Ten years on, Lebanon's 'Cedar Revolution'
The Lebanese love a good party, and this was the biggest, boldest, brassiest the country had ever seen. The color theme was the red and white of Lebanon’s flag; the crowds, emboldened by their numbers, swayed in a patriotic rave; they chanted the slogans beloved by today’s young “revolutionaries”: Independence, Democracy, Freedom, Sovereignty, Truth, Justice.
If hope was a commodity, Lebanon was never richer than on March 14, 2005.
Ten years on, those intricately involved in Lebanon’s “Independence Intifada” still speak with intensity about its metamorphosis, beginning with the violent assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri on February 14 and culminating with the withdrawal of 14,000 Syrian troops on April 26.
A resounding success? Well…yes and no. The Syrians left the country, probably a lot faster than anyone could have anticipated. Syrians out - check.
Syria’s political apparatus in Lebanon was dismantled in short shrift by its freshly-galvanized adversaries. Neuter Syria’s allies - check.
An UN-sponsored international tribunal was established to chase
down Hariri’s killers. Truth and Justice - check.
For one fleeting moment, Lebanon was unified – Christians and Muslims coalescing around common cause. The Lebanese could suddenly speak out freely without crippling fear of Syria’s security apparatchiks. And parliamentary elections that could help solidify the nation’s democratic underpinnings beckoned a mere two months away.
But then, with the departure of the last Syrian soldier - as quickly as it started, the “revolution” was over. The tent camps in Martyr’s Square emptied out overnight. Political parties began haggling over settlements and alliances for the elections. The TV cameras shut off. And it was politics as usual. Authority merely shifted from one set of hands to another. A coup d’état of sorts, so to speak.
Some background first
Things are never simple in the Middle East, and the lead up to Hariri’s assassination is no exception. The former prime minister had been gearing up for 2005 parliamentary elections since the previous summer. He had already told the Syrians that he would not accept their appointees on his election list, but publically at least; Hariri did not stray far from the Syrian line in Lebanon.
The Lebanese-Saudi billionaire – with his multinational political and business dealings - had played a prominent role in hammering out the Saudi-sponsored Taif Agreement in 1989, which formed the basis for ending the civil war, prepared the grounds for Syria’s departure from Lebanon, and established broad external support for Syria’s continued guardianship over Lebanon.
With Israel’s forced withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the mood had changed in the small Levantine state, and demands for a Syrian withdrawal began to slowly be heard, most prominently from the mainly-Christian Cornet Chehwan gathering assembled in 2001 - some of whose members had been responsible in 1976 for inviting the Syrians into the country in the first place.
By 2004, the group – which only represented a part of Lebanon’s Christian community - had not yet managed to gather interest from outside its base, but help was on its way. George W. Bush was re-elected president of the United States that year and set about initiating a second wave of his “democracy” interventions in the Middle East, this time with the help of France. During a June 2004 meeting in Normandy between Bush and French President Jacques Chirac, the two decided to put aside their bitter differences over Iraq and re-engage over the Levant. First on the agenda was kicking Syria out of Lebanon, a necessary step toward the larger goal of dismantling its alliance with Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas. That September, UN Security Council Resolution 1559 was adopted. Without naming Syria explicitly, the France/US-sponsored resolution called for “foreign forces” to withdraw from Lebanese territory and to cease intervening in the affairs of the state. Not all Lebanese approved – many considered the resolution itself an intervention by “foreign forces.”
The Syrians understood that a noose was tightening around them – very rapidly and proactively. According to Lebanon’s then-Minister of Information Elie Ferzli - a pro-Syrian, Greek-Orthodox, former deputy speaker of parliament who maintained good relations with the Americans - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had already planned to leave:
“President Assad told me personally he is not going to stay in the Bekaa area (an opposition demand) – he wants to go back to Syria. He said ‘There is a lot of pressure coming to me and I want to protect myself inside Syria.’ He said this to me after the meeting of Bush and Chirac in Normandy. And he said ‘Don’t be surprised if Syria will be out of Lebanon between one night and the next.’”
In January 2005, the Americans cut off communications with Damascus. Then on February 14, Rafiq Hariri was killed in the biggest car bomb Beirut had seen in years.
