Features

The Middle East divide

Lebanon | In the case of Lebanon and Syria, parting ways is good news

Issue: "Big mouth on campus," March 12, 2005

The ride from Beirut to Damascus is 90 minutes, even counting the cultural divide that must be crossed. Casinos along with cypress and flower boxes line boardwalks facing the deep blue sea. Then the road to Damascus gives way reluctantly to Syria's dusty expanse, beaten sedans-most of them 1950s models-and shabby apartment buildings weighed down by the week's wash.

Lebanese love basketball, gambling, tight jeans on women, and Italian shoes. Syrians love backgammon, crowded teashops, and prefer women in hijab, or heads covered.

"Lebanon is one of the most Western countries in the Arab world. Syria is one of the most Arabized. So we complete each other," a bus driver once remarked back in the days when Syria's de facto occupation of Lebanon was only a whispered conversation. Now the secret is out and the pair is perfect no more.

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Two weeks after a powerful bomb killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a wave of public demonstration provoked his successor, Omar Karami, and his cabinet to resign. Over 25,000 protesters massed outside Parliament for days shouting "Syria out!" after the assassination tipped public emotions firmly away from a pro-Syrian government that has long tolerated over 15,000 Syrian troops inside Lebanon.

The protesters brandished Lebanon's red, white, and green flag and handed red roses to Lebanese soldiers. News of the Feb. 28 resignation met with jubilation. But the demonstrators aren't finished yet. They want President Emile Lahoud-whose maneuvers to extend his own term of office by three years and retain Syrian troops led to Mr. Hariri's resignation four months ago-to go, too.

Beirut's street-level unrest is a dramatic turnaround for tiny Lebanon, which has prized peace above all else in the years following its 1975-90 civil war. The price for concord: Israeli troops stationed inside south Lebanon from 1978 to 2000; but more significantly, thousands of Syrian troops who have remained in Lebanon, puppetmasters guided from Damascus over the country's own pro-Syrian government.

The volatile street movement leaves many Lebanese with mixed feelings. Reminded of civil war days after the Feb. 14 explosion that killed Mr. Hariri and a dozen others, most remember how quickly unrest can lead to incursions from Syria and Israel. "We feel unsure of the future," said Said Mallouh, pastor of the Church of God in Beirut, one of the city's few evangelical congregations. "But as believers we are hopeful and trying to guide people in prayer to hope for a better future."

Should the opposition movement solidify its gains, the transformation would extend beyond key leaders. Lebanon's Syria-inspired security apparatus and laws restricting political, social, and religious freedoms-rules that keep most citizens, like Mr. Mallouh, cautious in phone and street conversations-could be modified or renounced altogether.

Beyond protests, opposition political leaders have joined the movement, too. A coalition of Muslim, Christian, and Druze leaders met on March 3 at the ancestral home of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt outside Beirut. The groups called for the resignation of the country's public prosecutor and six top security officials, all linked to Syria. They demanded Syria's withdrawal of troops and intelligence officers, but fell short of calling for the resignation of Mr. Lahoud, even though in a statement the group denounced his extension in office as "unconstitutional and illegitimate."

Mr. Jumblatt has called on the president to resign, but he said not everyone in the political coalition is prepared to take that step. "Our demands are moderate, the popular demands downtown are much higher," he said.

Embracing those demands is a dramatic change for Mr. Jumblatt, who up until last year sided with his pro-Syrian colleagues in parliament. "He changed 180 degrees, and sometimes you don't trust when this kind of change happens suddenly. But it seems a genuine change," noted Mr. Mallouh. "Christians and Muslims and all different parties who were fighting before 1990 are now going in the same direction."

The unrest has also brought together France and the United States. A joint statement by the two countries, divided on Middle East policy since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, called for "full and immediate withdrawal of all Syrian military and intelligence forces from Lebanon." President George Bush backed the diplomatic pressure with a blunt warning that the world is now "speaking with one voice when it comes to making sure that democracy has a chance to flourish in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East."

Syria has said it will remove troops in the next 3-4 months but continues to dispute the number of troops it actually has in Lebanon. President Bashir Assad further signaled that withdrawal may be a contentious process when he appointed his brother-in-law as Syria's new intelligence chief last week-a move seen as consolidating his own control over operations in Lebanon.

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