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Lebanon’s slide from hope to deadlock

Rather than marking Lebanon's resurrection, a massive 2005 protest following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri marked the start of a new era of political deadlock.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

It was Feb. 16, 2005, and Ghena Hariri, dressed in black with a white veil, sat silent in an ambulance driving to the blue-domed Mohammed al-Amin Mosque in Beirut's Martyrs' Square. Next to her was a coffin draped in the Lebanese flag. Inside it was the body of her uncle, Rafiq al-Hariri, who was killed with 22 others when a bomb ripped through his convoy as it skirted the Mediterranean Sea.

The streets outside her windows teemed with hundreds of thousands gathering for the former prime minister's burial.

"I was hoping his death was not for nothing," the 27-year-old Hariri recalled, sipping coffee at a cafe. Her voice was soft, the words slow. "It's a loss you can't explain. I can't explain how I felt. It was a surreal time for me. But when I looked at how people were reacting, what was happening, I thought there was something good that's coming out of it."

"Lebanon is resurrecting," she remembered thinking.

A day to mourn, dream
Hariri's death and burial culminated in an event known simply as a date, March 14, possibly the largest demonstration in Lebanese history. The participants were drawn together in a protest over Syria's 29-year military presence here and its suspected role in Hariri's killing. Many of them were joined, too, in a call for a new Lebanon that would transcend decades-old politics steeped in feudal-like personalities, sectarian barriers honed by civil war, and patronage and corruption that almost ritually blurred principle. To those who took part, the date itself became iconic.

But nearly two years later, March 14 has come to represent something else: less the birth of a new country and more a border between two that coexist, suspicious, angry and unreconciled, entrenched in a terrain with almost no shared ground. Rather than a resurrection, it now marks the start of Lebanon's cold war, where the government and its supporters are pitted against an emboldened opposition led by Hezbollah and its allies, each with its perspective and foreign patrons, each prone to brinkmanship.

"It was a moment, and it developed into a line," said Marwan Hamadeh, the telecommunications minister who was targeted in an assassination attempt Oct. 1, 2004. "It was then that the demarcations started between us and them."

The fate of March 14 is a story of disillusionment and frustration, punctuated by political battles, assassinations and this summer's devastating war with Israel. The traumas have further fractured a country prone to deadlock, its constituencies relying on foreign alliances that have long guided Lebanese politics. In images and words, it has become a fight that partisans on each side cast in the most existential of ways: One wins, the other loses. And today those two Lebanons stare at each other across coils of barbed wire that surround a vacant, wind-swept Martyrs' Square.

"When I look at it now, I'm scared," Hariri said.

Outside the cafe's window were posters of her uncle. "We miss you," one read.

"When you lose somebody this way, you become full of anger, and I was. I was," she said. What followed comforted her. "I looked at it and thought, 'It's no longer me or my family. It became the country.' " She thought for a moment. "I'm back to angry."

A spontaneous movement
Before Rafiq al-Hariri's assassination Feb. 14, Nicole Fayad, a soft-spoken, 42-year-old financial director at a school in the neighborhood of Badaro, never considered herself political. But she reacted like many in Beirut did to the bombing: with fear and anger at the attack's audacity. And the day after the funeral, she answered a call conveyed by text message on cellphones to protest in Martyrs' Square.

Fifty others showed up with her. Ten minutes later, disappointed by the turnout, half of them had left.

"We said, 'We have to do something,' " she recalled.

Their response was an impromptu petition on a piece of white canvas left over from Hariri's funeral tent.

"Resign!" one of them scrawled across it with a green pen, a message to the government.

Hours passed, and the canvas grew to half the size of a football field: more messages, protests and signatures. (In time, it would stretch 500 yards.) Days passed, and Fayad and her friends became the nucleus of a group that organized what would become a 66-day sit-in there, providing food and water, raising money, securing electricity from a nearby mosque and distributing thousands of flags. They demanded the government's resignation, an international investigation into Hariri's death and an end to Syria's suffocating domination of the country.

The protests never drew the Shiites, the country's single-largest community, represented in large part by Hezbollah. In time, powerful politicians, some whose legacies dated to the civil war and who were loyal Syrian allies before Hariri's death, claimed legitimacy from the protesters, who were not always willing to bestow it. But in those heady days -- beginning with the petition, through March 14, and until Syria withdrew its military forces in April -- Fayad and others harnessed the power of a spontaneous, popular movement that acted, for a time, with a certain independence from the country's sectarian leaders. Rare in Lebanon, politics emerged from below rather than being dictated from above.

"I really thought everyone wanted to change the way things were done," she said.

'Everyone for the nation'
From a red satchel and a small box, Fayad gingerly removed the artifacts of what she thought then was a revolution: a rolled-up swath of the petition; a red-and-white bandanna, the colors that became the protests' symbol; a sticker that read "Independence '05, everyone for the nation"; a small, red notebook in which she had jotted down the needs of the demonstrators at the sit-in; and receipts for those who gave donations. (One was for $300 from Haifa Wehbe, one of Lebanon's most famous singers.) Fayad gazed at the fragment of the petition, shaking her head nostalgically. The graffiti, beneath a veneer of dust, still danced across the canvas. "Lebanon is for us," one read. "All united," another said. "We believe and it's been a while we didn't," one line went.

