Long-absent hope returns to Lebanon

April 13, 1975, is a date that represents, for most of us Lebanese who are above 45 years of age, a frontier separating the often idealized Lebanon of before the war, and the insufferable reality of after April 13. For the youth of Lebanon, April 13 is just a controversial historical date. For them there is no dividing line; they grew up in a Lebanon ravaged by war, still suffering the sequels of occupation and a deep sectarian partition. A country where ambition is curbed and hope scarce

This would have been a perfect introductory paragraph to a piece commemorating April 13, if I was asked to write it before February 14. Today I cannot ignore the change, the atmosphere of revival, and the fact that more than half of the Lebanese population, waving the flag, took to the streets in two peaceful demonstrations. I cannot ignore the loud voice of the silent majority, and the strong participation of women and the youth. I cannot disregard the sight of two women standing side by side at Hariri's last resting place, one reading the Muslim prayer and the other performing the sign of the cross. I cannot neglect the reaction of defiance and the stress on national unity that followed four criminal explosions that targeted Christian areas. One has often dreamed of renewal, but never dared to imagine one. Today it is possible, the Lebanese people just need to reach for it, and then maybe April 13, 2005 will be a new frontier, that of the rebirth of Lebanon.

I am sure that many dismiss these signs as emotional reactions, and insist that the situation is much more complex than the popular mood. This is true in some way, yet it is not pure naivete to observe the manifestations of discontent and to measure the pulse of the population. Regimes that dismiss the well-being of their population by imposing an iron-handed approach to governing do so at their own risk. In fact, the mood of the Lebanese before and after the Hariri assassination takes root in the political developments that followed the Taif Agreement.

The Lebanese civil war that started on April 13, 1975 was officially ended on October 22, 1989, by the Arab League, sponsoring the Taif Agreement. By then, the Lebanese were weary and tired from a series of armed conflicts that at first took root in deep internal divisions but then became regional in nature. The end of the armed conflict did not bring the civil war to a real conclusion. There was no national reconciliation effort on the popular level, and Israel maintained its occupation of South Lebanon, which made the Syrian presence in Lebanon a de facto reality that nobody could contest without seeming to side with the enemy. Given this reality it would have been naive to expect the emergence of an independent democratic Lebanon.

In theory, Taif restored to Lebanon its Constitution, that guarantees freedoms and democracy. But under the pretext of national security necessities the country was ruled for the last 15 years by a false, imposed national consensus that destroyed accountability, the prime basis of democracy. The choices of ministers became a reflection of sectarian power centers and foreign intervention, resulting at all political junctions in deadlock. The parliamentary institution lost its meaning when deputies started falling in line when it came to the ministerial vote of confidence or presidential elections, whatever their previously declared positions. People felt powerless and many gave up on the electoral system.

Then in the year 2000, the South was liberated from Israeli occupation, and there was hope in the air, but soon it became clear that the status quo was here to stay, and that the country was sinking deeper under Syrian control. The signs of an organized effort to erode the few remaining liberties became more pronounced. This demise of democracy was exacerbated by a deep feeling of isolation as the international community showed a total lack of concern. The sense of hopelessness became stronger and young people had only one dream: leave the country.

Buried under this hopelessness was anger. The anger exploded when Hariri was assassinated. People took peacefully to the streets, the prime minister resigned, and the international community started paying attention. Out of it came a feeling of empowerment and hope.

For me this hope is embodied in the commune-like freedom tents in the middle of Beirut. There you find hundreds of youth of all religious sects that have been living there since the Hariri assassination. They organize daily activities under strict rules of behavior and you often find students from opposing parties communicating, building a basis for national reconciliation. School children visit and try to understand. The hope is that this generation, whatever happens, will never forget this experience.

© Lebanon Star
By Khatoun Haidar Special to The Daily Star Wednesday, April 13, 2005

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