Inside Lebanon, a quantum shift
Within hours of Hariri’s assassination, the political balance in Beirut started shifting dramatically.
Khodr Ghadban, who headed up the youth department of Druze leader Walid Joumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), says people reacted immediately:
“At 4pm (three hours after Hariri’s death) we called a meeting with all the heads of student and youth departments from the opposition political parties and we said the Syrian security regime killed Rafiq Hariri. This was a first. After 2 hours, Joumblatt asked opposition political leaders to meet at Hariri’s house in Qoraitem. They wrote a statement asking the Syrian army to leave in line with Taif and they announced the funeral of Hariri in two days - it would be open to the public. We asked people to go out into the street. This was the first organized demonstration of the movement.”
On the evening of Hariri’s funeral, an informal coalition of opposition parties that had thus far been divided on the issue of Syria’s military presence, convened at Beirut’s Bristol Hotel and “messaging” began in earnest toward a common vision. Says Nora Joumblatt, wife of the Druze leader and herself a civil society leader who played “mainly a logistical role” in the then-fledgling March 14 movement:
“We had decided on red and white colors (for the protests). I went to Dahiyeh and bought material in these colors. We cut them here at the office and brought them (scarves) to the Bristol meeting that night.”
Opposition political leaders were first seen in the “Independence Intifada’s” red-and-white color theme at that gathering. That night, she says was also when a decision was made to “keep demonstrations going and grow them big.”
There were several very clear and important developments forming at this point: 1) The Druze and Sunni communities – under the stewardship of Walid Joumblatt and Saad Hariri – entered into a strategic engagement with the ‘Syria Out’ Christian parties of Cornet Chehwan and other smaller groups for the first time. 2) A narrative was being built that Syria was responsible for the death of Hariri and that the necessary next step was a Syrian expulsion. 3) “Momentum” – a word that everyone started to use – needed to be maintained following the “event” of Hariri’s assassination, to force this expulsion.
The idea of thematic colors for the “March 14 movement” – red and white - had been conceived by a small decision-making hub that was formed well before Hariri’s death. A trio of friends that included communications and marketing whiz Eli Khoury, head of Quantum and Saatchi & Saatchi; writer Samir Kassir who also headed up the Democratic Left Movement (DLM) formed in September 2004; and Cornet Chehwan member and journalist Samir Frangieh made up its core.
“We had already planned 'Independence ‘05' beforehand – this was the two Samirs and myself - about a year before Hariri was killed,” says Eli Khoury of Quantum. What was the impetus, I ask? “George Bush coming to power, the Iraq war, discontent between Hariri and Syria, between Joumblatt and the Syrians. Everything indicated that people were ready to do something. And our eye was on the 2005 elections.”
Khoury and his colleagues whipped out slogans, banners, props, concepts throughout the months between Hariri’s death and the arrests of four pro-Syria generals who headed up Lebanon’s key security posts.
Khoury claims credit for some of the most effective ‘messages’ of the Independence Intifada. He also says that the “official” messages of the movement came out of his committee. This is the kind of political marketing and directioning of narratives observed at many pro-West “color revolutions” of recent years – and Khoury, whose many clients include the US government, gets accused of being an American operative as a result. To this, he says with a grin: “All we did was summarize people’s aspirations in slogans and give them a date.”
There were a number of Lebanese groups that became important hubs of the movement developing in Martyr’s Square.
The key hubs that communicated daily with each other – or with one degree of separation – were Eli Khoury’s Quantum group, Nora Joumblatt’s logistical group, event planner Asma Andraous’ logistical group, the student/youth groups representing the different political parties and trends (these were mostly based in the tent camps), and the an-Nahar group led by Gebran Tueni who headed up the an-Nahar newspaper.
There were other hubs that interacted with these core groups and
were influential: the Bristol group, featuring the top opposition
leaders (now including Joumblatt and Hariri too) who quickly
became the primary drivers of the movement's political direction;
the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) hub – arguably the most
valuable organizational asset on the ground in Martyr’s Square;
and a smattering of groups that included media, parliamentarians
Who funded all these activities?
