Taming the lion next door

By forcing Syria’s pullout, the Lebanese made history. But the future of both nations is now more uncertain.

MICHAEL PETROU December 19 2005

Taming the lion next door

By forcing Syria’s pullout, the Lebanese made history. But the future of both nations is now more uncertain.

MICHAEL PETROU December 19 2005

Taming the lion next door

By forcing Syria’s pullout, the Lebanese made history. But the future of both nations is now more uncertain.


It is 1 o’clock in the morning in Beirut’s Place d’Etoile, the city centre that was all but obliterated by bombs during Lebanon’s 15 years of civil war. Now, barely a decade later, it is a pedestrian mall lined with sidewalk cafés and restaurants. Even at this late hour, the tables are filled with customers scraping the last bit of ice cream off their plates or leaning back contentedly to puff apple tobacco from elaborate hookah water pipes. Beirut is often described as the Paris of the Middle East. This isn’t entirely accurate—in Lebanon the people are friendlier, the women are more beautiful, and no one will light your car on fire. But the city does exhibit a very Parisian joie de vivre, and tonight is no exception.

Several of the diners pushing back from their tables, however, do not immediately call a taxi to go home. Instead, they walk a short distance toward Martyrs’ Square. Last March, hundreds of thousands demonstrated there to protest Syria’s suspected involvement in tp the truck-bomb murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, and to demand that Syria withdraw troops that had been occupying Lebanon for 30 years. Counterdemonstrations, organized by Hezbollah, were staged, but the anti-Syrian momentum was unstoppable. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was forced to pull out his army, and Lebanese democrats claimed victory.

Rafik Hariri is now buried just beside Mar-

tyrs’ Square, in a tomb filled with flowers and photographs of the murdered politician. His grave has become a place of pilgrimage for his supporters, who stop in front of the tomb and pray. Some cross themselves from right to left in the Orthodox Christian manner; others, Muslims, close their eyes and hold their hands palms upward in front of their hips. “We wanted a free Lebanon, free and independent,” a young man named Tarik Aoun says. When he came to Martyrs’ Square to demonstrate nine months ago, “it was about telling the Syrian government to stop interfering in our affairs, to tell them that we can run our own country.”

These sentiments are reflected in graffiti scrawled on the walls surrounding the square. The messages proclaim that “Lebanon shall be free,” and call the Syrian president a “bastard” and an “assassin.” There was a time when making such statements in public could land a Lebanese youth in jail. Tonight, as I take careful notes in front of the graffiti-covered walls, a nearby soldier barely looks my way. But already some of the messages are tinged with nostalgia. “We made history,” one says. This is undoubtedly true. It is the future of Lebanon that is less certain.

For a few heady weeks last spring, it seemed as if the events in Beirut would sweep the Arab world. Some Lebanese proclaimed an “Independence Intifada” and the dawn of a “Beirut Spring.” “You could feel the ground shaking,” says Michel, a student who helped organize the anti-Syrian demonstrations. “Their power was coming to an end.” Today, nine months later, Michel is more cynical. He had believed that the momentum generated in Martyrs’ Square would change Lebanese politics and make a truly secular democracy

If Syria is conclusively linked to Hariri’s murder in a UN report next week, sanctions will surely follow

a reality. But politicians here have retreated into religion-based political alliances, and proposed democratic reforms are stalled.

“There was a really spontaneous element to the demonstrations. Political parties would not have been able to get more than a million people onto the streets,” Michel says. “But those of us who were not affiliated with political parties wanted something different. We wanted a modern state, economically strong, non-corrupt, eradicating clientalism. But those of us who weren’t in political parties were just used.”

Many Lebanese are also frustrated that Hariri’s murder remains officially unsolved. Large digital signs all over Beirut count the days since his assassination; people are waiting for justice, and almost everyone believes this won’t come unless the Syrian government is held to account. “We don’t think the Syrians were involved. We know they were,” says Ahmed, a student at American University of Beirut. Then he waves his hand above his head and raises his voice almost to a shout. “They were involved up to here.”

