracy can only come from within” in the Middle East—a platitude repeated by Arab autocrats, who realized how easily they could inhibit what came from within. Lebanon showed that emancipation sometimes required something from within and something from without, and that the something from without did not necessarily have to be detrimental; and that nothing was quite as effective as a population looking beyond the medium of change, whether America, France, the United Nations, or anyone else, to define what it wanted for itself. That, too, was a liberal impulse, and it is why the Independence Intifada was important—a seamless meeting of multiple interests, for which the Lebanese deserve their due.
AFTER THAT first demonstration on the Monday following Hariri’s assassination, three days came to define the Independence Intifada. On February 27, a Sunday, the Lebanese army and security services were ordered to block off Martyrs Square to those who intended to mark the second week after the assassination the next day. This prompted hundreds of people to enter the square through a haphazard cordon of soldiers and spend the night to prevent the security forces from clearing the area. With a friend, I went in, then came back out of the square. We could see that the army was not enforcing the order with particular conviction.
By the next morning a new situation had developed, one with all the makings of a Levantine deal. In the neighborhoods around Martyrs Square, the army directed the tens of thousands of arriving demonstrators through designated streets. At the entrance to the square, volunteers maintaining order stopped us and told us to wait for a moment while a group ahead passed through a line of soldiers. Then it was our turn. A volunteer yelled “Say God!” which in Arabic is another way of saying “God Help Us,” a superfluous appeal considering what was going down. As we hit the wall of soldiers, we pushed, and if we didn’t push, the soldiers murmured to us to push, because the quicker we pushed, the quicker the absurdity would end for them. And as we pushed, they gave way, making it seem like a struggle, one that fooled nobody but that allowed the army command to say it had implemented its orders short of firing into the crowd.
It seemed like a joke, but it avoided more dangerous repercussions had the situation been handled differently, because the army was caught between clashing interests: that of keeping in check the growing protests and preventing the Syrian order in Lebanon from collapsing, or collapsing too quickly; and averting a bloodbath that would discredit the military, even split the armed forces. That night the Independence Intifada scored its first victory when Prime Minister Omar Karami resigned. The activist Nabil Aboucharaf later described how he finally felt that change was coming: “This was a concrete result, something we could work on. Christians and Muslims had brought down a Muslim prime minister. The taboos had fallen.”
The taboos were beginning to fall, certainly, but the Syrians and their sympathizers had not called it a day. On March 5, Bashar al-Assad made a speech before the Syrian parliament—the kind of parliament that applauds a dictator’s semicolon and stands up at a full stop. Three things were worth remembering in what was, otherwise, a distillation of Assad’s contempt for the Lebanese and their politicians who had turned against Syria: The president announced that Syrian forces would withdraw toward the Lebanese-Syrian border, without specifying whether they would cross over into Syria; Assad mocked the Beirut demonstrations by saying that if cameras “zoomed out” they would see how small they really were; and he made a promise to his people, a forewarning of what Syrian intentions would be in the event of a pullout: “A Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon will not mean a disappearance of Syria’s role in Lebanon. This role is imposed by several factors, including geography, politics, and others.”
Three days later, on March 8, Hezbollah organized the largest demonstration since Hariri’s funeral. It took place at Riad al-Solh Square, only a few hundred meters west of Martyrs Square, but far enough to prevent a confrontation between those in each area. This was a party rally, one in which Hezbollah used its substantial means of mobilization to guarantee that a large crowd would be present. Yet those at Riad al-Solh were no less convinced by what they were doing than those at Martyrs Square. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, had three objectives in his speech to them: to break the momentum of the Independence Intifada by showing that the other side, the side ignored by the foreign media, could gather more people; to publicly “thank” Syria for what it had done in Lebanon; and to take a step that, with Assad’s speech and the reappointment on March 10 of Omar Karami to form a new government, would spearhead a counterattack by Syria and its allies.
In his speech, Nasrallah called for the formation of a national unity government after parliamentary consultations to name a prime minister. This was not innocent. Because Syria’s allies had a legislative majority, they could name the prime minister and retain a cabinet majority while also drawing the opposition into the sterile byways of government bargaining, neutralizing what was taking place in the streets. The ploy failed when the opposition rejected it. Karami was reappointed to form a new government, but when he failed to do so, the task was assigned to a more neutral politician acceptable to all. This coincided with the March 14 demonstration that changed all the rules, but which in retrospect changed very little.
