Demonstrators from the March 14 political bloc wore white baseball caps with the word ‘No’ emblazoned in red on them as they gathered in Martyr’s Square, Beirut on Sunday morning.
No, they said, to the rule of arms; no, to Syrian and Iranian influence on Lebanese soil; no, to Hezbollah’s state within a state; no, to the withdrawal of Lebanon’s support from the STL. On the anniversary of the 2005 Cedar Revolution, the alliance of political parties led by Caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri marked the beginning of its new role as the opposition in the Lebanese parliament.
As it stands, however, Lebanon remains without a government. On January 12 Hezbollah’s ministers, along with their March 8 allies, withdrew their support from the National Unity Government that had been in place under Saad Hariri’s premiership since November 2009. In the weeks following the collapse of the government, March 8’s favored candidate, the Sunni telecommunications billionaire, Najib Miqati won a majority of parliamentary support and was named prime minister designate. Reportedly a centrist, Miqati was keen to form a cabinet involving both political blocs. Yet regardless of how eager he was to include March 14 in the cabinet, Miqati has still not made it clear that he will continue Lebanon’s support of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)—the international investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri which is likely to indict Hezbollah members in the coming months—or oppose Hezbollah’s arms. As a result, the General Secretariat of March 14 announced at the beginning of March that the bloc would not participate in the next cabinet, choosing instead to become the opposition, and Saad Hariri declared his commitment to opposing the use of non-state weapons in Lebanon in “a peaceful and democratic way.”
Although it is estimated that tens of thousands of March 14 supporters took to the streets on Sunday, the turnout fell far short of the bloc’s expectations and of the one million protesters that six years ago brought an end to Syria’s 29-year military and political presence in Lebanon. While Martyr’s Square and the areas immediately surrounding it were a sea of Lebanese flags interspersed with the standards of Hariri’s Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces, and the Phalange, one did not have to venture far from the center to find life proceeding as usual, with uninterested and disillusioned Lebanese going about their typical Sunday routines. The Daily Star quotes a young man it spoke to in a nearby coffee shop: “In 2005, [the demonstrations were] a response to a previous demonstration by Hezbollah and its allies … They [March 14] had lots of chances to prove that they could be the answer and completely revealed themselves to be just encroaching [on] power and that’s it … I don’t want to know how many are going and I’m not going.”[i] Such attitudes are not atypical, and Hariri’s effort to physically demonstrate the support base for his democratic agenda fell well short of the desired mark. For example, an estimated 10,000 were anticipated to attend from Lebanon’s Druze community, but observers suggest only about 400 showed up.[ii]
It is also worth noting that the bloc’s General Secretariat had to specifically request demonstrators to carry Lebanese flags as opposed to the flags of their particular political parties. Hariri et al. are keen to present a unified national front, but it must be remembered that Lebanon is still a state divided into political groups along the civil war’s sectarian lines; unified national sentiment does not come naturally. Moreover, it is also important to note that the simple act of carrying the national flag does not mean the movement speaks on behalf of the whole Lebanese population. The March 14 leadership knows that if it is to gain the momentum it requires, it must first prove that the majority of the Lebanese stand behind it and its objectives. While Sunday did indicate that March 14 has a support base, it certainly did not prove that the majority of the Lebanese supports the bloc or its demands.
That said, on the blog Qifa Nabki, Elias Muhanna, contends that Hariri will find himself in a stronger position to protect support for the STL in opposition than in government. Instead of walking a political tightrope to maintain a stable cabinet, March 14 as an opposition group can adopt a clear and outspoken stance both in support of the STL and in opposition to Hezbollah’s arms: “In a way, Hariri is in a stronger position [to support the tribunal] without pretending he has to walk a line. Now he can step back and play the role of national leader without having to look like he is bowing to [March 8] pressure,” Muhanna wrote.
