Democracy in Lebanon against all odds

Article published on March 29, 2005
community published
Article published on March 29, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Since the assassination of the former Sunni Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, the opposition to Syria has become louder and is demanding the immediate withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanese territory

When accusing Syria of being behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon was very quick to mention UN resolution 1559 to justify its request for the withdrawal of troops. Encouraged by the United States and France, among others, the opposition (consisting mainly of Sunni Muslims, Christians and the Druze) are accusing the loyalists of actively collaborating with Syria and are calling for the Syrian secret services in Lebanon to be disbanded. Their protests have succeeded in bringing the Lebanese problem to the foreground and have achieved several changes: firstly, the resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami (although he is now back in power); secondly, the Syrian president Bachar El Assad’s speech promising Syria’s retreat from Lebanon; and finally, the signing of a promise by the Syrian and Lebanese presidents to partially withdraw the Syrian army and its secret services towards the Bekaa plain. However, they have remained vague about the dates of their total withdrawal from the country.

The loyalists’ response, supported by Lebanon's Shiite Muslim movement, Hezbollah, has wasted no time in making itself heard and, above all, seen. The Shiites called for a huge protest aimed at “being thankful” for the Syrian presence in Lebanon. This protest was meant to be intimidating but instead it provoked in its opponents the need to continue with their demand for independence. They have therefore responded in numbers: more than a million people from all regions of Lebanon have proved that the people, as a whole, do not want - nor are they thankful for - any foreign presence in the country. However, the recent reinstatement of Omar Karami to the post of Prime Minister by the pro-Syrian government has proved that the leadership does not listen to the wishes of the people. Once again, it has listened only to Syria.

The voice of the people

“In a country such as Lebanon, which is distinguished by its denominational pluralism, democracy is only accepted by the votes of denominational diversity”, asserts Valérie, a thirty-year-old Christian, who is a fervent supporter of the opposition. “The opponents didn’t protest en masse because the State did its utmost to thwart or intimidate them. They just walked down the streets timidly, for fear of being ‘invited’ to the Lebanese-Syrian secret services offices”. But not everyone is in favour of adapting American-style democracy to a country like Lebanon, even though it has always been renowned for its openness to the West and for its modernity. “The Americans and the Israelis want to interfere in everything. They are preventing us from living according to our own principles and convictions!” exclaims Ali, a twenty-eight-year-old Shiite. Meanwhile Karim, a man of around fifty who has always considered himself to be apolitical, asserts: “Plurality of faiths isn’t the problem in Lebanon; on the contrary, it is the country’s strength: the people are ready to be united. The real problem is that the current Lebanese and Syrian governments want to create a source of dissension from this plurality. They are creating a gulf between the various religions so that they can justify the country’s incapacity to enter into the era of total independence. ‘Divide and rule’ is the Syrian government’s catchphrase.” He continues, “the real crisis dates back more than fifteen years, when, under the cover of ‘fraternity’, the people were put on a drip by the Lebanese-Syrian secret services, whereby they were given repeated doses of anaesthetics which, in time, have transformed into a long series of intimidation manoeuvres, corruption and suspicion.”

There are two main reasons why pro-Syrian Lebanese leaders have not given way to democratic temptation: Hezbollah fear being disarmed when resolution 1559 comes into force and, therefore, losing its legitimacy in the fight against the ‘Israeli threat’. Others, like President Emile Lahoud and his government, fear being subjected to Syria’s anger and losing all financial privileges if they modify their pro-Syrian policy. But Cardinal Sfeir, the spiritual leader of Lebanese Christians, doesn’t hesitate to reaffirm that a Syrian retreat is imperative. On his visit to Washington for a meeting with Bush, he took the opportunity to ask not only for financial aid from the United States but also for the establishment of a real democracy - in the Lebanese sense of the word.

Fast food democracy?

Perhaps the problem with American foreign policy is its desire to democratise the world without worrying about the adaptability of its style of democracy. The case of Lebanon remains more complex than we’d like to believe. The country is not divided into “good” and “bad”. We realise that Lebanese citizens are in a position to justify their political persuasion and the choice of their ideals. Of course, independence from Syria remains an inescapable aim. But if democracy is to be established in Lebanon, it must be ‘tailor-made’ in order to respond to the various religious, cultural and social backgrounds of the populace. The Lebanese people have just won their battle with fear. Let’s hope that it won’t be much longer before they have a taste of real freedom.