Despite learning that the turn out to the rally was much lower than its organizers had hoped for, the huge gathering in downtown Beirut to protest Hezbollah’s arms was a thrilling and truly Lebanese experience. We woke up early and made our way with many other small groups of people from Hamra towards the city center and ultimately the small streams of people became a large mass waving their Lebanese flags and chanting cries of support for Hariri and against Hezbollah’s arsenal until we all converged on Martyrs’ Square.
So, why the demonstration? The March 14 coalition, which organized this demonstration in Beirut, was holding its annual rally to mark the anniversary of the Cedar Revolution in 2005. Yet this year, the gathering took on new significance as March 14 tried to infuse it with new political meaning in the wake of the bloodless coup this past January. Two months ago, Hezbollah and the rest of the March 8 coalition caused the national unity government in Lebanon to collapse by instructing its ministers’ to resign from the government. This was largely in response to stalling negotiations between the two coalitions over the Lebanese state’s role with respect to the indictments that the UN-backed tribunal (United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon or for brevity’s sake: STL) was about to issue regarding the assassination of former PM Rafiq Harriri and several other individuals in February 2005. These assassinations, in turn, prompted the demonstrations in March of that year from which the two major Lebanese coalitions derive their names and which culminated with the expulsion of Syrian forces from Lebanon.
After being ousted from power, March 14 decided not to participate in the new government currently being formed by Najib Miqati and to go into opposition. This, in of itself, is a very new turn of events because Lebanon has been governed for much of the past decade by fragile “unity governments” that are characterized by all sorts of bickering and infighting which is anything but unified. Instead, they’ve decided to force March 8 to take full responsibility for governing and re-group from the opposition benches. The coalition decided to center its new political platform around two key issues: supporting the UN STL and opposition to Hezbollah’s arsenal. The latter pillar of the platform, opposition to non-state weapons, was the rallying cry of Sunday’s demonstration. The leaders of the coalition, Samir Gaegea of the Lebanese Forces, Amin Gemayel (think the Phalangists and Bashir from the civil war), and Saad Hariri (outgoing PM and son of the slain former PM Rafik Hariri) all spoke to the crowd about the necessity of disarming Hezbollah and other non-state militias. In listening to the speeches, all of the leaders seemed to focus obsessively on the point that the raison d’etre of the “resistance” as Hezbollah likes to be known–defending Lebanon against Israel–is totally justified. They further contended, however, that Hezbollah was no longer using its weapons for that purpose, but rather it was pointing its weapons at the Lebanese for political gain. It was almost as if the leaders of March 14 were worried about losing credibility with the people or being seen as though they were capitulating to US and Israeli interests by demanding that Hezbollah disarm.
Indeed, that is the picture that Hezbollah itself was trying to paint in the days leading up to the rally. To advertise its protest, March 14 constructed huge billboard around Lebanon that read: لا لوصاية السلاح or لا للغدر لا للفتنة لا للاغتيال which mean “No to the hegemony of weapons, No to disloyalty, No to Assassination, No to civil war.” In response, Hezbollah constructed posters in the same color and font that stated: “و إسرائيل ايضا تريد اسقاط السلاح” which translates roughly to “and Israel also wants us to disarm,” thereby linking support for March 14 with the “Zionist enemy.”
In any case, I sadly don’t believe that the rally will accomplish anything significant in the near-term. Those who attended represent the die-hard supporters of the March 14 coalition. Although the speeches by leading politicians were exciting to watch as a foreign observer, the people did not seem moved to action. On the contrary, the rally seemed more like a social event than an expression of political activism. Entire families came to Martyrs’ Square and many sat down and had lunch, smoked their nargilehs, and chatted with friends. In classic Lebanese fashion, they all left after Hariri’s speech. This is hardly the type of persistent resolve that protesters throughout the region in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen have demonstrated. In light of recent events that are truly re-defining the political map of the Middle East, I was shocked and disappointed to find such a sense of complacency or even dispassion among those who were in the crowd. Of course, Lebanon does not face many of the same issues as other countries in the region. Whereas states such as Tunisia and Egypt threw off the yoke of authoritarianism, Lebanon is largely governed by the rule of law and a weak consociational democracy. Lebanon’s burning issue was, is, and will remain the confessional system that divides society in religious sects. Until that issue is addressed head-on by a significant majority of the Lebanese people, look elsewhere in the Middle East for radical change this year.