Beirut Spring

Today's dramatic developments in Lebanon, signaling the victory of the democratic opposition, in effect began in late March 2000, even before the Israeli withdrawal.

The chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, General Rustum Ghazaleh, is getting closer to the guillotine blade. According to a report from Syrian sources that surfaced this week in Lebanon, Ghazaleh exchanged several verbal blows with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri shortly before the latter's resignation last October. Hariri left the meeting angrily and told his associates that his "life may be about to be over." The day before the report was made public, "Syrian sources" told the Ilaf Web site, which is financed by Saudi Arabia, that President Bashar Assad plans to replace Ghazaleh with another general.

In fact, these "Syrian sources" were brimming over with an extraordinary amount of information this week. For instance, they told Lebanese reporters that Assad intends to carry out a far-reaching reform of the army and of government institutions, and plans to dismiss cabinet ministers and get rid of the "power centers" that were willed to him by his father. The sources contended that pressure from Lebanon and the U.S. will help Assad execute the task that he has been unable to carry out up to now. These same sources reported that Syria has drawn up a six-stage plan for the withdrawal of its forces from Lebanon, eventually leaving only 2,000 Syrian soldiers (of the current 15,000) on Lebanese soil.

It was also a tough week for Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara, who spent two days shuttling between Cairo, where he conferred with President Hosni Mubarak, and Saudi Arabia, where he tried to assure the Saudis that Syria was truly poised to withdraw from Lebanon. Withdraw, not redeploy, in keeping with the current demand of the Lebanese opposition. This is the first time that the Syrian foreign minister has been asked not only to explain the Syrian presence in Lebanon to Arab leaders, but also to report on Syria's plans in the near future. It is also the first time that Arab leaders are not merely interested, but are demanding that Syria take action, and the first time that Syria is not rejecting the demand.

"Assad is now carrying on a dual campaign," one Lebanese analyst told Haaretz. "He is trying to clear himself of accusations, or at least present himself as someone who didn't know what was going on, and he is trying hard to preserve the asset his father bequeathed him - Lebanon. It is hard to say which is the greater crime - that he didn't know that someone among his forces planned to assassinate Hariri, or that he himself gave the order." Does Lebanon have categorical proof of Assad's involvement or that the assassin was a Syrian? "No one has any proof, and now, proof isn't even needed. It is patently obvious that Syria was behind the repugnant assassination. If Assad doesn't know what's going on in his own backyard - he ought to resign, and if he did know - he should be put on trial."

No evidence exists, but the perception is that Syria is responsible, and this perception furnishes an excellent means for demanding Syria's departure from Lebanon. Assad tried to persuade a newspaper interviewer this week that a Hariri assassination by Syria would be tantamount to political suicide, which is why, he said, Syria did not do it. Yet one doubts that even the perpetrator could have foreseen the rapid development of events in Lebanon since the murder. On the other hand, logic is not always the best guide to political developments in Lebanon, of which the long list of assassinated leaders is ample proof.

Symbol of revolution

The result, for now, is a popular, bloodless revolution, with the emphasis on "for now." On Monday, for instance, when Prime Minister Omar Karami, 71 (the younger brother of Rashid Karami, the former prime minister, who was assassinated in 1987) announced his resignation, rioting broke out in Tripoli, Karami's hometown. Shots fired "in the air" as a sign of protest against his resignation killed a young supporter of the prime minister. In Beirut, Sunni youths called for the regime to be as sensitive to their demands as it is to those of the Christians. The fragile ethnic weave that succeeded, with abundant effort, in pushing through the Taif Agreement of 1989, was now being stretched precariously thin, inducing opposition leaders to try to calm the public mood by declaring, "We are a democratic opposition. An opposition that adopts peaceful ways."

No one would argue that the week marked a victory for democratic opposition in an Arab state. But the civil revolution in Lebanon did not begin this week, or even on the day of Hariri's assassination. Perhaps this turn of events can be traced to the end of March 2000, two months before the Israeli army's withdrawal from Lebanon. The editor of the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, Jubran Tueni, ran an open letter to Bashar Assad even before his appointment as president of Syria (his father would die three months later, in June 2000, but the letter was printed at a time when it was already clear that the IDF would be beginning its withdrawal from Lebanon in May).

"It is my wish, Dr. Bashar, that you ask yourself the following question: What would be the response of the Lebanese to a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon? And what would be the relations then between Lebanon and Syria? And does Syria still have any genuine allies in Lebanon? ... I will tell you with utter candor, many Lebanese consider Syria's behavior in Lebanon to be completely at odds with the principles of sovereignty, dignity and independence."