Ezzat Kraytem, at the time an executive committee member of Rafiq Hariri’s election campaign, says point blank: “We funded everyone’s activities. Hariri was one of the big funders of this movement.”
Most concur with his statement – the Hariri funding was not exactly a secret. But for instance, Asma Andraous’ hub opened a bank account which she says received almost half a million dollars from Lebanese donors worldwide. Her group of 30 core professionals – like others – also received a lot of ‘in kind’ help. Explains Andraous, who now heads up Future Movement Saad Hariri’s public relations: “We were a well-connected group of people – we used our network.”
It is one of the many criticisms of the “Independence Intifada” – sometimes referred to sarcastically as the “Gucci Revolution.” This was perhaps the most bourgeois, privileged, affluent, sophisticated people’s movement the world has ever seen, consisting of a small elite group of friends, colleagues, and political heavyweights, some of who could pick up the phone and call world leaders.
The General in exile
Sixteen years earlier, on March 14, 1989, FPM leader General Michel Aoun declared a “Liberation War” against Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. Every year on March 14, “Aounists” – as his supporters are often called – would organize protests to commemorate this pivotal date. But the significance of this date – and the contribution of Aounists in 2005 - seems to have been long lost on the opposition leadership who appropriated March 14 as their own.
Opposition activists who worked with the Aounists in Martyr's Square in 2005 admit: “The Aounists were one of the first people to hit the streets, to be fair,” concedes Asma Andraous. Gebran Tueni’s former assistant Shirin Abdallah, who managed a lot of the activities between an-Nahar and the camps in 2005, agrees: “The Aounists were behind most of the activities that took place – they knew more than anybody. The other political parties didn’t know how to do this.” She names a youth leader of the Future Movement and smiles: “It was his first demonstration!”
While most of the activism in February and March 2005 converged around the idea of ejecting the Syrians – regardless of personal views about Syria’s complicity in Hariri’s death – there were stark differences in vision and strategy beyond that one goal. And it appears that some decided to seize the ‘momentum’ for themselves.
Ziad Abs, a member of the FPM and one of the key figures on the ground of the March 14 activities saw these differences manifest tangibly as the independence movement swelled in downtown Beirut: “We noticed that things were being organized without the participation of the activists about two weeks before the March 14 event.”
“We never agreed with some of the slogans emerging – we never agreed to the poster with the four generals, for instance,” he says, referring to a poster generated out of the Quantum/Khoury/Kassir hub that targeted the banishment of four Lebanese security chiefs closely allied with Syria.
That poster was one marker of some strategic re-direction that was taking place from within a segment of the opposition. And it was not necessarily a direction representative of widespread Lebanese sentiment. For some who wanted Syria out, it represented Western interests – for others, it represented an unnecessary fight with the Syrians.
Andraous tells me about the poster: “It was Samir’s idea, Eli’s execution, and I was the courier,” she admits boldly, explaining that she would often transport materials into the square “because the mukhabarat would not stop women.”
Khoury confirms most of her account: “Asma is almost right. Samir had come back to me after a Bristol meeting and said they had this idea of the four generals’ poster. I said I wouldn’t do it out of our own ops so the mukhabarat wouldn’t trace it back to me. The kids (activists) did it.”
Back at the Aounist camp, Ziad Abs also noticed meetings taking place at An-Nahar “that we were suddenly not invited to. Out of those meetings decisions were being taken that changed things on the ground.”
But it was after the massive demonstrations of March 14 that things really began to change, he says: “The March 14 coalition went to Paris and asked the French not to allow Aoun back before the election. They even asked for the election to be moved up so they could utilize the momentum. And then they insisted on using the election law the Syrians imposed.”
Nicolas Sehnoui, Lebanon’s former minister of telecommunications speaks bitterly about some of these politicized stunts: “General Aoun was supposed to speak on video from Paris during the big March 14 event, but the audio was cut. A third of the demonstrators were FPM supporters – this event couldn’t have been done without him.”
Is that an inflated figure? It is hard to say. But when Aoun went his own way in the parliamentary elections just three months later, he annihilated the other Christian political parties, capturing a clear majority of their designated seats. In the polls, he single-handedly gained 21 parliamentary seats compared to the combined Cornet Chehwan gain of 14 seats.
