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Cedar Siding

Beirut Dispatch.

IT'S HARD TO find anyone who hasn’t gotten excited about what has taken place in Beirut since the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister. For the hip young demonstrators who gather downtown every evening to protest the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, the collapse last week of their country’s pro-Syrian government was a big step closer to the modern political culture they desire. For weary foreign journalists stumbling in from Iraq, this is the best riot they’ve ever covered. They can collect a few quotes, in English or French, from a stunning girl in stiletto boots waving a flag in Martyrs’ Square, and then drink a few cocktails in the nearby nightclubs. For a U.S. administration eager to see Lebanon as a success story, these young protesters are the perfect poster children for Arab democracy. The State Department even calls this the Cedar Revolution, after the biblical cedar of Lebanon, the green icon on the country’s red-and-white flag. 

The nickname is unintentionally apt: Like Lebanon’s cedars, which are rapidly dying out, the Cedar Revolution is thin on the ground, since the country remains far more divided than most outsiders realize. Even as pro- democracy demonstrators march in Beirut, Lebanon’s largest religious group, the Shia, remain alienated by events in the capital. So alienated, in fact, that this week they mounted a pro-Syria, pro-Hezbollah counterdemonstration that drew at least half a million people, dwarfing the 70,000 people who participated in the largest of the Cedar Revolution demonstrations.

THE ONE POINT that almost everyone in Beirut agrees on is that the Syrians have played their hand badly. By forcing the extension in September of President mile Lahoud’s term for another three years, rather than just finding another Syrian stooge to take his place, Damascus called attention to the way their intelligence services run Lebanon like a vast racketeering scheme, allegedly selling off seats in parliament to Lebanese politicians. And, because Lahoud’s extension paved the way for the resignation of Hariri, who hated Lahoud, it was predictable that the blame for his death would fall upon Syria and that his assassination would catalyze anti-Syrian opposition. This opposition is demanding that Syria—which has some 14,000 soldiers in Lebanon— withdraw its troops. Once the Syrians leave, the Cedar demonstrators argue, Lebanon can become a normal country again.

The problem is that Lebanon is not a normal country. It is the most diverse country in the Middle East—with some 17 recognized religious sects. It waged a destructive civil war that raged for 15 years, ending only in 1990 when the Syrian army—with a wink from the United States, which needed Syria’s help during the first Gulf war—invaded Lebanon and disarmed most warring militias. Under the Syrian occupation, and with cheap Syrian labor, the Lebanese rebuilt their country and transformed Beirut into a glittering pleasure dome. But the legacy of war remains. Politics still revolves around sectarian conflict: Lebanon hasn’t taken a population census since 1932 because the ratio of Sunni to Shia to Christians is an explosive subject. “Lebanon is a country with a lot of baggage, and the opposition is only dealing with part of it—Syrian withdrawal,” says Reinould Leenders, the Beirut-based Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group. “It’s going to be hard to reform the sectarian system even if the Syrians leave.” 

Ironically, the groups leading the Cedar Revolution are ones that have benefited most from the stability of the Syrian occupation, which has allowed them to rebuild Lebanon’s tourism and finance sectors and other industries dominated by Beirut. It’s an unmistakably well-to-do Beirut crowd, with young people in designer clothes toting cell phones and tying Lebanese flags to their BMWs. It’s also an unmistakably Christian crowd: Not a single Muslim party has set up a tent in Martyrs’ Square, the center of the Cedar Revolution, and there are few women wearing Muslim headscarves in the gathering.

The Shia, meanwhile, remain the poorest group in the country, though the main Shia political party is Hezbollah, whose militia is supported by Syria. Hezbollah’s political wing is the largest block in the Lebanese parliament; the organization owes its popularity among Lebanese to the fact that they see it as the only group in the world to have defeated the Israeli army, which occupied parts of Lebanon from 1982 until 2000. And, though the Shia have not benefited as much economically from the Syrian occupation, in the slums of Beirut and the poor south of Lebanon, Israel remains the major enemy. “It’s better to have the Syrians than the Americans or Israel,” says Ibrahim Abbas, an 18-year-old barber in Ouzai, Beirut’s biggest Shia neighborhood, where the walls are often covered in portraits of men killed in the war with Israel.

In fact, the residents of Ouzai are skeptical of the Cedar Revolution demonstrators, with whom they have little in common culturally, and Hezbollah’s antipathy toward the Cedar demonstrators cements this doubt. (Hezbollah’s opposition isn’t surprising, since the group is backed by Syria, and the French/ American U.N. resolution that calls for Syrian withdrawal also calls for the disarmament of all militias, a reference to Hezbollah, the only group other than the government allowed to wield its own militia.) “I think it’s the American embassy that’s bringing these people into Beirut,” says Ali Haj, 40, a Hezbollah member who had just finished Friday prayers. “The Americans want to take away our weapons.” And, even outside Shia areas, more religious Lebanese, too, are suspicious of liberal Christian protestors. In Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-biggest city—dominated by Sunnis—the strict religious atmosphere is evident in the city center, Allah Square, where there are more beards than bared midriffs, and almost as many pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad as of Hariri. Last Saturday, large crowds gathered there to pay respects for the deceased sister of former Prime Minister Omar Karami, head of the recently collapsed pro-Syrian government. The event took on the air of a protest of the government’s collapse, with angry young men walking to Karami’s office, where, according to supporters, the family received some 20,000 visitors. That evening, crowds gathered again in Tripoli to show support for the Syrian president.

THE DIVIDE BETWEEN the Shia—and other religious Lebanese—and the Cedar demonstrations crested with the counterdemonstration, sparked by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s televised call for a protest. Shia formed the bulk of the counter-demonstrations: Thousands of women in headscarves and hijabs and bearded men dressed all in black mingled with average Lebanese families. Many had traveled from poor areas of southern Lebanon.

Like the Cedar demonstrators, this crowd also called for a truthful investigation into Hariri’s assassination, but their assumption was that the result would clear Syria, not implicate it. “The death of Mr. Hariri is part of an American and Israeli project to change the Middle East,” said Ali Sharif, 33, a Shia shopkeeper from Baalbek. “Just like September 11 provided an excuse to invade Iraq, the death of Mr. Hariri is an excuse to weaken Lebanon for Israel.” “My problem is not with the Syrians,” agreed Mohammed Makbel, 40, a watch salesman. “They are our neighbors. My problem is with America helping Israel redraw the Middle East and divide Lebanon so that they can put the Palestinian refugees here.” 

The counterdemonstrators also directed their vitriol at the Cedar protestors. “The opposition is using the blood of the prime minister in a disgusting way, by placing the blame on the current leaders,” said Hadi Chatila, a graphic designer. “But we are the real voice of democracy in Lebanon. The voice of Lebanon is what we are seeing now.”

This article appeared in the March 21, 2005 issue of the magazine.