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"What are we supposed to do?"

Sonya Knox
Date Published: 
March 01, 2005

On Feb. 27 the unpopular, pro-Syrian Lebanese government announced a ban on all demonstrations, and the illegality of an already 2 week's long sit-in in Martyrs' Square. The Lebanese Army was deployed, blocking all entrances to the square. The Opposition, a political grouping of convenience spanning most of Lebanon's sects and held together by their goal of ousting Syrian control, called on people to defy the ban. Over the course of the night the sit-in grew from 200 people to over 7,000. That morning, as word went out that the Lebanese Army was not actually stopping people from entering the square, 30,000 - 50,000 more entered. On Feb. 28 - exactly two weeks after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri - the government resigned. Martyrs' Square was flooded; people spent the night dancing in excitement. A few days later Syrian President Bashar Assad announced a further "redeployment" of troops, later clarified to mean a withdrawal. The head of Hizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah, called the next day for dialogue with the Opposition - the Shiites are the only group not represented in the Opposition. At an Opposition demonstration numbering over 100,000 held the next day people were cautiously optimistic. "The country's finally coming together," said Dima, a PhD student. "No one is carrying party flags, the Muslims are demonstrating with the Christians. As soon as Hizbullah gives us their support, we'll be ready for real, democratic elections." But a withdrawal of Syrian troops is vastly less important than a withdrawal of Syrian secret police - which has not been promised. Moreover, neither guarantees Lebanon's political sovereignty. But even more importantly, although some groups in the Opposition might qualify as social-democrats, the Opposition has not proposed a social agenda - the real concerns of daily life for most Lebanese are nowhere on the agenda. "What are we supposed to do?" asks Rabieh, a long time social activist and member of the Democratic Left, "sit at home when half the country is demonstrating and say 'no, we don't like the right-wing Christians so we won't demonstrate?' We can't get our voices heard - we can't even say what we think - when Syria is running the country, so we're concentrating on getting them, and their Lebanese political allies, out. Then, in the elections, we'll raise issues about poverty and education." The Opposition is focused on ending Syria's political and economic dominance of the Lebanon - a worthy goal. Syria entered Lebanon during the civil war (1975-1990), and in many ways never left. Its secret police had free run of Lebanon from the 80s through the mid-90s, and hundreds of Lebanese are (if still alive) still held in Syrian prisons. When the war ended, Syria was the main power broker. In 89-90, as the US was gearing up for its first invasion of Iraq, the Taif Accord (the peace agreement for Lebanon) was being drawn up. A deal was struck that the US wouldn't demand Syria's immediate withdrawal from Lebanon, and Syria would support the US in its war on Iraq. Syria is economically dependant on its role in Lebanon. A million Syrian laborers are estimated to work in Lebanon, sending their salaries back home. But more importantly, Syria controls the borders and the ports, and so takes a significant cut of the tariffs levied on all imports and exports. Lebanon also imports gas and oil from the Gulf/Iraq via Syria - at a significant cost. And Syrian-owned companies benefit considerably - much like American companies in Iraq - from the reconstruction of Lebanon. Although its troop presence has continually decreased in the past 15 years, Syria still holds the reins of Lebanese politics. Last fall Syria's political weight was felt again, as the un-popular pro-Syrian president has his expiring mandate extended for three more years - following pointed meetings in Damascus between Lebanese and Syrian politicians. It was the engineered extension of the president's mandate that drove Rafik Hariri - then prime minister - to resign and join the Opposition. His assassinated on Feb. 14 galvanized the Opposition into action, leading up to the resignation of the government. Hariri, though was hardly the shaheed (martyr) the media has taken to call him. Serial prime minister from the war's end, and known most for bringing Lebanon into $30 trillion debt, the Saudi passport carrying billionaire was not concerned with social justice. When people refused to vacate buildings he wanted demolished, he had the buildings collapsed on them, killing 12. But even if the protests were inspired by the death of Hariri, and are claimed by the Opposition, they are still vitally important. Much of the excitement and exuberance of the demonstrations stems from people learning how to reclaim public space, people publicly protesting for the first time ever. And the significance of a multi-sect demonstration, without party flags, is huge. Students from different Lebanese sects are learning how to talk to each other, past the slogans and ideology. Critics claim that the government's resignation was more the result of international maneuvering than a response to the demonstrations Martyrs' Square. But the feeling at the square, the feeling at the demonstrations, is that - for the first time since the war ended - the Lebanese government listened to its people.