Two days later, the Lebanese newspaper Al-Mustaqbal, owned by Hariri, published an initial response to Tueni's column. The then-editor of the newspaper Al-Fadhal Shalaq lashed out at those who write "open letters" and who do not recognize the interests of their country. "The culture of fear and intimidation always places the responsibility on the other," he wrote. "It is what frees from responsibility the individual who exhibits helplessness. In this manner, the others are always the criminals and Lebanon is always the victim." In this context, wrote Shalaq, Tueni's column has to be understood. After all, "Raising the issue of Syria's stay in Lebanon serves no purpose to Lebanese national interests or to Arab interests. Because at this time everyone should be standing at Syria's side as it approaches the negotiations, not only for Syria but also for all Arab interests."

In a second column, which ran the following day in Al-Mustaqbal, the writer reiterated that the Lebanese interest, like its economy and its prosperity, was closely linked to Syria, which serves as a bridge between Lebanon and the Arab world. Israel, the column said, cannot give Lebanon this advantage. Of course, Hariri could not have known that nearly five years later he would be the symbol of the struggle against the Syrians or that his picture, now affixed to the blue paper ribbons that are being worn on shirt lapels, would become a symbol of the popular revolution.

During these four and a half years, the newspaper An-Nahar, the Christian leadership and later on the Druze leadership continued to protest publicly against the Syrian presence, and in the course of this period, Syria has agreed four times to "redeploy" its soldiers. Lebanese public opinion merited scant notice by global public opinion, or even that of the Arab states. Lebanon was considered, and is still considered, an atypical country, both because of the composition of its population and the freedoms that are practiced there. Lebanon served as a shining example of the effect that public opinion and a free press can have on the behavior of an occupying state like Syria, but a shining example only to its own citizens.

Risky gambles

The question now is what Lebanon and Syria will do, the former with its popular victory and the latter with the advent of its downfall in Lebanon. Among the Lebanese commentators appearing this week on Lebanese and satellite television programs, no one was prepared to offer any definite answer. All spoke of the need for a "coordinated democratic step," meaning the formation of a new government in consultation with the opposition, until parliamentary elections are held in May. Nevertheless, this conciliatory option is at odds with the dual demand voiced by the opposition, which is too weak to cobble together a coalition by itself. The demand is that Syria remove its forces post-haste and that pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud resign. Meanwhile, Lahoud has already begun contacts ahead of the formation of a new government and appointment of a new prime minister.

Will the opposition agree to work together with the president - whose term in office was extended last October under Syrian pressure, and who has been accused by the opposition of being responsible for Hariri's assassination? Will Syria concede the last struggle over its status in Lebanon and allow the opposition to drive out the president, too?

"In similar situations in the past, I could say with certainty that Syria would not give in, that it would continue to strive to maintain Lahoud's status and that it would ensure that the next prime minister is pro-Syrian," says the Lebanese commentator, "but now Syria is being subjected to heavy pressure, from Lebanon, from Arab states, and from the United States and France. On the other hand, within Syria, Assad is still subject to the influence of the old power centers from his father's time, who are already quietly demanding that Assad junior not squander the legacy of Assad senior in Lebanon. Today, every gamble in Lebanon is risky. I only hope that Assad acts with logic and not on the basis of his emotions."

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Lebanese analyst is not saying that the Lebanese will act in logical fashion and will not deteriorate into a new civil war. Unsurprising, because until now the opposition has emphasized its desire to maintain good contacts with Syria, as long as Syria stays off Lebanese soil. The opposition still talks about national unity and about the sense of common purpose of the ethnic communities. Only on the margins does one hear the sorts of slogans that were voiced during the period of the civil war.

Here, too, lies the interesting difference between the Lebanese and groups outside the country that are encouraging change. Whereas the United States, France and the Arab states cite UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and cut off its support for terror groups, the Lebanese invoke the Taif Agreement of 1989, which created the post-civil war political structure of Lebanon, and which in effect led to the end of the war. The agreement called for Syria to remove its army from Lebanon, leaving certain units in position in the Bekaa Valley for the first two years after the signing of the agreement. Lebanese critics are saying that Syria is already 13 years late in holding up its end of the agreement.

The Lebanese opposition is not interested at this time in taking any action under the American shadow. It would be better, it reasons, to argue the Lebanese position on the basis of the Taif Agreement, rather than placing the opposition in the delicate position of potentially being accused of working on behalf of a foreign power, one that is anti-Arab and anti-Muslim. This also explains why leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and the secretary of the Arab League are seeking a local Lebanese-Syrian solution, rather than permitting the U.S. to shape the future of yet another Arab state in the region.