However, looking around on Sunday and listening to the leadership’s speeches, one couldn’t help but wonder if this is the sort of national leadership that will lead to progress. March 14’s campaign is entirely based on the negative: a succinct and definitive ‘No’ to its political rivals. March 14’s reaction to March 8’s entirely constitutional actions which toppled the government has been defiant. They call Hezbollah’s political maneuvering an “illegal coup” by a group that must be prevented from turning its arms on the Lebanese population. Yet, in the immediate aftermath of the government’s collapse and Miqati’s nomination, it was March 14’s supporters who took to the streets for a “Day of Rage”, disrupted daily life, threw stones, fired gunshots, burned tires and attacked members of the media and their equipment. Hezbollah did not engage the demonstrators.
The demographic and the atmosphere of Sunday’s demonstration were significantly different to that of the protests in late January. Instead of a small gathering of angered young men in Martyr’s Square, whole families came out to march in Sunday’s sunshine after a week of thunderstorms in Lebanon. Buses and cars from the North and Bekaa arrived into Downtown Beirut in convoy. Loudspeakers blared music, and pedestrians—men, women, and children—approached the center in a dense steam. However, while this mass demonstration was peaceful, the tone of the marchers was still one of rage and dispossession. Placards asked, “Where is my gun?” and stated “Guns for all or guns for none.” Nabih Berri’s (the Speaker of the House and leader of the Shiite March 8 party, Amal) name was added to a list of recently fallen Arab autocrats with a question mark asking when his regime would end. Hariri spoke against Hezbollah’s weapons in a more assertive and unequivocal tone than his supporters are used to: “We still need to achieve freedom, because there cannot be freedom for a people when its State, Constitution, security, economy, future and decision are subject to the supremacy of weapons and to those who control the weapons.”[iii] He too attacked Berri, saying, “what is impossible is for someone to remain for 20 years in the same position in power, and then lecture us about power rotation … Just because every time someone thinks of running against him, the weapons appear in the streets.”[iv]
The Resistance has repeatedly stated that its weapons are pointed at Israel and not at the Lebanese people. While in 2008, Hezbollah’s gunmen did take to Beirut’s streets following a threat by the government to dismantle its telecommunications network, there has been no indication that the group is intending on acting similarly in the current climate. March 8 has not responded to Sunday’s rally, although the Washington Post reports that billboards carrying the message “Israel also wants Hezbollah disarmed” have started to pop up around Beirut, indicating that Hezbollah will defend its weapons.[v] Currently, Hezbollah sources are dismissing Hariri’s tactics as “childish” and claiming that Sunday’s rally serves the Israeli project by inciting strife amongst the Lebanese.[vi] Meanwhile, Miqati, having failed in his efforts to include March 14, is trying to form a cabinet. On Sunday he expressed concern that Rafik Hariri would have rejected “some of the strife-inciting remarks” that were made by the March 14 leadership. He also reiterated that he was not issued any preconditions when he agreed to be March 8’s candidate for the premiership. However, it is incredible that he will not come under pressure from March 8 to reject any indictments passed down that do target the Resistance.
In the midst of the rising standoff between the two blocs, the daily business of policy-making and legislation processing is at a standstill. This is not a new or unusual state of affairs for Lebanon. National elections were last held in June 2009, and it took until November that year to form a government. Prior to the government’s collapse on January 12, the cabinet had not met since December 15, and it had been deadlocked for months prior to that over the issue of the STL investigation. The collapse was brought about by the failure of President Michel Sleiman and Saad Hariri to fulfill an ultimatum to hold a cabinet meeting within 24 hours to discuss ways to confront the STL. Now, more than two months later, the country still awaits the formation of a new cabinet and the STL and Hezbollah’s arms remain center stage. It is the Lebanese citizenry and the Lebanese economy that suffers the fallout from this inertia and the instability it precipitates. Such important issues as improving infrastructure, labor legislation, and civil and women’s rights legislation are delayed and usurped by the conflict between the parliamentary blocs. Sources now report that March 14’s next move will be to form a national council to find new ways for civil society to function and to consolidate the bloc’s role in parliament.[vii] Perhaps the alliance could allay disillusion amongst its electorate by choosing to become an opposition that takes possession of campaigning for progress and reform in these and other areas rather than focusing its energy on repeatedly vocalizing its losses. Rather than rallying its supporters, is it possible that March 14 could garner more support by seeking to democratically, legally and politically empower Lebanese citizens?
[vi] http://www.iloubnan.info/politics/actualite/id/58018 accessed 14 March 2011