According to a United Nations inquiry into the murder, Ahmed may be right. An interim report implicated “top-ranked” Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies. Now, Lebanese are awaiting the UN’s final report, expected on Dec. 15. The results will no doubt increase tensions in Lebanon between those who opposed and those who supported the Syrian occupation of their country. But most Lebanese say a return to civil conflict is doubtful. “There is no chance,” says one young Shia woman named Rayan at the University of Beirut. Her companions sitting next to her at a picnic table, also Shia Muslims, are divided between supporters and opponents of Syria. One man named Mohammed took part in the pro-Syria demonstrations of March 8; the other, also named Mohammed, protested against Syria on March 14. “You can see that we are all friends—with different opinions,” Rayan says.

The UN’s final report, however, could be devastating for Syria. The country is already isolated. If Syria is conclusively linked to Hariri’s murder, sanctions will almost surely follow. And military action by the United States, although unlikely, is nevertheless possible.

The distance between Beirut and Damascus is only a few hours by car. In the old part of the Syrian capital, four men in their early 20s drink tea and share a hookah in a restaurant. Two of them are about to begin their mandatory military service; the others have no siblings, and are therefore excused so they can help their parents. “It’s not a question of thinking Syria is innocent in Hariri’s murder,” Yusef, one of the four, tells me, echoing almost word for word what Ahmed in Beirut had said two days earlier. “We know Syria is innocent.”

Later that night, after piling into a beat-up van, the four, along with one small dog and a Maclean’s correspondent, drive around the

city. They pass an apparently unofficial street demonstration, where 10 young men and women waving Syrian flags crowd around the vehicle, draping flags across the windshield and cheering before allowing traffic to continue. No one inside the van takes much notice. “They’re doing that to show George Bush that he can’t threaten us,” Yusef says. As many Syrians do, he believes the allegation that the

‘Hariri’s assassination is the loophole through which the Americans are going to get Assad’s neck’

Syrian government was involved in Hariri’s murder has been cooked up by Washington as an excuse to invade his country. “It’s just like the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” he says.

Dissident voices are difficult to come by among Syrians. But the warmth of the citizens sometimes makes it easy to forget that the country is a police state, and people can dis-

appear for criticizing their government. One dinner companion’s face turned ashen when the taboo subject of Israel came up. “We can’t talk about that,” he said quietly, “especially in a bar with other people around.” But there are exceptions. During several long conversations with Karam, a young man with a goatee and the patient, pensive air of an academic, he insists that his last name appear in print as well (it doesn’t, for fear of risking his imprisonment). “Syrians think their country is being targeted by the Americans and the West,” Karam says. “And Hariri’s assassination is the loophole through which the Americans are going to get Assad’s neck. So they are defiant and defensive, not because they love Assad, but because they don’t want to be another Iraq in total disorder.”

This is the majority opinion in Syria, Karam insists. But, he notes, some Syrians did welcome their army’s withdrawal from Lebanon, even if it weakened their country and the stability of its government. “There is a segment of the population that recognizes it is wrong to impose a foreign occupation on Lebanon,” Karam says, “to control their economy and their politics, and to impose the same regime on Lebanon under which they have been suffering for 30 years.”

After four days in Syria, I hire a car and drive back into Lebanon, over the mountains and across the Bekaa Valley, still a stronghold of Hezbollah, and then down toward the fog-covered coast and Beirut. There, over drinks and fast food in a bustling café, Michel, the student who had earlier expressed frustration about the slow pace of political change in Lebanon, talks further about the state of his country. He seems a little more reflective, but also a little more optimistic. In the middle of describing the Syrian government as a gang of criminals with their backs up against the wall, he stops and considers what he’s saying.

“You know, a year ago, before the murder of Hariri and all the demonstrations in Martyrs’ Square, we wouldn’t be having this conversation in public,” he says. “The Syrians had intelligence agents everywhere. They would sit and stare at you and listen to what you were saying. Many of my friends spent a day or two in jail for just speaking out against Syria. Things are getting better. It’s not happening all at once. It’s bit by bit. But that’s enough.” M


Although they were beating them up at the time, a group of Italian men calling some Colombian women “dirty negroes” were not being racist, an Italian court ruled last week. The verdict comes in a season of heightened concerns about racism in Italy: on Nov. 27, an Ivorian soccer player was taunted from the stands with racist epithets. Yet last week’s ruling stated the men’s words were “not motivated by real hatred.”