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An Arab wall has fallen

But Demonstrations "thanking" Syrian occupation troops pose the question: What role will the Hizbollah play in tomorrow's Lebanon? By Abbas Beydoun

On March 8, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese Shiites gathered in Beirut to thank Syria before it pulled out its tanks. This seemed, at first glance, somewhat absurd. Had not Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon been the rallying cry of previous "Cedar Revolution" demonstrations? For weeks, the demonstrators had been demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops and an explanation for the murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Al Hariri. And then a mass demonstration for the occupying regime?

It's hard to imagine that the Syrian presence was so popular among some of the people. The head of the Hizbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, had called for the demonstrations. The Shiites obeyed him. This surprised the Lebanese and forced them to confront certain facts that were becoming ever more apparent, the more forcefully they were being suppressed.

Nobody had tried to keep the Shiites away from the protests on the Martyr's Square. They themselves failed to join the opposition that had formed following the assassination of Hariri.

Thus, part of the opposition figured it would be possible to force the Shiites to the periphery in the new equation. At first it seemed that the new start would be possible without the Shiites. Nobody voiced the opinion, but it's precisely what was not being said aloud in the political debates in Lebanon that has become especially clear. Confessionalism is being practised without being named as such.

The Shiites understood the protest against the Lebanese government and its Syrian protector to be a provocation aimed at them. They understood that something was suddenly in the air that was not being articulated: the disarming of the Hizbollah, its devaluation and disempowerment. That is the real reason why the Shiite taxi driver, who has long since been losing business to the Syrian taxi driver, nevertheless took to the streets for Syria. Or the Shiite farmer who has been complaining for ages about the over-flooding of the market with cheap Syrian agricultural produce. And the Shiite labourer who ascribes his low wages and sometimes even his unemployment to the Syrian presence. And the Shiite middle class citizens who repeat incessantly how worried they are about the Syrian-Lebanese mafia, which they blame for the sinking living standards, or the Lebanese bourgeois who accuses the mafia of controlling investment. All of these responded to the call of the Hizbollah to take to the streets and thank Syria.

It's extremely strange, but not irrational. It makes sense when you realise that the Shiites believe that following the Syrian withdrawal, the regime allied with Syria will be the next target and with it, their position in the regime. Fearing marginalisation, the Shiites gather under the flag of the Hizbollah.

Does this mean they approve of the opposition? That they approve of the long term war with Israel that is causing the Shiites in the south of Lebanon so much misery? Do they want to insist on the presence of the Syrian troops in Lebanon?

The answer is yes and no. It is significant that the Shiites chose to demonstrate after the withdrawal of the Syrian troops had already been conclusively decided. The thank you to Syria was simply a farewell ceremony. The actual message was: we Shiites are powerful even without Syria. The gathering of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese under the Hizbollah flag was a warning to all those who thought it might be time to settle their score with the Shiites, that they were not to be messed around with. The demands of the Hizbollah and their call for dialogue and unity were made in this context: the Hizbollah wants to participate in the political process, and seeks an influential role in the new government.

Who is the Hizbollah? Is it just an armed group? At the moment, the Hizbollah represents for the Shiites a guarantor of protection and aid. Today more than ever, the Shiites regard the Hizbollah army as their own backbone, knowing well that this army, combined with the Hizbollah schools, medical and social institutions, forms a kind of state within a state. Even the critics of Hizbollah rule consider an attack against it to be a threat to the Shiite confession. And so they let the Hizbollah determine the slogans under which they march. Now it's a matter of signalling to the Hizbollah broad general support.

This is a complex power play. Those who thank Syria don't necessarily want the Syrian troops to stay in Lebanon. They are more interested in securing their own position. The rallying cries are of secondary importance. It's different in the opposition camp. For those who took to the streets after the assassination of Hariri, the withdrawal of the Syrian troops is top priority. This was the basis of unity for three of the four large confessional groupings in Lebanon. In fact, it was reason enough for them to lay down their confessional markings.

The opposition means exactly what it says: its goal is a Lebanon without Syrian influence. That's a promise for the future of freedom and democracy in the region. This movement signals a departure from totalitarian politics in Lebanon that have smothered civil life, made the state a facade and held society in checkmate with constant threats of civil war and external enemies.

Groups with various political structures, traditions, symbols and historical visions participated in the demonstrations. Among them were Christians, who had to operate in the shadows during the entire period of Syrian rule and now took their experience with them onto the streets. With them were the Sunnites and Druses, who had cooperated with the Syrian apparatus.

The slogan of the Christian youth from the Martyr's Square was "Freedom, Sovereignty, Independence" with an emphasis on the last. The slogan of those sympathetic to Hariri was "Truth, Freedom, National Unity".

The two sides define their relationship to the Arabic world differently. The Christians pronounce their hatred of the Syrians, not just of the regime but also of the Syrian people. The Muslims don't play along, for reasons of erstwhile feuds rooted partly in former wars, partly in racist prejudices. The hope of a shared future of peace and democracy remains the collective basis � while it is clear that the meeting of three confessional forces represents as great a source of power as of weakness. When such different forces must grapple together, they have trouble mobilising their followers as well as the Shiites - a single force - can.

There is no doubt that the demonstrations of the Hizbollah signal a crisis. The actions of the opposition against Syria succeeded in bringing down the Lebanese government and accelerating the decision for the Syrian withdrawal. But the Shiites made it clear that the opposition movement cannot determine the next steps on its own. Everything to happen in the future should involve their participation. This would be unthinkable, however, if the status of the Hizbollah were not also put on the political agenda following the Syrian withdrawal.

The Hizbollah's privileges, weapons, opposition and control of their own regions are the problem. It is not yet clear whether these can be negotiated. Speaking against their negotiability is the double nature of the Hizbollah, which is distinct from other fundamentalist organisations. It is purely Lebanese, rejects an international expansion of its organisation and agitation and confines itself to the conflict with Israel.

Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, is not bin Laden. He is a public authority figure with a locally rooted political program and real political power, thanks to his broad base of popular support. Disarming is a path whose end nobody can foresee. And Nasrallah does not seem to be in a hurry to commit himself to anything along this path.

The inner-Lebanese negotiations are going to be difficult. Nobody knows whether the Hizbollah will accept a guarantee of security other than weapons, or whether Lebanese society, in other words the opposition forces, would be ready to offer this guarantee. This results in a certain political rigidity. Added to this is the fact that the results of the negotiations have to be valid for an entire era.

While the Hizbollah demonstrations unfortunately weaken the enormous significance of the Lebanese movement, they will not constrain its force forever. The steps which led to an acceleration of the Syrian withdrawal are a success for the first mass movement in a region that has been burdened by totalitarianism and hereditary rule. This is the first sign of a return to life for the people, the first hint of an alternative to the ailing regime, which has only been kept alive by the lethargy of society and a lack of alternatives.

The success of the Lebanese democracy movement is certain to infect the Arabic world and mobilise frightened Arabic peoples elsewhere. The wall has fallen, and the way towards defeating totalitarianism and entering the world of the present has been set free.


The article was published in German in Die Zeit on 17 March, 2005.

Abbas Beydoun, Lebanese poet, born in 1945, is one of the most influential intellectuals of the Arabic world. He has published 11 volumes of poetry since the 1980s. Many have been translated into several languages (French, German, English, Spanish, Catalan and Italian). Beydoun is the feuilleton editor of the daily newspaper As-Safir
, published in Beirut.

Translation: nb. - let's talk european