Syria’s intentions were not clear. In his speech Nasrallah told French President Jacques Chirac that the Lebanese people “are saying to you that they want to safeguard our historic and special ties with Syria.” Foreign envoys in Beirut were uncertain about what Assad had meant in his speech. The Syrian president had heard from the Saudis that his army had to go home, but all he told his parliament was that they would redeploy to the border. As Jeffrey Feltman later explained: “[T]he international experience of dealing with Bashar gave us no confidence to trust his words. We suspected he would employ excuses, trickery and delays.” And as Feltman knew better than most, in the months after passage of Resolution 1559, Washington was willing to advance in stages on a Syrian withdrawal—to avoid allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good, in the ambassador’s words—by initially working toward a partial pullout to Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. Assad was aware of this American flexibility, but he may have misinterpreted it as meaning that the United States was not serious about a full Syrian withdrawal. In January 2005 an influential Syrian journalist told me that this was indeed the thinking in the Syrian leadership, which believed the administration was only raising the heat in Lebanon to gain Syrian cooperation over Iraq. If that was Assad’s evaluation, and it was one that perhaps explained a great deal about why Hariri was killed when he was, then nothing by the time the March 8 rally occurred confirmed that the Syrian leader had reconciled himself with abandoning Lebanon.
Then came March 14, the vortex of the Independence Intifada, which drew more people into Martyrs Square, or anywhere, than a Lebanese event ever had; an exceptional moment, but also one that raised unrealistic expectations and reflected much more Lebanon’s pluralistic cacophony than its unity. It’s difficult not to become lyrical when recalling the day itself, its images and sounds and irrepressible energy. The breakers upon breakers of human beings splashing into Martyrs Square from all directions; the tens of thousands of people backed up on Charles Helou Avenue, arriving through Beirut’s eastern suburbs, themselves backed up by tens of thousands more who never even made it near the city because the traffic was too dense; the rude, flippant posters and billboards directed against Syria and its local peons—the one in particular reminding Bashar al-Assad to “zoom out” and see how many people really hated his army’s presence in their midst; the pointless struggle by intelligence agents to force down banners mocking Émile Lahoud; the consciousness of people absolutely everywhere, filling out Martyrs Square, all its side streets, the Fouad Chehab overpass, Riad al-Solh Square, where Hezbollah had organized its thank-you to Syria a week before, and all without a single security incident, a single shop broken into, almost no trash left behind, just an overpowering bash with everyone in a trance.
Yet so intense was March 14 that many Lebanese regarded it as something it was not. In its unity of purpose they saw the stimulus for deep change, something new—revolution instead of intifada. In truth, March 14 was a manifestation not so much of Lebanon’s liberalism, but of how its sectarian thermostat could kick in to defend a pluralistic order that, in turn, safeguarded its liberal instincts; for in the end very little about the day was new, and that was its significance. It was a reaction against March 8, and in particular against the Shiite gauntlet thrown down on March 8. That was what allowed the Hariri camp to massively mobilize the Sunnis, from Beirut to the easternmost depths of the country, to the far north. For those who had watched March 8 with a disabused knot in their stomach, March 14 was payback, sectarian assertion a powerful motive behind that payback.
Yet March 14 was also, like the Independence Intifada itself, a perfect merging of interests. The participants all agreed that Syria had to go, but otherwise their priorities varied. The Christian group known as the Lebanese Forces wanted their leader, Samir Geagea, to be released from prison, where he had been languishing for eleven years; the followers of another mostly Christian group, the Free Patriotic Movement, wanted their leader, Michel Aoun, to return from exile in Paris; the Sunnis were there to show fidelity to Rafiq al-Hariri; the nonsectarians were there to save the intifada from the sectarian political leaders, who were already assessing how to convert it into political gains. A large majority, however, had less lucid thoughts and was there because no one could escape March 14, a day, like Martyrs Square itself, that was whatever you wanted it to be.
March 14 was also the day when the youths were forgotten. The previous afternoon, at a meeting in Mukhtara, the mountain home of Walid Jumblatt, opposition leaders had met to decide who would make speeches the following day. One idea had been to keep the speakers to a minimum. The lawyer Samir Abdelmalek, who helped organize the activities of the tent city, thought there should be only three speakers: someone chosen by the Hariri camp; someone representing the tent city; and a third person to be agreed upon. Instead, there was a mad rush to the rostrum, with between twenty and thirty speaking and nobody from the tent city invited. Of the speeches only two were memorable. That of Bahiyya al-Hariri, who made conciliatory gestures toward Syria, confusing many in attendance, but echoing what Jumblatt had told me, namely that the opposition had to “cut a deal with Syria” if it was to have any hope of stabilizing Lebanon. It was also a speech destined to calm Sunni-Shiite tensions. The second was that of Gebran Tueni: an oath to Lebanese unity that he had the crowd repeat, but which many remembered better after Tueni was assassinated, just as that unity was breaking down.
