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A Forest of Fathers | The Nation

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A Forest of Fathers

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One weekend during the spring of 2008, I found myself in a discussion with a friend about Lebanon's latest political crisis. In Beirut the office of the Lebanese prime minister was being besieged by a sprawling tent city of protesters led by the country's opposition, demanding the resignation of the premier and his cabinet. The business of government had long since ground to a halt, as had all commercial activity around Martyrs Square, not far from where the protesters were gathered; and multiple efforts to reach a compromise between the opposition and the "March 14" loyalists, a coalition of Sunni, Christian and Druse parties backed by the Bush administration and its European and Arab allies, had ended in failure. Pundits warned daily of a descent into the abyss of sectarian violence and civil war.

The Ghosts of Martyrs Square
An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s
Life Struggle.

By Michael Young.
Buy this book

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About the Author

Elias Muhanna
Elias Muhanna, a PhD student in Near Eastern languages and civilizations at Harvard University, blogs as Qifa Nabki.

Also by the Author

On Reza Aslan’s Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East.

Like many Lebanese, I found this state of affairs to be both maddening and deeply ironic. Three years earlier, Martyrs Square had been the scene of what was heralded around the world as Lebanon's rebirth, a popular uprising 1 million strong demanding the end of Syria's military occupation of the country. This uprising—dubbed the Cedar Revolution—was triggered by the assassination of a billionaire former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, the architect of Lebanon's postwar recovery. Syria was widely blamed for the assassination, and the ensuing protests—unprecedented in size and in their brazen defiance of Damascus—coupled with intense international pressure, succeeded in forcing the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. While no one could have imagined that Lebanon's endemic divisiveness was now a thing of the past and that a strong democratic state would emerge spontaneously from the ashes of Syrian tutelage, there was a palpable hope, naïve in retrospect, that the Lebanese could finally take their first step toward building such a state.

Nothing so optimistic had come to pass. In the three years since the withdrawal of Syrian troops, the country had been racked by a series of high-profile assassinations and a devastating war with Israel. An international tribunal established to investigate the murder of Hariri seemed to have stalled, and street violence was mounting between youths allied with opposing factions. Most significant, the country had no president. The previous one, Émile Lahoud, a pillar of the pro-Syrian regime, had resigned four months earlier, and the polarized government could not reach agreement over a successor.

All of this I related to my friend—a Syrian expatriate living in New York City—expressing my amazement at how Lebanon had turned into a farce, its political system so broken that it could not even carry out the most elemental of democratic processes: voting a person into office. Amused by my frustration, he suggested that far more remarkable than Lebanon's paralysis was that the Lebanese state had survived without a president for more than 100 days, with no attempted coups, military takeovers or invasions. Imagine such a thing anywhere else in the Middle East: a power vacuum at the highest levels of government "lasting five minutes, let alone four months." The laws of political gravity, he mused, do not apply in Beirut as they do in other Arab capitals. What's more, they never have.

The theme of weak centers and strong peripheries features prominently in The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, in which Michael Young tries to make sense of "the Lebanon that emerged between 2005 and 2009, an essential moment in modern Lebanese history." To call that span of four years a "moment"—a term of art employed by cultural historians to allude to the fleeting and the floating—is to suggest its evanescent quality. Indeed, for Young the moment has long since passed, along with whatever possibilities it may once have aroused among the partisans of the Cedar Revolution.

The Ghosts of Martyrs Square is pervaded by a pessimism that only rarely strays into wistfulness, and for those familiar with Young's previous writings the tone may come as a surprise. Since the birth of the March 14 movement, Young has been one of its most prominent spokesmen, as well as an occasionally disconsolate critic. In his weekly columns for the English-language Daily Star newspaper in Beirut (where he serves as opinion editor), Young played a central role in chronicling the tribulations of the post-Syrian order and defending the cause of Syria's opponents in Lebanon to an audience based in Beirut and, just as significant, the West. When the movement lost steam and started to accommodate Syria's allies—including the Shiite militant group Hezbollah—Young declared that Syria had won, "its crimes forgotten and its interests protected."

This bleak diagnosis suggests that for Young, what was most important about the fallout from Hariri's assassination wasn't the opportunity for Lebanon to emerge as a sovereign state. Rather, it was the possibility that the Syrian regime would be punished and crippled, perhaps fatally, by the ensuing UN investigation into Hariri's death. Indeed, no commentator has been as singularly focused on the twists and turns of the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon as Young, who has tracked its development and criticized its proceedings in the Daily Star, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. His preoccupation with the investigation has been both obsessive and understandable. While assassinations are, sadly, routine in Lebanon, international investigations into political crimes are not. In this respect, the establishment of the UN tribunal was not merely a development of great political significance. On a more fundamental level, it seemed to redefine the very borders of what was knowable, subverting the entrenched logic of faceless assassins and perfect crimes.

During the heady summer and autumn months of 2005, reports of German and Swiss forensics teams arriving in Beirut were greeted with a mixture of wonder and shock. "They're actually going to prove that Syria was responsible," a relative gushed to me in disbelief. "They won't get away with it this time!" But as the investigation dragged on without indictments being issued, optimism in Beirut was sapped by impatience and eventually frustration, an emotion that courses through Young's prose. Here again was the authoritarian order crushing the will to truth, squelching any hope of justice. What was more, the Cedar Revolution, which had produced the first stirrings of popular resistance to Syrian hegemony, was by Young's lights "never a revolution in the first place, and [was] now as exposed as any old tree to being cut down."

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