Whatever happened to Lebanon’s ‘Cedar Revolution’?

BEIRUT — In Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, 11 photographs hang on a wooden wall, showing hundreds of thousands of anti-Syrian protesters thronging the city’s streets after the February assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

The pictures, yards away from Hariri’s burial site, bear testimony to a surge of street anger — dubbed the “Cedar Revolution” by the United States — that prompted Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon after a 29-year military presence.

Nora Mourad protested for 40 days before the April pullout but now she cannot look at the pictures without regret.

“At that time, I felt we were making history. But now when I walk past the place I feel bitter,” she told Reuters.

The protests erupted because many in Lebanon blamed Syria for Hariri’s killing, a claim Damascus strongly denies. A United Nations interim report has suggested that top Syrian security officials and Lebanese allies planned the assassination.

“It is good that we have pictures to prove that we were there … I feel that we have moved 1,000 steps back since then,” said Mourad, a political activist.

For many like her, the protests that saw thousands of former civil war foes camping together in tents and calling for national unity offered a rare chance to break away from the delicate sectarian politics that fuelled Lebanon’s 1975-1990 war and have stymied reforms ever since.

What happened next, however, was a wake-up call.

Not long after Syria withdrew its troops, cracks appeared in the loose coalition that had organised the protests, with Michel Aoun, a leader of Lebanon’s Christian Maronites, breaking away in a row over alliances for May-June elections.

“Opportunistic new alliances were formed, with so-called pro- and anti-Syrians making common electoral cause to defend entrenched interests,” the International Crisis Group think tank said in a recent report.

“Elections meant as a starting point for reform were a reminder of the power of sectarianism and status quo.”

Slice of the pie

Although the vote was the first in nearly three decades to take place without Syrian troops on Lebanese soil, an electoral law drawn up to protect Damascus’ allies in a 2000 poll produced an unlikely coalition of Syria’s allies and critics.

Divisions soon appeared and threatened to stall key political and economic reforms. A wave of explosions piled pressure on the government to patch up its rifts as fears mounted that the country was slipping into chaos.

“The elections ruined everything,” said 24-year-old Mourad who is studying for a masters in international affairs at the Lebanese American University.

“Everyone wanted a bigger slice of the pie. The slogans about national unity turned out to be hollow,” she said.

Even students — one of the main groups in the anti-Syrian protests — turned on each other, with student groups linked to political parties scuffling during student union elections in violence that underlined the tense political climate.

Some say spring hopes of a new era of national unity were always little more than wishful thinking in a society with few strong secular parties and civil society movements. “There was consensus on forcing Syria out but little agreement on anything else,” said Abdel-Rahman Za’za, 29, a mechanical engineer. “Nationalist movements cannot be built on this.” Osama Safa, head of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, said secular activists had only a minor role in the anti-Syria protests.

“The driving force behind the demonstrations was the sectarian parties which had a certain political agenda like the Syrian withdrawal,” he said. “The secular and civil society people had no choice but to take part in the demonstrations but what they hoped for was a bit unrealistic. It was an unfinished revolution for them.”

The silver lining?

In the modest apartment that houses the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections or LADE, Dourin Khoury is more optimistic, seeing slow but steady progress.

“There is a golden opportunity for the civil society movement to gather itself and organise a campaign against sectarianism,” said Khoury, executive director of the non-governmental organisation, which monitors local polls.

“Our politicians need more political awareness but things are gradually improving. For the first time, we have a prime minister not appointed by Syria,” she said, sitting in front of poster of newspaper columnist Samir Kassir who was killed in a car bomb in June and who was sharply critical of Syria. Mourad, also a member of LADE, listed some other signs of a slowly improving awareness of democracy: professional unions have asked LADE to monitor their ballots and independent secular groups have been created at some universities.

“I can’t be completely pessimistic. We have campaigned for the impossible so we may achieve what is possible.”

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