Some weeks ago, as I walked into the security gates at Beirut Rafic Hariri's International airport while waving farewell to my dad, I had a flashback to the year 1998. Back then, I was an excited 11 year old on my way to London, with my parents, on a 3 months summer vacation. I could barely contain my jubilation as I was heading to a city I've spent a large part of my childhood in and long considered my second home, and as fate would have it, where I would move to build a career after graduation.
Incidentally, it was where my plane was heading that morning. My story is that of plenty of Lebanon’s youthful human resources who found post-civil war Lebanon a pretty tough place to be and found success in other places of the world while constantly living in the eternal dream of returning to the idealistic vision of the homeland.
A few months prior to the 1998 London trip, I remember seeing images on the news of a big man with a confident demeanor inaugurating the airport. The masses lining up to shake his hand and say hello as he strolled jovially through the shiny rebuilt terminal after an eight-year construction process rigged with corruption and deceit from the array of Syria's destructive man puppets in Lebanon.
He was our prime minister, and his name was Rafic Hariri, but 11 year old me didn't know much about Lebanese politics. I was part of a generation born in the late years of the brutal 15-year civil war and who grew up in a recovering Lebanon that was being rebuilt from the ground up.
It was a scarred Lebanon which wanted to demonstrate to the world one or two things, not least purposefully regaining the titles 'Pearl of the Middle East' and 'Switzerland of the East', hence a phenomenal recovery was under way. It was a time of relative stability and sturdy economic growth, fuelled by the billions of petro dollars from the gulf, a boom that Hariri – “Mr. Lebanon”, to quote Robert Fisk – had masterminded, orchestrated and led.
You can define our generation as Lebanon’s “baby boomers”. Born in the late 80s, benefiting from the economic and social growth of the 90s, highly educated, highly ambitious and certainly non-political, in a country where politics is a religion in its own right. These were the perfect ingredients to foster a new breed of Lebanese who really didn’t know much about the decades long civil war that stretched from 1975-1990.
The pain of those years wasn’t passed on to us, perhaps because our elders had had enough and didn’t want to perpetuate agony and hate, and quite possibly out of naivety. Either case, we didn’t know much about sectarianism, and those of us who did were just that, they knew about it, but certainly didn’t act on it, there was no reason to!
Back in the airport I’m staring at a marble inauguration plaque mentioning Salim el Hoss, the then prime minister after Hariri was driven to resign in 1998 (just months before the ceremony) by the Syrians and their chosen president Emile Lahoud, whose name was the second on that plaque. My dad is staring at the plaque too; we both have a look of disappointment on our faces that Rafic Hariri, without whom all of Lebanon’s regeneration, including the airport, would have been virtually impossible, is somehow not mentioned.
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As we continue to stare in disappointment we are suddenly interrupted by a tall security guard who addresses us in a southern Lebanese accent. He goes on to say that he respects Hariri’s efforts – though his facial expressions and tone might have indicated otherwise – but he is a proud supporter of “the master”, in reference to Nabih Berri, current Parliament speaker and leader of the pro-Syria Shiite Amal movement.
The reality is that the airport’s security and staff are almost handpicked by Hezbollah, mostly from the south and the Bekaa valley. In fact, the airport is now geographically fully engulfed by Hezbollah’s canton-like stronghold of south Beirut’s suburbs, making it almost impossible for anti-Syria Lebanese politicians to travel incognito.
In May 2008, Fouad Seniora’s government bravely decided to take on Hezbollah’s suspicious activities in and around the airport by removing the airport’s security chief who was silent after the discovery of a camera in an empty container park surveying the runways. The camera was removed before the government could get to it, purportedly by Hezbollah members, but it was only a matter of days before Hezbollah violently took control of the capital and forced a new status quo.
It was those bloody events of May 2008 that largely re-defined the Lebanese political scene and forced Walid Jumblatt, long time pseudo-spiritual leader of the ‘Cedar Revolution’ and a staunch opponent of Syrian hegemony, to do a volte face and succumb to Hezbollah’s might. What a disappointment it was in that August of 2009, just a month after March 14 secured a historic parliamentary victory, when Jumblatt shot another bullet in the already ailing movement and officially withdrew his party from the coalition.
March 14, that all encompassing cross-party, cross-Lebanese-social boundaries movement, that naturally grew after the Cedar Revolution of 2005. It was so promising; giving the Lebanese hope of a new beginning and a new chapter, beginning with the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon after millions took to the street.
In a previous article, I’ve lamented the immediate politicization of March 14. The fact that March 14’s main parties immediately threw themselves in “electoral bazaars” while the Cedar Revolution was still in its infancy, was by many measures the beginning of the end of the movement. This is what happens when parties hijack revolutions, they either die or they get re-invented in a new form. The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutionaries are giving the world a great lesson in this, in both cases certain parties hijacked the revolution, but the masses were ready to re-mobilize and take on the corrupt establishments once more and re-align the revolution with its goals.
On February 14, only a couple of days before I was due to leave Beirut, I paid Rafic Hariri’s burial site in Martyr’s Square a visit. It was Mr Hariri’s assassination anniversary. In years past the square would fill up with the tens of thousands of part-nostalgic part-disappointed revolutionaries so desperate to recapture the spirit of that magical day on March 14, 2005, if they were lucky enough to have been able to make it to the square that day that it is. Just making it was an achievement; the roads across Lebanon feeding into the capital from all directions came to a standstill as it seemed like all of Lebanon’s four million residents had taken to the streets.
