Tuesday, February 22, 2005
February 22, 2005 -- UNTIL a week ago, the courtyard of the Muhammad Ali-Amin Mosque in central Beirut was a quiet place where elderly citizens took time off to feed the pigeons. Yesterday, however, it held the largest gathering Lebanon has ever seen. This was the culmination of a week in which an endless flow of people from all walks of life and different faiths had continued in and out of the mosque united by a single purpose: to call for a restoration of Lebanon's freedom and independence as a nation. The event that triggered this unprecedented demonstration of national resolve was the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister who had led Lebanon after a generation of civil war. Ask almost anyone in Beirut who killed Hariri, and the answer comes like a dart: Syria. With 40,000 troops and secret agents in Lebanon and a long history of organizing political killings, it is the natural suspect. Did Damascus see Hariri as the only politician capable of uniting the Lebanese opposition against Syria's continued domination of virtually all aspects of Lebanon's life? If so, it was correct — but only in the context of Lebanon's elite-dominated politics. Yet Hariri's murder has ended elite politics by bringing into the picture a new element. That element is people power, the same force that swept away the totalitarian regimes of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s and, more recently, led Ukraine into a second liberation. Over the decades, Syria has become a master in the art of manipulating the Lebanese political elite. It has promoted its clients within each religious community and, practicing divide and rule, set one community against another. Whenever faced with a particularly tenacious adversary, it has used murder as the weapon of last resort. In that context, it has killed dozens of "troublemakers," including two elected presidents of Lebanon, one Grand Mufti of Sunni Muslims, a paramount leader of the Druze community, several parliamentarians and a number of editors and publishers. The time-tested policy worked each time because Lebanon's politics remained confined to the elites — a sort of aristocracy that feared the power of the people almost as much as it loathed the Syrians. Hariri's murder, however, has triggered the law of unintended consequences. It has put the people center stage and forced the political aristocrats to abandon their tradition of double-talk and petty calculations. The genie of people power has come out of the bottle and no amount of political chicanery will send it back in. Nor can Syria dispatch its tanks to crush the demonstrators on the streets of Beirut as the Soviet Union did in Prague in 1968. "This is the start of Lebanon's second war of independence," says parliamentarian Marwan Hamade. "We are determined that Hariri's tragic death be transformed into the rebirth of our nation." Those who have wondered where next the flame of freedom may rise in the Middle East have their answer. After free and fair elections in Iraq, it is now the turn of Lebanon to break the shackles of tyranny and take the path of democracy. The next Lebanese election is scheduled to take place at the end of April. This fixes the timeframe within which Syria must end its military occupation of Lebanon, disband its secret services there, close the illegal prisons it maintains in at least six localities in and around Beirut and formally recognize Lebanon as an independent and sovereign nation-state. In the week after Hariri's murder, Lebanese politics moved beyond demands for an international investigation into the dastardly deed. To be sure, that investigation must and will take place so that the culprits are identified and brought to justice. But the real issue now is that the people of Lebanon should be given a chance to elect their own government in an atmosphere of security and freedom. Those, especially in Europe, who opposed the liberation of Iraq by force now have a chance to help the Lebanese achieve their freedom without foreign invasion. They must stop endorsing the Syrian version of the cheat-and-treat game which consists of endless negotiations about Syrian troop "redeployment." A deadline must be fixed for Syria to withdraw all its troops from Lebanon — a task that could be accomplished in a single week. The dismantling of the Syrian military machine in Lebanon must be accompanied by the installment of a new nonpartisan caretaker government in Beirut in place of the current one, which manifestly lacks popular legitimacy. The caretaker's chief task will be to hold elections on the basis of the electoral law now in place, rather than the gerrymandering scheme that Damascus is pushing in the Lebanese National Assembly. The next general election must take place under international supervision, including input by the United Nations, the European Union and the various nongovernmental organizations with experience in monitoring such exercises. Free elections in Lebanon, after free elections in the Palestinian Authority and Iraq, will speed up the dismantling of other despotic regimes in the Middle East, thus bringing this vital region into the mainstream of post-Cold War global politics. Whether anyone likes it or not, regime-change must remain the name of the game in the region until people-based governments are established wherever this is not already the case. Regime-change, however, need not be pursued solely through military means (although this must not be discarded). In countries where internal mechanisms for peaceful change exist, the task facing the major democracies is to help trigger them into action. Today, Lebanon is one such case. Any failure to seize the moment would amount to a betrayal of the democratic aspirations of the Lebanese people.