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Lebanon on Tenterhooks
With June elections looming, hope coexists with fear.
8 April 2009

“They are the martyrs. You are the witnesses.” Thus proclaims one of Beirut’s ubiquitous political billboards overlooking the vast plaza now known as “Martyr’s Square.” Lebanon is filled with political signage that would give civics teachers mixed feelings, since much of it praises notorious terrorists. This poster, though, is sponsored by the country’s anti-Syrian “March 14th” coalition, and features the faces of ten men who became martyrs in the truly valiant sense of that word: they didn’t die as perpetrators of suicide bombings, but as targeted victims in the quest to free their country from foreign vassalage. All ten—their profiles etched in black against a blood-red background—were murdered in the last four years, most likely by the Syrian government or its accessories in Lebanon.

In mid-February, in this square overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese gathered in force to commemorate the murder of one of those men: former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who died in a massive car bombing four years ago. Days after his assassination, about 1 million people—a quarter of Lebanon’s population—camped out in the plaza to protest the three-decade-long Syrian military occupation of the country. The force from this “Cedar Revolution” (along with external pressure from the United States, France, and the United Nations) convinced Damascus that its control over Lebanon had become untenable, and on March 14, 2005, Syria withdrew its 15,000 soldiers and uprooted its intelligence apparatus. To honor that achievement, the coalition of Sunnis, Druze, Christians, and liberal Shi’a who had taken to the streets named their impromptu political alliance after this momentous date. (The New Opinion Group, a Lebanese nonprofit sympathetic to the March 14th movement, sponsored my recent visit to the country with several other journalists.)

Despite the somber occasion, a general attitude of joyousness characterized the event. Popular Arab music played in between rousing speeches celebrating the withdrawal of Syrian troops and the sacrifice of the heroic politicians. Vendors sold beverages and haloumi cheese sandwiches. Hariri’s grave is located under a tent abutting the square, and the various dignitaries arriving at the shrine were all shown on jumbotrons as triumphant music announced their arrival. The presentation had the high-voltage atmosphere of professional wrestlers making their way into the ring.

Though several speakers condemned Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, these obligatory fulminations seemed more about throat-clearing than genuine rage. It was clear whom March 14th views as its primary enemies: Syria and Iran, both of which equip Hezbollah in the country’s south. “They aim to replace Beirut with Tehran and Tripoli with Damascus!” cried Christian leader Amin Gemayel. “The Assad regime is responsible for these crimes,” said another. With each verbal salvo against Syria, these men etch larger targets on their backs.

Given the brutal and endlessly complicated sectarian politics that characterize Lebanon, one of the day’s most heartening aspects was its ecumenical spirit. “Ave Maria” burst over the loudspeakers and quieted the crowd in memorializing Hariri (a Sunni Muslim). Church bells joined with the sounds of a muezzin to mark the exact moment of the bombing. “We swear to God that we Muslims and Christians will stay united forever to defend the government,” proclaims Nayla Tueni, the 26-year-old daughter of slain newspaper publisher and parliamentarian Gebran Tueni, another passionate anti-Syrian spokesman, murdered in a 2005 car bombing.

Among the Cedar Revolution’s most memorable images were photographs showing highly attractive young women in Western clothing waving the Lebanese flag. The public display of feminine beauty remains impermissible in most of the Middle East, but Lebanon—with its unique role as the meeting point of the Muslim and Western worlds—has long been the exception. And today, women dressed in tight jeans and flattering blouses, and with smiles visible thanks to the lack of the niqab, are in abundance. Surely this freedom, along with democracy, secularism, and a Lebanon independent of foreign control, is something worth preserving.

Two days after the gathering in Martyr’s Square, I attended a Hezbollah commemoration marking the first anniversary of the death of security head Imad Mugniyeh, who was assassinated in a Damascus car bombing. Like the Hariri gathering, this event also celebrated a man revered by his followers as a “martyr,” though of a vastly different sort. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s spiritual leader, delivered the keynote address via video-link from a secret location.