"This thing was amazing," she said.

Her eyes stopped at another slogan: "Today we unite. Let us not forget tomorrow."

"How true," she said, flipping her hand.

Fayad smiled wryly. "I still believe," she said. Her tone was hesitant, as if she was trying to convince herself.

But a few minutes later, all but the petition tucked away again, she turned a shade grimmer, a little less resolute. "Maybe the emotion was hope, hope for a better future, hope for reform," she said. "Now I don't have the hope anymore."

"People," she added, "went back to accommodating themselves to reality."

An old warrior's surprising alliance
On May 7, a week after the sit-in ended in Martyrs' Square, Lebanon witnessed the return of Michel Aoun, a former general, civil war-era prime minister and Christian leader who was driven into exile when Syria consolidated its control over the country in 1990.

To his followers, many persecuted when Syria reigned supreme here, it marked the arrival of a man they compared to Charles de Gaulle, ready to remake politics with his populist vows to shatter Lebanon's tangled web of clans, chieftains, tycoons and bosses and the corruption and patronage weaving it together. To his detractors, he was "Napolaoun," a thin-skinned, unpredictable figure bent obsessively on the presidency who waged the civil war's bloodiest battles, first against Syria, then fellow Christians.

"A tsunami," Druze leader Walid Jumblatt famously pronounced as Aoun traveled from Paris by plane.

"In some ways, he is right," answered Aoun, 71, slowed by age and rarely smiling. "I don't deny that."

The former soldier turned gruff, striking his trademark brusque tone: "When somebody provokes me, I say, 'Go to hell!' "

Legacy of sectarian gridlock
There was a phrase coined by a former Lebanese prime minister that says something about politics here: "La ghalib, wa la maghloub" -- No victor, no vanquished. It speaks to the necessity of sectarian consensus in a country with 18 religious groups, the largest of which -- Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim, Maronite Christian and Druze -- often wield an effective veto in politics. But it tells, too, of the stalemates that have riddled Lebanon's past when that consensus was shattered: in a crisis in 1958, at the onset of the 15-year civil war in 1975 and, of course, today. At each turn, the country's very identity was questioned: its posture toward Israel, whether it leaned west or east, whether it sided with the United States or its foes, which community would have the greatest say in a system that, despite a current of popular resentment, remains rooted in sectarian rigidity. And at each juncture, deadlock erupted in crisis when the groups reached beyond the country's borders to America, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria or Iran to bolster their positions inside.

"You always have a dog barking for you in Lebanon," said Ghassan Salame, a former culture minister.

Read through that lens, March 14 marked not a revolution, but the onset of yet another, familiar stalemate. There were opportunistic gestures at reconciliation: backroom alliances struck in the best Levantine fashion for elections that summer that dismayed March 14 proponents like Fayad. But they were overwhelmed by the demographics: The Shiites, represented politically by Hezbollah and the allied but smaller group Amal, never took part in the movement around March 14. Then, as today, the two sides straddle a divide chiseled by those same unanswered questions of identity that litter Lebanon's past.

A personal revolt
The only wild card in that stalemate was Aoun. And for him, from May 7 on, it was never business, always personal.

"They didn't recognize my fight to liberate Lebanon for 15 years from exile," he said last week at his home in a Beirut suburb.

Aoun felt slighted at the protests, where he said his role as an opponent of the Syrian presence was belittled. His followers turned out in force, but he complained he was never allowed to speak by video to the crowd. Once, he said, the lines were cut as he tried to address the demonstrators by phone. When he returned from exile, hardly any of the politicians greeted him as he met his supporters in Martyrs' Square.

In his eyes, the treatment he received made a coalition impossible. By the end of last year, he instead had forged a surprising alliance with Hezbollah, redrawing the lines of Lebanese politics. With him went a substantial share of Lebanon's Christians, many of whom had stood in Martyrs' Square on March 14.

"They tried to reduce me more and more," he said of his March 14 opponents. "They committed the biggest mistake anyone could make."

A battle of images
Dressed casually in jeans and a sports jacket, his graying hair in a ponytail, Eli Khoury recalled the intoxicating days of March 14 as he sat at the advertising offices of Saatchi & Saatchi, awash in metallic grays. With writer Samir Kassir, he and others had guided the imagery of the movement, almost single-handedly shaping, sometimes self-consciously, the way the protests would be conveyed to the world. Would the theme be freedom or independence? What colors would they promote -- the orange of the protests in Ukraine, the red, white and green of the Lebanese flag? Was it a revolution or an uprising?

That was before Kassir, before politician George Hawi, before editor and lawmaker Gebran Tueni were killed in a string of assassinations, blamed by many here on Syria, targeting figures who had come to represent March 14. Next was Pierre Gemayel, a right-wing Christian minister killed in November in a hail of gunfire on a busy Beirut thoroughfare.