Ziad Hafez, a Lebanese academic and a prominent Arab nationalist intellectual in Lebanon agrees: “The backbone of the protests was the Aounists. But they felt betrayed. After Aoun pulled out of the March 14 coalition in the summer of 2005, March 14 was no longer able to muster the same kind of demonstrations again.”
So, was the March 14 movement hijacked? Hafez notes: “When sovereignty meant independence, who could argue with that? When sovereignty meant being anti-Syrian and anti-Resistance, people started smelling a rat.”
Abs does not blame most of those involved though. He makes clear that “the people involved in the March 14 event are genuine. There were others who saw the direction and decided to be the new regime.”
While the events organized during the March 14 protest movement were largely a homegrown development, there were also clear foreign agendas at play - some of these highly desirable for a very pro-West and anti-Syrian segment of the opposition.
The growing March 14 break with Aoun, for instance, was mirrored in Washington. In a revealing WikiLeaks Cable, then-US Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman calls Aoun “unpredictable” and “uncontrollable” - and acknowledges the “previous March 14 policy of attempting to marginalize Aoun and make him irrelevant.”
Then there were the American attempts to “package” and “frame” the movement inside Lebanon to suit their own policy objectives – focused heavily on undermining Syrian hegemony and bolstering Bush’s “democracy promotion” narratives.
At a February 28, 2005 news conference, US Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky decided to re-brand events in Beirut: "In Lebanon, we see growing momentum for a ‘cedar revolution’ that is unifying the citizens of that nation to the cause of true democracy and freedom from foreign influence. Hopeful signs span the globe, and there should be no doubt that the years ahead will be great ones for the cause of freedom."
Two weeks after her comments, on March 8, in the biggest demonstration to date, half a million Lebanese protestors hit the streets to oppose this direction and to “thank Syria” for its role in Lebanon. That protest was not opposed to Syrian troops leaving, but its geopolitical focus was entirely different and in favor of Syria’s regional role. They too demanded “Truth” and waved the red and white Lebanese flags. But they also held placards saying “No to American intervention.” And this view did not hold Western media and government interest.
The Economist rightly pointed out after the million-man turnout on March 14: “If the Lebanese are, by the rough tally of crowd sizes, two-to-one in favor of change, the media greatly amplify this advantage.”
And amplify they did – both the Lebanese and foreign media outlets. In Lebanon, there was “an element of calculated mobilization in the way television stations sought to bring audiences together and create a sense of collectivity among them,” writes Lina Khatib in a paper on the impact of television in the “Beirut Spring.”
TV networks catered to and mobilized the crowds, and the crowds catered to and mobilized the TV networks. The “momentum” swelled under this kind of intensive spotlight, but it also increasingly became “staged.”
This kind of staging has become a hallmark of Western-style “democracy-chasing” color revolutions. And the designers of yesterday’s Eastern European regime-change now hire out their services:
“CANVAS has worked with dissidents from almost every country in the Middle East; the region contains one of CANVAS’s biggest successes, Lebanon, and one of its most disappointing failures, Iran,” reads an article in Foreign Policy from February 2011.
CANVAS’ founders were once the leaders of Serbia’s OTPOR, and honed their craft during the Serbian revolt against Slobodan Milosevic. They then went on to teach others how to “make revolutions.” One could argue that what CANVAS really does is 1) train motivated and impressionable youth to revolt against governments that are out of favor with the West, 2) teach them how to use branding, stunts and gimmicks to create a “perception” that will “steer” public sentiment away from the “silent middle”, and 3) prepare and subvert national sentiment to support a rebellion that results in “regime change.”
“Revolutions are often seen as spontaneous,” Ivan Marovic, a former CANVAS trainer, says in the Foreign Policy article. “It looks like people just went into the street. But it’s the result of months or years of preparation. It is very boring until you reach a certain point, where you can organize mass demonstrations or strikes. If it is carefully planned, by the time they start, everything is over in a matter of weeks.”
Sometime during the 2005 Beirut protests, CANVAS trainers and bosses arrived in Beirut to teach Lebanese activists how to grab media attention, launch campaigns and organize a “revolution.”