Despite its designation by the State Department as a terrorist organization, Hezbollah has all the trappings of a Western political party, right down to a smooth and effective media operation. Before gaining entrance to the rally, I had first to meet with an abaya-clad woman at Hezbollah’s press office, located in the Dahiyeh, a Shi’ite slum in Beirut’s southern suburbs. After a quick introduction, I gained her approval and headed a few blocks down the busy street to the event site, a large arena appropriately named “Martyr’s Hall.” I received a press identification badge and proceeded in. Ironically for an event hosted by a terrorist group, I had to walk through a metal detector before entering the building.

In ways large and small, the Hezbollah rally could not have been more different from the March 14th one. Here, men and women sat separately (and entered and exited through separate doors), and the majority of women wore black abayas. A group of uniformed men (Iranian military officers, I was told) sat in the front row. The atmospherics were fitting in ways beyond the control of the events’ sponsors. The March 14th rally took place on a bright, warm morning; Hezbollah’s shout-fest took place on a dreary, rainy, cold night.

But the greatest difference was in tone. The message of March 14th is ultimately one of sovereignty, secularism, and forging a way past the Lebanese confessional political system that has doomed the nation to internecine warfare. Hezbollah, by contrast, is obsessed with external enemies and the cult of death. Here, in addition to the faces of its “martyrs,” the jumbotron relayed endless footage of armed men in camouflage running through forests, missiles launching, explosions, and the Israeli flag drowning under water. A giant banner on the back wall bore the words, “Oh Zionists, Oh Zionists, if you want this type of war, SO BE IT,” surrounding Arabic calligraphy bearing the same message in the form of a mushroom cloud. Participants at the March 14th celebration flew the banners of the many constituent camps that make up the diverse coalition—ranging from the cedar-encircled symbol of the Christian Lebanese Forces to the pen and hammer of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party—but the Lebanese flag was ubiquitous. At the Hezbollah rally, only the emblem of Hezbollah was displayed.

Some small signs of festiveness contrasted with the generally aggressive scene. Young men climbed over one another to grab the hallmark-yellow Hezbollah shawls that bore imprints of Mugniyeh’s face in green. A chorus of male singers, accompanied by a small ensemble of string and horn musicians, intermittently strode on stage to sing husky war chants. At the foot of the massive podium sat a large floral bouquet, the brightest thing in this room of drab blacks, browns, and grays. At best, the whole production—with crane-operated cameras of the type that you would see at NFL games, a gigantic platform stage, and ushers dressed immaculately in matching suits of an ugly brownish hue—had the ambience of a macabre Shriners convention. At worst, it felt like a Nuremberg rally. The Hezbollah militants in the video even offered something resembling a sieg heil sign.

In June, Lebanese will head to the polls for the first time since the March 14th coalition won its parliamentary majority in 2005. “I affirm that the elections are fateful,” Saad Hariri, Rafik’s son and political heir, proclaimed recently. If the pro-Syrian alliance of Hezbollah and several opportunistic Christian factions wins—thus preparing the way for increased Syrian and Iranian meddling—a newly emboldened Hezbollah could launch a wave of rocket attacks on Israel in a repeat of its 2006 war. With a Hezbollah-led-government in Beirut, Israel would then have pretext to wage battle against the Lebanese state, not limiting itself to Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon, as it did three years ago. “If we lose the elections they will control all the security and administrative apparatus of the state,” warns Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, emphasizing just how high are the stakes.

For now, Lebanon remains on tenterhooks. “Both the majority and the opposition believe they can win,” says Nassib Lahoud, a former ambassador to the United States and a leading anti-Syrian politician, explaining why major violence has yet to break out. “That’s the best insurance policy.” Given the history of this country, few Lebanese are ready to contemplate whether such equilibrium will last past June.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor of the New Republic.

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