by Marianne Stigset
(IPS) BEIRUT -- The assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri proved a catalyst for the unfurling of exceptional public protest in Lebanon. Within 24 hours of the attack, a vigil was held at the site of the blast on Beirut's seafront. From there on, public mobilization escalated to daily demonstrations and a permanent sit-in at Martyrs' Square in the heart of the Lebanese capital, next to the burial site of the slain Sunni leader.
A revolution was set in motion, led on the political front by the opposition movement composed of Christian, Druze (a regional Islamic grouping) and Sunni parties, and backed by the masses on the street.
On Tuesday pro-Syrian groups also staged a massive demonstration in Beirut, opening up prospects of new political divisions at the popular level. But the anti-Syrian movement is pushing ahead with its own agenda, after some remarkable successes.
As pressure on the Syrian-backed government grew, the 'Independence 05' movement as it calls itself won its first victory: on Feb. 28, with over 100,000 demonstrators gathered at Martyrs' Square, Prime Minister Omar Karami buckled and announced the resignation of his government.
The event proved a turning point in Lebanese history: never before had a government fallen at the hands of peaceful public protest. Media hailed the event as the triumph of "people power" and a boosted opposition movement sat down to agree on a political agenda and roadmap for the country's future.
Yet on the ground, the revolution's foot soldiers are revealing an agenda of their own, which has been in preparation for years.
Far from being a group of concerned citizens who spontaneously gathered in protest against the killing of a popular leader, the core of the activists present at Martyrs' Square are young members of Christian political groups who have been fighting the Syrian occupation of Lebanon for years.
"For 15 years, since the end of the war basically, this movement composed of our group, Kataeb (the Phalangists), the Lebanese Forces (LF) and General Aoun's party (the Free Patriotic Movement), has been fighting Syrian occupation," Elie Chamoun, president of the National Liberal Party (NLP) student organization, one of the groups represented at the Square told IPS. "And now all these other parties have joined us, who have a large constituency. It has become the fight of all the Lebanese."
Nabil Abou-Charaf is member of an independent student movement represented at the Square, and a coordinator of the protests. "We are a core group of students hailing from different factions who have been organising demonstrations for years," the 24-year-old student says. "We had an agenda ready, all we needed was a spark to set it all in motion. Now we are a driving force behind the events taking place on the ground."
Charaf who is from a Christian political family, has been engaged in political activism against Syrian occupation and the Lebanese government for seven years. His struggle has meant several arrests, torture at the hands of the Lebanese intelligence services, and regular death threats.
Undeterred, the young man sees the political upheaval arising from Hariri's death as an opportunity to fundamentally change the premises of the Lebanese political system, starting with the full withdrawal of Syrian troops and secret agents, the resignation of President Emile Lahoud and the organization of free parliamentary elections. In that regard, his immediate goals overlap with those of the political opposition. But this is where the similarities end.
A self-proclaimed independent, Charaf sees no future leader for his country among the group of politicians that helped topple the government, and has made a point of demonstrating that his movement is taking orders from no one.
"This opposition movement has no agenda, there is no real leader among them, except (Druze MP Walid) Jumblatt for now," he says. "So as to show them we are our own movement, over a thousand of us stormed the parliament square two weeks ago, breaking through the security barriers, and staged a sit-in there. Nobody had been warned about this. They went crazy -- within an hour we had Jumblatt and (former army commander General Michel) Aoun on the phone, telling us to stop."
"We consult with the opposition movement," said Sami Gemayel, son of former president Amin Gemayel and head of the Kataeb student movement. "When we agree with them, we do what they want, otherwise, we do our own thing. We are our own movement."
Unlike the opposition movement, most of the groups present at Martyrs' Square call for the implementation of Resolution 1559, rather than the 1989 Taef Accord, which sealed the Lebanese civil war and laid the foundation for the country's new constitution. The main reason for this is that Taef does not give a timetable for a full Syrian withdrawal.
"Taef does not set a fixed date for the Syrian troop withdrawal," said Gemayel. "It only stipulates that the troops must withdraw to the Bekaa, and then the two governments should coordinate the definitive withdrawal. This second phase could take years -- we want an immediate and final withdrawal."
Furthermore, the UN Resolution calls for the disarmament of all militia groups on Lebanese territory -- a clause first and foremost directed at Hezbollah. Although both the opposition and the popular movement strongly support this demand, some groups at the Square go one step further than their political leaders by insisting on the disarmament of all Palestinian militia groups as well, and the closure of the Palestinian refugees camps -- numbering some 400,000 inhabitants.
"We have fought the Palestinians since 1975, we have thousands of martyrs," said Chamoun. "Every household knows a person who was killed either by the Syrians or the Palestinians. We don't want any more foreigners in Lebanon. We want to dissolve the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. The Palestinians here is not our problem -- it is a regional problem."
Others take a more moderate approach, insisting that they support the Palestinian cause. "We are here, in the middle of Beirut, asking for our freedom. The Palestinians should be doing the same on their territories, not armed, from here," said Maroun Abi Najem, a 24-year-old student demonstrator. "We respect them, but their freedom fight should be fought elsewhere."
A deeper disapproval also underlies the rejection of the Taef Accord -- one which touches upon the very fundamentals of the Lebanese political system. "Taef does not count, it is a document to end a war, not reconstruct a nation," said Charaf. He and other activists demonstrating with him aim at eventually rewriting the constitution and changing the entire premise of the Lebanese political system, based on confessionalism.
"We disagree with how Taef has institutionalized relations among the Lebanese and the constitutional system that has come out of it," said Gemayel. "It needs to be reviewed, if not downright eliminated. We need to get together to have a serious dialogue about this, so as to ensure that we do not fall into the same traps as we did in the past. Every ten to 15 years Lebanon falls into conflict, and this is primarily due to the constitution, which has not been able to provide sufficient guarantees to all the Lebanese, so that they can live in peace."
The end of political confessionalism is stipulated by the Taef Accord, but no specific timetable was provided for its actualization. The issue is an explosive one, which goes to the heart of the problem of Lebanon's splintered existence. The history of a country which harbours 17 different sectarian groups is marred by inter-communal feuds.
"Eventually, we would like to see a secular political system," said Charaf. "One where our president could be Shiite for example. But it will take a long time before the country will be ready for this. We're taking this one step at a time."
Although still presenting a united front, it could be a question of time before the opposition movement and the popular movement end up marching out of step.
March 9, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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