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Things were different this year though. A much weakened March 14 seems divided along the lines of sectarianism for the first time. A proposed electoral law, championed by Michel Aoun and Hezbollah, recently passed through the Parliamentary electoral law committee with the support of the Lebanese Forces and Phalanges, two of the main Christian components of March 14. The gist of the adopted law, which could potentially now make its way to parliament for voting, is that the electorate can only vote for MPs from their own sects, thus creating a dangerous precedent in Lebanon’s modern history. In this law, Lebanon becomes a big electoral district and the electorate vote for MPs from their own sect apart from one lucky Lebanese group in this country of minorities that gets to vote for everyone, the Jews.
This Orthodox law, which can only be described as “electoral apartheid”, initially made its way to the political realm in September 2011 through Elie Ferzley’s ‘Orthodox Gathering’, a long time Syrian front man, under the guise of the need for “proper representation” for the Lebanese sects, more specifically the Lebanese Christians.
The timing was perfect; at a time when Christians in the Middle East are frightened and alarmed by the waves of incoming changes, particularly the rise of Islamists, a law comes on board that feeds those fears. Christians in Lebanon are no different, and those most susceptible to fear mongering are ironically those who continue to vote for and support Michel Aoun, Hezbollah’s stooge. Perhaps the Hezbollah version of Islamism is not as scary as that of the Muslim Brotherhood’s?
After the law was initially brought forward, it gained particular attention in December 2011, when the Maronite Patriarchy seemed to endorse it as Christian leaders gathered in Bkerké (Sea of the Patriarch of Antioch and the East). It immediately faced rejection from Walid Jumblatt while opposition leader Saad Hariri initially (and one suspects out of pure awe) decided to remain silent.
As the months passed and the political scene shifted towards more pressing issues, the law and its accompanying shock value melted; some naively thought the law was dead and buried. It then suddenly re-emerged back in late 2012 as the electoral law debate re-surfaced after the government brought forward a proportion representational (PR) law which would largely give Hezbollah full control of the parliament as they potentially lock down most Shia votes.
The Christian leaders gathered once again in Bkerké on January 7, 2013 and re-affirmed their commitment to the Orthodox law, hence effectively signing’s the elections’ (due in June 2013) death sentence as Saad Hariri this time bravely came out and vehemently rejected it. I wonder what Patriarch Howayek, one of the fathers of Modern Lebanon and a keen promoter of Lebanese Christian-Muslim unity, would think of all this, despair probably.
Back in Hariri’s memorial shrine I see an elegant elderly couple walk in and approach Hariri’s cemetery. The visible sign of melancholy on their faces is evident; they too are here to pay their respects to a man who gave us all hope that the rise of a powerful Lebanon is imminent. As they sign the cross, I notice a veiled modest woman and her family approach Hariri’s resting site and stand side by side next to the elderly couple, they then begin to recite the ‘Fatha’ by heart.
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What a poignant image that was, no other person in Lebanon’s history was able to unite that rainbow of people that are the Lebanese like Rafic Hariri did, both in his lifetime and in death. I then remembered the late Gebran Tueni’s famous oath on March 14, delivered only feet away from where I was standing, to no less than a million and a half people who passionately repeated: “we pledge to God, Muslims and Christians, to remain united, till eternity and beyond”. I then wonder what Gebran Tueni, would have made out of the Orthodox law theatre, disappointment maybe.
Perhaps that is why he was killed that fateful day on December 15, 2005 a couple of hours after his return to Lebanon; he let his Lebanese patriotic pride defeat whatever sectarian side he had. Funny how he was killed hours after landing in Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport, very few other than Hezbollah’s agents in the airport knew he was in town.
To an outsider, Lebanon’s problems might seem like a series of Gordian knots, impossible to break down and require constant cheating to get around. The reality is never simple, and it is true that a country with a complex socio-political tapestry, a turbulent past, and a host of regional aggressors will always be in the firing line. It is also quite unfortunate that Lebanon’s gift, its multi-confessional diversity, is also its vice.
However what Lebanon lacks in social cohesion it makes up for in joie de vivre, that sense of a nation pulling through in thick and thin. In his wonderfully enlightening book ‘The Spirit of the Phoenix’, former Beirut BBC journalist Tim Llewyn describes this perfectly: “What kept and keeps striking the visitor about Lebanon and the Lebanese is that insouciant resilience with which they treat adversity and continually rise above it”.
Lebanon has the benefit of having an enormous highly educated, charismatic and motivated pool of youthful human resources. It is the constant drainage of young minds that is to be lamented the most. The Cedar Revolution acted as a catalyst to reverse that hemorrhaging of Lebanese talents. And while it is true that the Cedar Revolution was derailed, without a doubt more often that I’d like to mention, the fact is that the Cedar Revolutionaries have not given up and continue to constantly show their unwavering support to the Lebanese cause, to Gebran’s oath.
The Cedar Revolutionaries, especially the young ones, must not give up on Lebanon and March 14, despite all the adversaries, for Lebanon’s rise as a powerful state again depends on the success of March 14’s ability to pull through and re-kindle the Cedar Revolution. Mistakes have been made, and accountability must surely be called for. Those who pushed for sectarian ‘division-ist’ electoral laws with the aim of personal gain have no place in a movement whose core values center around social unity, independence, freedom and sovereignty. And at this pivotal point in Lebanon’s history with dangers glaring at the nation from all corners, especially the Syrian front, unity and cohesion, especially among the Cedar revolutionaries, are essential for the continuity of the nation.
Back at the airport, I remember a famous quote by the man whose death united us in the path to rebuild the nation: “No one is bigger than the country.”
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.
EDITOR'S PICK The Lebanese civil war is far from over