Ever since a massive bomb killed former prime minister Rafik Hariri on February 14, downtown Beirut has evolved into a solemn carnival, halfway between a wake and a rave. Outside the behemoth al-Amin mosque, where Hariri and his bodyguards are buried, young Beirutis camp out every evening to light candles, flirt and call for an end to the Syrian occupation. Once Lebanon’s pro-Syrian prime minister resigned, local and international media picked up the drumbeat of peaceful regime change, trumpeting this nightly gathering as the next Kiev or Tbilisi. Could this be the Arab world’s first bloodless coup–a velvet intifada?
Maybe. But the “cedar revolution,” as the US State Department dubbed it, isn’t over yet. The young protesters are drawn mainly from Beirut’s middle and upper classes, predominantly Christian and Druse, with some Sunni Muslims, but almost no Shiites. On March 8, half a million demonstrators–mainly, but not all, Shiites–showed up for a counterdemonstration that made the cedar revolution look like a sapling.
The sheer numbers showed wide support for Syria among Shiites, who at 40 percent are the single largest confessional group in Lebanon (and, historically, the most disenfranchised). But it also showed the depth of support for Hezbollah, the Syria-backed guerrilla group and political party. As both sides dig in on either side of the Syria question, Lebanon heads for a looming showdown–not just over Syria but over UN Resolution 1559, which requires Hezbollah to lay down its arms. Meanwhile, with Lebanon facing parliamentary elections this spring, both sides will have to appoint a transitional government together, what Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has described as “a national unity government.”
“The question now becomes, In Lebanon, can a group of people come up with a vision that allows people to rise above their confession and their political differences?” says D. Roman Kulchitsky, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “That’s a very important question, and I don’t think it has been answered yet.”
When the bomb that killed Hariri exploded, the last thing anyone expected was a joyous celebration. Angry crowds gathered outside Hariri’s house; radio stations switched from upbeat pop hits to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. At the American University of Beirut, students and staff gathered in the cafeteria to watch television. “When they announced he was dead the university went quiet, completely,” says Anthony Letayf, a 21-year-old AUB student getting his BA in political science. “We were all in a state of shock.”
Letayf, a Lebanese-American who lived in Detroit until 1996, is a campus organizer for the Free Patriotic Movement. A mostly Christian political party, the FPM is loyal to Gen. Michel Aoun, the exiled former chief of staff of Lebanon’s army. In 1988 Aoun declared a separate government in East Beirut, and the city was split in half, with two separate governments, until the Syrian army bombed him out of the presidential palace, effectively ending the war. After the war, Syria became the main power broker in Lebanon.