In the aftermath of Gemayel's death, a sobered Khoury drew from his gut. "I love life," his slogan went in English. "We want to live," it read in Arabic.

His words now are the kind of zero-sum rhetoric of a country at a crossroads.

"We've come into a deadlock really," he said.

In the nearly two years since March 14, the contest over Lebanon's future has often amounted to a battle of images, as each side consecrates its martyrs, their sacrifice becoming the very legitimacy of what each movement claims to represent.

On the highway to Beirut Rafiq Hariri International Airport, Hezbollah celebrates its 33-day war against Israel, a conflict in which it says March 14 figures effectively collaborated with the enemy. "The Divine Victory," ads proclaim. Down the road is a three-dimensional billboard, several stories high. On two sides is Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, his hands outstretched triumphantly: "The time of defeats has passed." Facing them, stretched across the Ouzai Bridge, sometimes on the other side of the very same billboard, is Khoury's campaign: "I love life," it reads in red, white and green, the identical colors of Hezbollah's campaign.

The slogans shout, in a dialogue of the deaf.

Showdown at the Serail
For the followers of Hezbollah, Amal and Aoun, Dec. 1 was a jubilant day as hundreds of thousands converged on downtown Beirut in a campaign to force the government and its March 14 allies to surrender power. By nightfall, according to accounts from politicians inside the government headquarters, diplomats and Hezbollah officials, a far tenser conflict was underway.

After Aoun finished addressing the crowd, Hezbollah's followers blocked a main road that leads to the Ottoman-era government headquarters, known as the Serail. That left three other roads. Within 15 minutes, more followers had cut them. They turned back trucks bringing dinner to the Serail. Soldiers at the entrances were cut off from their units. Three ministers were blocked from entering.

As chants and anthems resounded from below, carried by loudspeakers, the Serail was surrounded.

For two hours, the phones rang nonstop as those in the Serail called the army, the internal security forces, Defense Minister Elias Murr and Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker and leader of Amal. Diplomats made their own calls. Hezbollah's leadership convened an emergency meeting. As time passed, threats mounted. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora warned Berri he would be held responsible for whatever ensued. Followers of Saad Hariri, who had inherited leadership of Lebanon's Sunnis from his father, the slain former prime minister, told the army they would retaliate by cutting the roads to Hezbollah's strongholds in the south and the Bekaa Valley. The army threatened to break the siege, an operation that would almost certainly end in bloodshed.

Berri asked for a half-hour. The siege was lifted.

"We spoke to them, and the problem was solved shortly," said Amin Sherri, a Hezbollah lawmaker.

Others were less prosaic.

"This could have been the beginning of a civil war," said Wael Abou Faour, a lawmaker with the March 14 movement.

'Dark days for Lebanon'
Danny Mina and Mohammed Uzair are separated in age by just a few years. But Mina, a young idealist who took part March 14, and Uzair, a principled demonstrator camped out at the sit-in this day next to the Serail, occupy different Lebanons separated by the barbed wire tangling through downtown. Both speak for the country; they disagree on what it represents.

"Everybody is holding the flag, but you're losing the country," said Elias Khoury, a Lebanese writer.

Even those hopeful that a stopgap compromise will eventually be found to today's crisis worry about more menacing times ahead in a country that has never reconciled its identity with politics, neither on March 14 nor today. The country's system was forged 63 years ago in a deal between Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims; Shiite Muslims had little say. Christians are guaranteed equal representation in politics, but their numbers -- perhaps a third of the population -- keep dwindling in relative terms. Shiites, historically marginalized and still condescended to by Beirut's Christian and Sunni elite, see their arc of empowerment that began before the civil war as unfinished. For many of them, the very presence of poor men like Uzair in a gleaming downtown catering to the rich and built by Rafiq al-Hariri is itself a powerful symbol of protest and aspiration.

"Since this country has been created, there's always been this question whether it's viable or not," said Assem Salam, a renowned 82-year-old architect. "I'm disheartened, disillusioned, negative and bitter. And I see dark days for Lebanon."

Sitting outside his tent, a Lebanese flag overhead, the 19-year-old Uzair sat with friends, horsing around as clouds rolled off the Mediterranean. He clutched a catalogue, earmarking a cheap pool table he hopes to buy if he can save $90. He sipped tea that Hezbollah workers distribute for free. It was his 20th day at the protest; he arrived each afternoon after school ended.

"We're standing with Lebanon," he said simply. "We want to help our country."

He remembered the March 14 protest. He had watched it on al-Manar, Hezbollah's television station.

"They may have thought they loved Lebanon, but they didn't love us," he said. "We weren't there."

Mina was. And on this day, the 25-year-old walked past an empty Martyrs' Square, past soldiers and armored carriers, past the road to Uzair's tent and past Hezbollah posters that conflate the imagery of this summer's war with the campaign today. He pointed to where he had stood March 14, a little ways from the statue in the square, still riddled by bullets from the civil war.

His most resonant memory from that day: that he kept smiling.

"Is there anything to smile about now?" Mina asked. He dragged on his cigarette. "Really?"