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Beirut Dispatch.

TO AMERICANS DESPERATE for good news from abroad, the Beirut Spring is the apotheosis of a Middle Eastern perestroika. To the White House, and many American pundits, the crowds in Martyrs’ Square have vindicated the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. The image of Iraqis voting freely, so the narrative goes, struck a chord in other Arabs that finally gave them the courage to reach for the prize. NPR’s Daniel Schorr argued that President Bush “may have had it right” when he said, “A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region.” Dennis Ross, writing in the Financial Times, attributed Lebanon’s uprising to the “Iraq effect.” Washington Post columnist David Ignatius made the same point, citing Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt, who told Ignatius, “It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. ... When I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world.” Jumblatt’s quote caromed across the Internet, cropping up on numerous conservative blogs and in other columns. In The New York Times, David Brooks quoted Ignatius quoting Jumblatt and concluded, “People around the Arab world look at voters in Iraq and ask, ’Why not here?’” 

There’s just one problem. The idea that the Lebanese were inspired by the Iraq war doesn’t have much currency in Beirut. “I’ve never heard it from anybody except Walid Jumblatt,“ laughs Jamil Mroue, editor-in-chief of Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper. “I’ve heard the Lebanese say, ’What the heck, are [the Syrians] going to take us back to the Stone Age?’ They’re saying ‘Fuck it, we’re not going back. And, if it means demonstrating in the streets, and if it means changing the government, then so be it.’ But I don’t think they thought, ‘Oh, the Iraqis voted, so we can, too.’” In actuality, some Lebanese have been struggling for reform for decades, hating their Syrian overlords. “Lebanon has been the only satellite state in the world since the end of the cold war, and no one lifted a finger,” says Farid El-Khazen, a political science professor in Beirut. “It was business as usual until 9/11, and U.S.-Syria relations began to deteriorate. Internally, there was a movement all along that pushed for an end to the occupation. ... There is a linkage, if you like, with Iraq, in the sense that American policy has changed toward Syria due to their interference in Iraq. But [the Lebanese opposition] has been going on for a long time.” 

BECAUSE THE BEIRUT Spring happened so soon after Iraq’s election, and just as Hosni Mubarak said he would allow opposition parties to run for office in Egypt, the foreign press has linked the so-called Cedar Revolution to these other events. What has happened in Lebanon, however, is fundamentally different from events in other parts of the Middle East. Unlike other Arab states, Lebanon is not a dictatorship and never has been. It already has a civil society and a democratic infrastructure—the freest press in the region, a long history of relatively free elections, and a tradition of pluralism. D. Roman Kulchitsky, a political science professor at the American University in Beirut (AUB), says, “People here have been experimenting with democracy for a very long time. But there’s always been so many external forces getting involved.” 

Indeed, for years, the United States was complicit in the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. After the 1989 Taif Accord, Syria became the main power broker in Lebanon, an arrangement accepted by the United States in the interests of “regional stability.” At the same time, Washington invested relatively little in promoting liberalization in Lebanon: In 2003, the National Endowment for Democracy spent less than $700,000 on democracy promotion there; by comparison, the United States spent nearly $2 million on democracy promotion in the Ukraine. “The Lebanese not having a democracy was partly the American government’s decision in supporting the Syrian hegemony over Lebanon,” says Mroue.

Even so, Lebanese reformers continued pushing for change. “Lebanon was a democracy; now the issue in Lebanon is sovereignty, because Lebanon was not a country that was ruled by a dictator,” says El-Khazen. “We had elections in Lebanon for 100 years. Women in Lebanon voted in 1953. Civil society has always existed in Lebanon ... but no one was listening to what Lebanon was saying— that, if you invest in Lebanon’s democracy, the return will be fruitful.” 

At first, Lebanon’s anti-Syria opposition consisted mainly of parties that had lined up against the Syrian regime, or its proxies, during the Lebanese civil war. They began demonstrating off and on in downtown Beirut against the Syrian-backed government in the early ’90s, and today, they form the backbone of the ongoing Martyrs’ Square sit-ins. Often, the government would retaliate against them, breaking up the demonstrations with soldiers and tanks and sending Syrian intelligence agents to threaten protest leaders. Meanwhile, a parallel civil society movement was developing in Beirut’s cafs, newspaper offices, and college campuses. This movement launched a petition drive against government corruption as early as 1994 and followed that up with several other petition campaigns. Civil society leaders even held a campaign in 1997 and 1998 to demand local elections—a campaign they won (elections were held in 1998, the first municipal elections in Lebanon in 35 years). “Many of the guys who worked for these campaigns are now inside the tents in Martyrs’ Square,” says Samir Kassir, a columnist for the Beirut newspaper An Nahar. “What we are seeing now is the result of 15 years of intellectual pressure and groundwork.” 

Over time, this anti-Syria movement broadened, taking in more Muslim parties, though few Shia. Rafik Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, swung into the anti-Syrian camp when Syria extended the term of Lebanese President mile Lahoud, a rival of Hariri. And, when Hariri was killed, many Lebanese saw all their carefully cultivated experiments in civil society slipping away, and they chose not to accept that.

AS THE RECENT demonstrations developed, they were inspired not by the Iraqi elections, but by the recent revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. “If there is a model, they’re looking at the Ukrainian model,” says Kulchitsky. “The people here want to preserve their democracy, not to create one. And they want to do it in a peaceful way. I don’t think that the Iraqi situation carries the model of a peaceful situation.” Last November, when the Orange Revolution broke out, Kulchitsky flew to Kiev.

Back at the AUB, he gave a lecture on the Ukraine to his students—including Anthony Letayf. A campus organizer for the Free Patriotic Movement, a longtime anti-Syria group, Letayf had been going to demonstrations against Syrian occupation for years. But nothing ever seemed to change. When Hariri was killed, however, Letayf sensed that something could be different. After the funeral procession, Letayf and other campus organizers—now the moving force behind downtown Beirut’s peaceful sit-in—came to Kulchitsky and asked him to advise them on how the Ukrainians had pulled it off. The professor told them to try to emulate the Ukrainian youth: Keep it peaceful, ban drinking and fighting, camp down at the square to keep attention on them.

Letayf, too, is skeptical of the Iraq comparison. “I think that one role that it had played is that it gave the international community some credibility,” he says. “Lebanese people, and people in the Arab world in general, don’t trust the U.S. to follow through. ... If the elections in Iraq did help, it was because it made people think, ‘Maybe they really do want this, maybe they really do mean it this time.’”

This article appeared in the March 21, 2005 issue of the magazine.