Michel Elefteriades, a well-known Lebanese music producer, political activist and FPM supporter, was one of the key activists at Martyr’s Square. He tells me: “Gebran Tueni called me and told me I should help organize some Serb guys who were coming to help us. They seemed very professional in their ideas and activities. I could see their touch in the activities around us - they are specialists in color revolutions.”
Elefteriades says he first met Ivan Marovic straight after he arrived in Beirut and ferried him around initially.
“Then they started telling us what to do and what not to do. I accompanied them to media meetings – all were international media – and they were coordinating things with them. They knew each other well. From the first day, they were telling me we should not call it “Intifada al-Arz (Cedar Uprising) – that the West will not like the word “Intifada.” They said Arabic opinion won’t count; it is the West’s that counts. And then they told the journalists not to use the word “Intifada.”
He continues: “They gave us a list of slogans that they wanted to be shown on Western TV. They told us and the Western journalists where to place the banners, when to raise it, even what size it should be. For example, they would ask the journalists to provide their broadcast time slots and then would tell us to set our watches and raise our banners at precisely 3:05pm, based on when that TV station would go live from Beirut. It was a complete staging.”
It was at that point that Elefteriades refused to continue working with the CANVAS guys.
CANVAS claiming credit for the success of Lebanese protests irks Shirin Abdallah, former assistant to Gebran Tueni. Her boss, the influential head of an-Nahar newspaper, was the man who invited CANVAS to Lebanon after all:
Abdallah insists indignantly, “the momentum was already there – CANVAS was brought in to keep the momentum.”
She remembers Tueni “sitting with Frances Abouzeid of Freedom House whom he had met at a Davos meeting” and the two watching the sea of protestors outside his window: “Frances told Tueni someone needed to keep the momentum and teach people how to do it.”
Abdallah says Tueni had a training room at An-Nahar and that CANVAS held two separate weekend sessions there. But “the first one was with Ivan Marovic,” and it was held secretively in a tent full of youth opposition leaders because Amn al-Aam (Lebanon’s General Security) had interrogated Ivan and shortened his Lebanese visa. “That meeting happened quietly with guards outside the tent.”
“That first day, Ivan taught about how to keep momentum. Ring bells to keep things in people’s minds. Messaging,” explains Abdallah. She says the two other CANVAS training sessions took place after March 14 and before the Syrian troops departed. But Elefteriades says he met them well before March 14.
CANVAS did not respond to a series of questions I sent by email and Ivan seems to have forgotten his work in Lebanon altogether. When asked in December 2013 on Twitter about his activities in Lebanon in 2005, and whether he engaged in pro-democracy training, he replies:
“No trainings, it was just a visit. I was a guest of late Gebran Tueni, met with people in the Martyrs' Square.” And then a follow up tweet: “This visit was my only connection with Lebanon, I wasn't involved in any training and don't know of any trainings.”
Says Andraous: “Every single American pro-democracy group was on the ground. They taught youth how to mobilize, kept youth busy, they were very enthusiastic.” Eli Khoury doesn’t think they were essential to the protests though: “Lots of international groups came to help. They thought they were coming into some Yemen and found themselves useless and left. CANVAS was one of them.”
A senior British Foreign Office official told me a few years back: “The Tribunal is a useful tool to keep the Iranians in line. We don’t have too many tools left to do that.”
The tribunal he refers to is the UN-sponsored Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) that seeks to identify and prosecute those who assassinated Hariri and others who followed him, like Samir Kassir and Gebran Tueni.
But this vehicle for “justice” has already been compromised in the minds of many Lebanese, with its various missteps, leaks and false accusations over the years.
More importantly, neither the Syrian government nor Syrian nationals have been indicted for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri.
Furthermore, the four Lebanese generals on the March 14 poster were swept up and imprisoned in an opposition witch hunt, but released after four years for lack of evidence and without being charged with any crime.
A government was brought down, a prime minister resigned, a president was ridiculed, Lebanon opened its doors to unprecedented legal interference by foreign powers and the ground was set for a US-backed, Israeli military assault to destroy the Lebanese resistance. These were the Bush-flavored “birth pangs of a new Middle East” and Western hegemony entered the Lebanese theater unimpeded, without any Arab protector standing guard.
