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.
Today, the FPM is a cornerstone of Lebanon’s growing anti-Syrian opposition movement, along with the mainly Christian and Lebanese forces; the Progressive Socialist Party, headed by Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, whose father was assassinated by Syria; and dozens of smaller parties. The parties are driving much of the peaceful protest downtown, supplying protesters with food, coffee, water, instructions and an endless supply of Lebanese flags. Hariri’s funeral procession on February 16, which attracted hundreds of thousands, was dominated by party flags and pictures of Christian warlords like Aoun, Bashir Gemayel and Samir Geagea.
By February 18, when the groups decided to keep the pressure up with a massive demonstration the following Monday, a week after Hariri’s death, their orders were clear: no party flags. “For Monday’s demo, all the groups had agreed: Lebanon’s flag, period,” says Letayf. It was a brilliant decision. While the parties form the backbone of the anti-Syrian opposition, many of their banners and pictures brought back bitter memories: Gemayel and Geagea, for example, butchered thousands of Lebanese Muslims and Palestinian refugees. Replacing the party symbols with crescents and crosses made it seem to the rest of the world that Beirut had somehow managed to transcend its sectarian tensions.
That was less clear in the dahiya, the sprawling, mostly Shiite suburbs that ring Beirut’s glittering downtown. There, where most of Beirut’s population lives but where Western reporters rarely venture, people scorn downtown’s ongoing carnival. “As an area, as the dahiya, we’re not concerned about what’s happening in downtown,” says Issam Assaf, a 19-year-old college student. “We regard what’s happening as a joke.”
Literally. A few weeks after Hariri’s killing, a text message started to make the rounds of Beirut’s famously ubiquitous cell phones. It referred to something that happened more than thirteen centuries ago–the murder of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, in the year 680, which forever cleaved Islam into Sunni and Shiite sects. “The Shiites are calling for a full investigation of the murder of the martyr Hussein,” it reads, in Arabic. “The main suspect is the Syrian Umayyad caliph.”
It’s a rich joke, gently mocking several things at once: the Shiite tendency to nourish centuries-old grievances, as well as the opposition’s demands for a full investigation into Hariri’s killing, the latest in a series of unsolved political assassinations that stretch far into Lebanon’s past. But the joke also reflects deep-seated Shiite skepticism toward the anti-Syrian uprising. On March 6, Nasrallah suggested that the anti-Syrian opposition bloc was poised to sign a peace agreement with Israel–fighting words for Shiites, most of whom live in or have strong ties to the country’s south, where memories of the Israeli occupation, which ended in May 2000, are still raw. “The people who are protesting now,” says Assaf, “we had an eighteen-year Israeli occupation. Where were they?”
Assaf is no religious militant. With his baseball cap and goatee, he would fit in perfectly with the demonstrators downtown. Instead, he’s standing outside the Petit Internet Café in Tayouneh, where he and his friends go to surf the Internet and play video games. It’s a secular, lower-middle-class crowd, both boys and girls, no veils. But this is Hezbollah country: When it comes to politics, no matter how religious they are or aren’t, most people here support Hezbollah, whose name means Party of God.
Hezbollah was founded by Lebanese Shiites, with help from Iran and Syria, when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. But while the other armed militias that sprang up during Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war have all disarmed, the Lebanese government preserved Hezbollah’s status as armed “resistance” against Israel–even after Israeli troops left. In part that’s because Hezbollah is useful to Syria: For years Damascus has allowed Iranian arms to flow to Hezbollah through Syrian territory, keeping Hezbollah as a bargaining chip with Israel in its ongoing bid to regain the Golan Heights, a strip of land Syria lost to Israel in the 1967 war. But maintaining Hezbollah’s status as an armed resistance against Israel still has widespread support in Lebanon, especially among Shiites.
“We are the majority, not them,” says Assaf. “They can have 200,000 or 300,000 people on the streets. That’s fine, but we can have a million.”
No empty boast, as it turns out.