Lebanon's Democratic Culture Shows Its Roots

The Lebanese, far from needing lessons on democracy and nonviolent change, are experienced at dealing with internal and external pressures on their social and political system. Both the anti-Syrian and pro-Syrian protests of March 2005 are part of a complex search for social peace in a troubled region

By Ken Simons | 2005-04-01 12:00:00

On September 11, 1952, a general strike and street protests forced the collapse of the Lebanese government. The "Rosewater Revolution" brought a new generation to power. In February and March of 2005 another generation -- led by the children and grandchildren of the leaders of the 1952 protests -- temporarily brought down another government.

The Rosewater and "Cedar" Revolu-tions point to the maturity and depth of political traditions in Lebanon, a country that has been continuously under multi-party parliamentary rule since independence. Democratic structures may have been more formal than real during the 1975-89 civil war, but the ease with which former enemies reverted to political roles was a tribute to the persistence of democratic culture.

Colonial Rule and a National Pact

Lebanon was once the centre of the Phoenician civilization. It later came under Roman, Byzantine, and eventually Ottoman rule, during which the province gained autonomous status under a Christian governor. With the defeat of the Ottoman empire in WWI, France gained a League of Nations mandate over Lebanon and modern-day Syria. Both were occupied by the Allies during WWII, but were granted conditional independence -- Lebanon in 1941, and Syria in 1944 -- prior to the Allied withdrawal in 1946.

The sense of a common colonial past and a common Syrian-Lebanese culture is stronger among the Shia (Alawi Shia Muslims, though a minority, dominate Syria's government), but is not absent in other parts of society. Lebanon's political evolution has, however, diverged greatly from Syria's in the years since independence, due to its cultural diversity and because of the indigenous roots of its democratic traditions.

Lebanon customarily has a Christian president, a Sunni prime minister, and a Shia parliamentary speaker. This practice originated in a meeting in 1943 and a subsequent unwritten agreement, the National Pact. The Pact allocated parliamentary seats between the Christian and Muslim communities based on the 1932 census. While the Pact no longer reflects Lebanon's social makeup (believed to be 60-70 per cent Muslim, up from 42 per cent in 1932), it continues to encourage consensus and the formation of broad, cross-community alliances.

Syria's Security Interests

Syria arguably has important security interests in Lebanon; both nations border Israel, which has annexed or occupied parts of their territory. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)was based in Beirut from 1967-1982; Israeli attacks on PLO targets within Lebanon violated Lebanese sovereignty and enraged wider Arab public opinion.

The Israel-Palestine conflict sparked Lebanon's 1975-89 civil war, when right-wing militias took up arms to drive out the PLO. This led to the creation of pro-PLO Druze and Sunni militias and the division of the country into several hostile zones. Ironically, Syria backed the anti-PLO side, as did Hizbollah.

In 1989, Syrian president Hafez al-Assad chaired a peace conference in the Saudi resort town of Taif, persuading all but one of the rival Lebanese militias to disarm and to accept a Syrian military presence, at the same time making minor but important adjustments to the National Pact. No timetable was given for a full Syrian troop pullout.

Risky Strategy

The 2005 street protests were a risky strategy after more than 15 years' tiptoeing around two related questions -- the civil war and the Syrian military occupation. Since 1989, even strongly nationalist politicians had felt bound not to challenge their more powerful neighbour.

But little progress had been made in negotiating Syria's withdrawal, and frustration was mounting. The assassination of popular prime minister Rafik Hariri, almost certainly by Syrian agents, was the last straw. Within days of the first anti-Syrian demo in Beirut, Prime Minister Omar Karami resigned and Syria announced it would negotiate the withdrawal of most or all of its troops .

A week later, however, there was a much larger pro-Syrian demonstration in Beirut, followed by the re-appointment by parliament of Karami and his cabinet. This 500,000 strong protest targeted what it saw as foreign intervention in Lebanese affairs (presumed diplomatic interference by the US and Israel, in contrast to Syria's military occupation) and was organized by the most well-known Lebanese political party, Hizbollah (Party of God in Arabic).

Hizbollah, a pan-Arab political and military movement (linked to terrorism in Israel, and heavily reliant on support from Iran and Syria), is now the fastest growing political party within the Shia community. While Hizbollah remained hostile to other political and military groups, fought most of them in the civil war, and refused to disarm afterwards, it gained some respect after 2000, when its militias drove the Israeli army out of south Lebanon.

Nonetheless, Hizbollah's demonstration, also supported by Christian parties allied to President Émile Lahoud, failed to prevent the first Syrian withdrawals. On March 14, the anti-Syrian opposition staged an even larger protest, bringing an estimated 800,000-1,000,000 onto the streets of Beirut.

US Support Not a Given

When the nonviolent protests began in February, was the opposition expecting US support for their political demands? Such support was by no means certain -- successive US administrations have largely backed Syria's role as bad cop in the region. The White House was not necessarily well-disposed to any sudden change in Lebanon's government or its relationship with Syria. Moreover, the senior figure in the anti-Syrian protests was none other than a longtime anti-US and pro-Palestinian firebrand, Walid Jumblatt (son of the late Kemal Jumblatt, leader of the 1952 protests, and his heir at the head of the Druze community).

Some critics have noted that the pro- and anti-Syrian positions mirror the Christian-Muslim split, with the antis being largely Christian, urban, and middle class, and the pros largely Shia Muslim, rural, and poor. This is partly true, but the most important political support for Syria comes from people like the president -- conservative Maronite Christians who see the country as the best guarantor of their community's political and economic position.

Other Maronites, together with Druze and Sunni leaders, have argued for at least five years for Syria's withdrawal. In 2000, when Hizbollah militias forced Israeli troops out, the Syrians lost their one remaining argument for a continued military role. Moreover, the Israeli retreat appeared to heal many of the wounds of the civil war -- former Hizbollah enemies like Walid Jumblatt, the Gemayal clan, and then-prime minister Rafik Hariri called for it to be brought into the national consensus.

But how will the national consensus be forged? Hizbollah fears the dismantling of its militia -- which would have happened long ago if not for Syria. The secular opposition must now demonstrate to the Shia community that they can hold political weight in Lebanon without the coercive power of weapons -- Hizbollah's or Syria's.

Ken Simons is Managing Editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2005

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