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    Why Arabs Have Airbrushed Lebanon Out

     

    The forgotten pioneers?

     

    One thing has been intriguing me since the beginning of the popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Why is it that virtually everyone, in describing the novelty of the moment, invariably fails to mention Lebanon’s Independence Intifada of 2005?

    A passage from an article by my colleague Rami Khouri provides a useful summary of the prevailing view of recent developments in the Arab world: “Never before have we had entire Arab populations stand up and insist on naming their rulers, shaping their governance system, and defining the values that drive their domestic and foreign policies,” he writes. “Never before have we had free Arab citizenries in pursuit of self-determination. Never before have we seen grassroots political, social and religious movements compel leaders to change their cabinets and re-order the role of the armed forces and police.”

    What is taking place invites such lyricism. But isn’t Khouri forgetting Lebanon just six years ago, in the dark hours after Rafik Hariri’s assassination? Then, too, a majority of Lebanese stood up and insisted on naming their rulers, shaping their governance system, and defining their foreign policy – until then veneers for Syrian dictates. A cabinet was brought down under popular pressure, and soon thereafter four security chiefs were made to resign. The Lebanese held a parliamentary election that was surprisingly democratic, and the breakdown of seats, on all sides, reflected accurately the alignment of forces existing during the days of the Independence Intifada.

    Much has also been made of the fact that Tunisia’s upsurge against Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was led by an educated middle class. But so too were the Lebanese rallies against Syria, even if at the time this provoked more disdain than approval, as those in search of Oriental authenticity mocked what they called a “Gucci revolution.”

    Why is it that no one in the Arab world, or for that matter in the West, has been inclined to bring up that electric Lebanese episode as they watch events unfolding in the streets of Tunis and Cairo? It’s not sufficient to point to the checkered aftermath of the Independence Intifada to justify that omission. For one thing, the intifada was a striking success, as liberal indignation with the killing of a former prime minister ultimately obliged Syria to withdraw its army from Lebanon. Such occasions of high emotion come to define themselves, with participants and observers rarely judging their consequences until it’s too late. Protesters want immediate gratification: the overthrow of a hated order. That is their benchmark of achievement.

    The Independence Intifada did not excite the Arabs for three reasons. The first is that many did not view the Lebanese system as overly oppressive, so that the plotline of an underdog fighting against great odds was never taken very seriously, though it was surely applicable in 2004-05. After all, to triumph the protesters had to overcome those who had killed Hariri or who had facilitated his elimination; they also had to prevail over the Lebanese Army and security services, who were taking orders from ministers hostile to the protesters; and they had to face down Hezbollah, which sought to intimidate opposition demonstrators on March 8, 2005, with a mass gathering of its own.

    A second reason is that the Lebanese uprising was largely non-violent. This was principally because the army and security forces, while they tried repeatedly to frustrate protesters and deny them access to Martyrs Square, never fired on the crowds. Such common sense lessened the drama of the confrontation, unlike the repressive measures of the Tunisian and Egyptian security services that lead to the death of hundreds of civilians, and injury to countless more.

    But perhaps the most significant reason why Lebanon 2005 left many Arabs cold, and still does, was that it didn’t quite sit well with their deeper political predispositions. Where developments in Tunisia and Egypt are welcomed as blows against the United States, therefore satisfying regional hostility to the American order in the Middle East, the Lebanese embraced American and international assistance after the Hariri killing. Their intifada took place in the shadow of a United Nations resolution that called on Syria to leave Lebanon, and that implicitly demanded the disarmament of Hezbollah.

    Far from perceiving developments in Lebanon as a bracing example of emancipation, many in the Arab world saw it as a victory of the United States and France over Syria and Hezbollah. Therefore, in the bizarre logic prevailing then (and now), it was interpreted as a setback for emancipation – defined as anything that might strengthen Western power in the Middle East. That is why there was none of Al-Jazeera’s selective outrage on hand to warm Arab spirits to the Independence Intifada. The station had always approved of Syria’s and Hezbollah’s agendas in Lebanon, and it still does. The behavior of the Al-Jazeera bureau chief in Beirut has amply demonstrated this fact.

    That said, to lament public marginalization of the Independence Intifada is meaningless on its own. That a majority of Arabs will reject any narrative that places the United States in a good light tells us much about Washington’s errors in the region. When was it not obvious, particularly during the post-Cold War period, that America would one day have to choose between its image as global defender of democracy and its sustained support for the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East? Washington sees risks in allowing Arab states to go their own way, but these are hardly more threatening than propping up its regional alliance system with reviled despotisms.

    The Lebanese may complain that American approval brought them little after 2005. Syria and Hezbollah are back in the driver’s seat in the country. But nothing worries Damascus, Hezbollah, or Iran more than genuine political pluralism, alternations in leadership, and democratic self-determination. That’s where America’s cards are strongest, not its support for soulless, corroded republican monarchies that have humiliated and beaten their societies into submission, whose demise no one can possibly regret.

    Michael YOUNG
    The Daily Star
    03.02.2011

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