And ironically, the new Lebanese March 14 ‘regime’ consisted almost entirely of the politicians and political figures who had least resisted Syria’s occupation, yet now stood to gain the most.
Says journalist Jean Aziz, a former member of the right-wing Lebanese Forces party and an activist during March 14 events: “The people who exaggerated their hatred and animosity toward Syria were the same people who were extreme supporters of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. Read the parliamentary speeches. Of all of them, only Tueni was hard on Syria in his speech.”
Worse yet, Lebanon entered a new phase of sectarian polarity and a Sunni-Shia divide began to emerge. A Beirut Center for Research and Information poll published on March 16 by Assafir newspaper, later by the Foreign Broadcast and Information Service (FBIS) reveals some markedly different Lebanese views on events of the day. The survey asks a series of questions related to US-French intervention, Hariri’s assassination, the Resistance and other hot political issues. Notably, in early 2005, on many of the questions, Druze and Christians fall on one side of the response spectrum, while Sunni and Shia are closer together on the other side. Today that consensus has been wrenched apart.
In the intervening years, narratives have formed to drive those communities further apart – and to foster mistrust, even hatred, between Sunni and Shia. Not just in Lebanon but throughout the Middle East.
It reminds me of a French poll taken in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Asked which nation had most contributed to the defeat of Germany in 1945, the French chose the USSR with an overwhelming 57% to only 20% for the US and 12% for the UK. Seventy years later - and a big dose of “Hollywood” in between – the French were asked the same question. In 2014, 58% of respondents said the US had most contributed to the defeat of Germany in WW2, followed by the USSR at 20% and the UK at 16%.
Lebanon became immersed in divisive and harmful narratives in the aftermath of Hariri’s death – ones that he himself had sought to defuse during his lifetime. And they were mostly in the service of US-French interests in reshaping the region with minimal resistance.
Ten years after the March 14 events, is Lebanon more free and independent, is it more democratic, are truth and justice more apparent in everyday life? Did the unity of Martyr’s Square continue for even one more day after Syrian troops left the country?
The Aounists and a handful of others refused to leave the tent camps, but everyone else packed up the day after and went home.
Says Elie Ferzli, the former deputy speaker of parliament: “Aoun left the movement. After that, Joumblatt left also. Syria withdrew from Lebanon. Today, 1.5 million Syrians entered the country; some are terrorists with ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. And all the countries of the world interfere in every detail of Lebanon. So where is March 14 today?”
Says Nora Joumblatt: "Am I satisfied? Maybe on a personal level yes, but not on a political level. Because I don’t think we achieved what we were really hoping for – which was a democratic state, a liberal and democratic state. The system hasn’t changed. I believe we were somehow cheated because politics went back to small politics."
And Eli Khoury: "Our goal was partially achieved.
Unfortunately we had to leave matters in the hands of politicians
and politicians turn out to be...politicians. They were naïve at
times and opportunists at others.”
And Khodr Ghadban: "After March 14, the focus was keeping momentum going until Syria left. After they left, we lost the moment – we didn’t have one common strategic vision.”
And Michel Elefteriades: "I wanted the Syrians out but I didn’t want the Syrians to be replaced by the Americans or the West - or for Lebanon to be driven into a clash with Syria.”
And Asma Andraous: "It was a wave - ride it, get your
achievements, put the pressure on the right places, and get out…
And then it all went haywire the minute the Syrians left. The day
after, the discourse became very political partisan."
When the “Arab Spring” kicked off in early 2011, many Lebanese asked themselves: “were we the first Arab Spring state?”
I think, yes. Lebanon was the first state in the modern Arab world where people with hope and goodwill were duped into becoming foot soldiers for a larger design – a re-direction that came from both within the country by its political elite, and from outside, where the end goals were even less concerned about a Lebanese future. Yes, Lebanon should pat itself on the back for waving color-coordinated banners, bellowing “freedom and democracy” slogans, posing for the 1,000 TV cameras that broadcasted its vanity globally, and reducing universal aspirations to a few sexy catch phrases.
Will Lebanon do this again? Hopefully not. There is no “revolution” without leadership, vision or a concrete program of national development. Those things take toil and trouble. And they don’t exist in the 21st century of quick fixes.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.