Posted by Joshua on Monday, May 12th, 2008
By Qifa Nabki
It is tempting to regard the political stalemate that has gripped Lebanon for the past seventeen months – with all of its futile spats and squabbles, accusations and recriminations – as yet another example of the mundane and self-destructive charade of Lebanese democracy. The level of discourse among the political elite has fallen so low that it is often scarcely distinguishable from the sloganeering of propagandists and the taunts of schoolyard bullies.
However, what is often lost in the day-to-day analysis of Lebanon’s current despair and hopelessness, is the extent to which its paralysis stems, paradoxically, from two moments of staggering hopefulness. Beneath the surface clutter of parliamentary sessions postponed, foreign sponsors maligned, and electoral laws rejected, lie two emotional currents of deep nationalist aspiration, two currents which flow beneath the landscape of Lebanese politics like parallel subterranean rivers, welling up and intersecting at various points, then diverging once again and disappearing from sight.
I am speaking, of course, of the two monumental events which precipitated the current conflict, namely the “Cedar Revolution” of March 2005 and the “Divine Victory” of July 2006. Given that we now stand at a juncture, where Lebanon’s leaders can choose to lead the country towards reconciliation or further strife, I find it necessary to recall the place of these events in the contemporary national consciousness. In many ways, these two episodes were twin revolutions, remarkably similar to each other in their structural outlines and emotional resonance. They each represented a defining moment for a sizable portion of the Lebanese population, in which a dense set of accumulated resentments, anxieties, and righteous anger was focused upon a single historical injustice, and then exorcised – successfully – through a shocking and sublime victory. These twin revolutions made visible, for many Lebanese, a political reality previously unimaginable in Lebanon, a reality in which ordinary citizens were the masters of their own fate, where the dominance of foreign powers could be resisted successfully, and where national unity was not a purely hypothetical construct.
For the hundreds of thousands of people who would come together under the March 14 banner, the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri was a great crime, not against one sect but against the nation as a whole. The huge “Independence 05” rallies displayed an unprecedented degree of national unity: people from all walks of life, all social classes, all regions, and all sects gathered together in Beirut’s central district to protest the targeting of Lebanon. The withdrawal of the Syrian army in subsequent months seemed to validate the feelings of anger and betrayal by the aggrieved Lebanese, and the string of assassinations which followed over the next two years only seemed to feature as aftershocks of the seismic event which redefined the struggle for Lebanese sovereignty and independence. Having yoked their hopes and aspirations to the idyllic prospect of a new national beginning in Lebanon free of foreign tutelage, these citizens could not bear to see their gains dashed by what they perceived to be Syria's attempt to bring Lebanon under its wing, once again.
Similarly, the outcome of the July War of 2006, for many hundreds of thousands of people within Lebanon, marked nothing less than the beginning of a new age, an end to decades of unanswered aggressions by Israel and centuries of maltreatment and persecution by co-nationalists. The inability of Israel’s army to end the rain of Hizbullah rockets on Israeli cities, coupled with the humiliating losses of its once-invincible soldiers in the field, signaled to many that a threshold had been crossed, and that the regional power dynamics had shifted to the favor of the Arabs for the first time since the birth of Israel. The stars were aligned: a leader had emerged who could finally defend his people from the aggressions of their arch-enemy, a leader possessed of a populist’s voice, a patrician’s dignity, and a genius for political and military strategy. The story of the poor grocer’s son who became an international hero led to a single inescapable conclusion: nomen est omen.
The twin revolutions of modern Lebanese history are, in a way, a single revolution played out twice. The structural similarities are many: on the regional level, both events were epoch-making, changing the regional dynamics in truly remarkable and unexpected ways. They both represented “firsts”: the Cedar Revolution being the first spontaneous mass popular protest in the Middle East, which resulted in a palpable and significant political change; the Divine Victory being the first truly effective resistance and repulsion of a full Israeli military assault on an Arab country. Both events captured the attention and imagination of the outside world, and attracted a high degree of foreign “assistance” (in the form of weapons, financial support, media coverage, etc.) meant to consolidate the decisive changes wrought by the outcome of each revolution. Lebanon suddenly became, once again, the embodiment of great promise and great risk, to all concerned with the future of the Middle East.
The similarities between the twin revolutions on the local Lebanese stage are no less striking. Both events functioned as a kind of national catharsis for different sectors of the Lebanese population. Each episode gave its participants a taste of an exceedingly rare commodity in Middle Eastern societies: self-determination. To experience one event of such great life-affirmation in today’s Middle East is remarkably rare indeed; to experience two in the space of eighteen months is unprecedented, and, given the nature of the events in question, also highly traumatic.
Traumatic because the partisans of both sides have been hamstrung by the enormity of these two victories. While the conflict has veered off along different lines and directions, and politicians have sought to exploit cheaply both events for political gain (disgracing them both and dulling their luster), I believe that the emotional contours of Lebanon’s current crisis are still defined by these twin historical moments. And this is ultimately what is so sadly ironic about the political paralysis in Lebanon today: these two events, each possessing tremendous unifying potential, have been used to cancel each other out.
A solution, if and when it emerges, will likely take the shape of a transitional government headed by General Michel Suleiman. The challenges that await this man are monumental. Beyond the inevitable feuding that will continue on the subjects of the electoral law, ministerial portfolios, and the economic situation, Suleiman will have to find a way to reconcile the Lebanese people to each other, and not just their sectarian leaders. I believe that this will be possible only by paying homage to the significance of both ‘victories’ at the root of this conflict, showing how they represent a single unifying national reality, rather than two polarizing ones. The next Lebanese president will lead a country that is beginning to understand the meaning of true self-determination. However, he will have to convince its people that achieving independence of a more lasting nature will require the energies of a unified populace.