There began the denouement of the Independence Intifada, and the carousel of fantasies stopped. Within days the politicians had begun to prepare for their separate electoral interests. Walid Jumblatt opened channels to Hassan Nasrallah and to the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, both prominent allies of Syria. Jumblatt would later say he was trying to bring them both into the post-Syria system. This wasn’t completely untrue, because Jumblatt, a perfect triangulator, could gain by positioning himself between the anti-Syrian opposition and Syria’s allies; but, more important, Jumblatt needed Hezbollah’s support to win the Shiite vote in a constituency that would determine his own political relevancy in the post-Syria era.
In April, the Syrians finally withdrew their forces, though they remained very much present in manipulating Lebanese affairs. Legislative elections in May and June, during which Samir Kassir was assassinated, brought in a majority of parliamentarians hostile to Damascus. The opposition label changed sides, and Lebanon would begin the difficult process of finding an equilibrium between the people of Martyrs Square and those of Riad al-Solh Square. However, by then the disagreement over which law would govern the elections had split the anti-Syrian opposition. The inability to agree on a new law led to the de facto adoption of an earlier law, that of 2000, which alienated a majority of Christians. The reason was that the four political-sectarian groups that most benefited from it were the Sunnis, who by election time had seen Saad al-Hariri anointed by Saudi Arabia as Rafiq al-Hariri’s political heir; Jumblatt and his Druze followers; and the two Shiite parties, Hezbollah and Amal—all at the expense of the Christians who had sustained the Independence Intifada in its embryonic moments. The Christians felt cheated and voted massively for Michel Aoun, freshly returned from France, giving him a large parliamentary bloc, its members now opposed to their allies of the weeks before.
Ill feeling having swept away the good vibes of the Independence Intifada, a narrative took form among many of those who had gone down to Martyrs Square that the politicians had betrayed their ideals, displaying an aversion to change and an even deeper dedication to their own survival. But their reimposition of old hierarchies on weeks of popular abandon was not a story of dreams suffocated. Most of those affiliated with political organizations at Martyrs Square ended up following their leaders, often for complex, contradictory, unsatisfactory reasons of their own. As Ziad Majed later recalled about those in the tent city: “They did not form a strong movement to pressure their leaders. Maybe they did not have time to do so, or they were not capable of doing so. But I believe there was and is a certain degree of romance about the camp. This is understandable. But the political impact of the camp was more symbolic than effective, and it is clear that the ‘leaders’ are popular, have legitimacy and that many of their acts are justified even by the youth.”
The appraisal was tough, inasmuch as the tent city had managed to keep alive Martyrs Square as a space of protest. But it was on the money in admitting to the essential legitimacy of the sectarian leaders. The idealists descending on Martyrs Square had misdiagnosed the nature of their protests, seeing them as a lever for change when they ended up being mainly a mechanism for balance. In the behavior of the youths was a deeper, maybe involuntary, understanding of Lebanon’s reality. They concluded, to their enduring regret, that theirs was a country of pluralistic immovability. Liberalism would not emerge from overhauling the political or religious leadership, which was secure for reflecting the country’s sectarian interactions; it would emerge from those spaces created by the inability of any one leader, party, or coalition of parties, to impose a single will on all.
That was the real meaning of the events of 2004 and 2005. It was an intifada that, at important junctures, was propelled forward by a popular aspiration for revolutionary change, but an aspiration never fully formed or truly achievable, never really convincing, because the Lebanese had no idea what revolution was supposed to bring; because there was no consensus over what should replace the system’s pluralistic immovability. There were quite a few who saw in this shortage of ambition, in the supposed inertness of the Lebanese, a sign of the sickness of their system, its lack of democracy. In fact, things were more complicated, and subtle: It was a case of the system defining its boundaries, reminding the Lebanese of its rhythms and mechanisms of continuity, uncompromising rhythms no doubt, but boundaries and rhythms that had characterized the system for decades, that were its bane but also its safeguard against too-sudden political and social shifts that, in the name of revolution, of absolute change, might bring about only chaos and violence.
When their power was at stake, the politicians were monuments to egoism. But in their own way they and their followers were only upholding the Lebanese way. Here was an invisible hand at work, whereby the political self-interest of each could add up to the general interest of the whole, or at least the pluralism of the whole could protect the paradoxical liberalism in each. This wasn’t a country of revolutions, one young Aoun follower admitted to me, right after admitting that he wanted a revolution because he hated how politics in Lebanon were played. His contradiction was no different than the contradictions of countless others. The Independence Intifada started as a revolt of a group of Lebanese politicians against Syria, but Hariri’s assassination turned it into an unprompted popular movement that allowed the politicians’ revolt ultimately to succeed and for an enthralling moment looked like more than what it really was. However, Syria was gone because this time it had overestimated its ability to terrorize the Lebanese, and that was nothing to spit at.
© 2010 Michael Young