In the two years since tragedy struck Beirut with the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the mourning Lebanese people have tried to resist discouragement to create a better future for Lebanon. February 14 marked the two-year anniversary of the killing, as hundreds of thousands came out to protest en masse, condemning the brutal car-bombing and calling for a peaceful solution to their country’s problems.
On the eve of the 14, I sat down with Chibli Mallat, a Lebanese Presidential candidate teaching at the Woodrow Wilson School, to discuss the situation in his home country. His Bendheim Hall office felt somewhere between homey and chaotic. His laptop charger traveled over a chair and around a pile of Arabic Law books to reach the outlet. In the thirty minutes that we spoke, Mallat remained eloquent, confident, and visibly discouraged by the increasingly worrisome situation.
“There is no point in hiding ourselves behind the rhetoric,” he explained. “In Lebanon, we had a revolution without a revolution.”
Two years after the attack that triggered what has come to be known as the Cedar Revolution, the Lebanese majority has spoken, while the many politicians representing it have remained idle. A tribunal to bring Hariri’s killers to justice has yet to be established, as Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s pro-Syrian Speaker of the House, continues to prevent parliament from meeting to approve its creation.
Mallat cited Berri’s presence and influence as a sign of the Cedar Revolution’s failure. “We have a majority in parliament,” he said. “It’s just not being acted upon. Mr. Berri says, ‘I don’t want to allow parliament to meet,’ and so parliament doesn’t meet. I’ve never seen that in any country in the world. If the speaker doesn’t want parliament to meet, let the international community convene parliament.”
Another obstacle keeping the Cedar Revolution from moving forward is the Presidency, as Emile Lahoud, the perpetually tanned, perpetually pro-Syrian, and perpetually un-elected president, remains in power.
When asked if he thought Lahoud would be replaced in the near future, Mallat was emphatic. “I have no doubt the Syrians will prevent a change in the presidency,” he said, “not so much because they like Lahoud, but because they don’t want someone in that very important seat not to be like him.”
As for his own political campaign, Mallat’s words about the presidency were somewhat surprising. “I’m mostly concerned nowadays by the fact that there is no country to be president of,” he told me, with a note of disbelief. “In other words, if, as is developing, an Iraqi scenario arises today – with a civil war which starts, and we’ll never see its end – then what does the presidency mean?”
The comparison of Lebanon to Iraq is increasingly common, and rightfully so. With the Western backed and democratically elected government struggling to stay in power in the face of Hezbollah’s belligerent actions, two clear sides have emerged among the Lebanese people, with much of the conflict arising between Sunnis and Shiias.
“That’s very scary,” said Mallat. “We never had, in the history of Lebanon, Sunni-Shiia clashes, ever.”
Mallat sees the conflict as more than sectarian, however. For him, the main difference is ideological. “We have, I think, a revolution which wants a democratic, independent Lebanon that goes forward, and we have the ancien regime that wants the Syrians back and is attached to a brutal form of government,” he said.
To make the situation all the more worrisome, Lebanon’s Christians, representing over a third of the country’s population, have separated into two camps – the one behind the Cedar Revolution’s leaders, and the other in support of General Michel Aoun and his ally Hezbollah.
Since Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers this summer, and the subsequent war that ravaged most Shiia areas in Southern Lebanon, tension between the militant organization and the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora have continued to escalate, with no sign of improvement.
For Mallat, Hezbollah’s motives are simple. “Hezbollah has started a coup in the summer, at the behest of the Syrians, to prevent the presidential change,” he said. “And they’re carrying it out. They’re saying, ‘We want to take over the country. We want the government, which has been established by the majority of the people in free elections, to disappear.’”
I asked Mallat how one could ignore as powerful a force as Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nassrallah. “Don’t ignore him,” he shot back, without a moment of hesitation. “I’m just saying to this guy, ‘Listen, there are elections, there are results to this election.’ If he doesn’t like it, in two years there will be new elections. Let him win! I was particularly active in order to get Hezbollah into government,” he explained. “We got them into government, and they didn’t lay down their weapons. Hezbollah comes into government, and takes a war against the government, consults no one to start this war, and now decides that it doesn’t like the government, of which it’s part – of which it’s part – and wants to bring it down. It’s the first time since 1972 that you have free elections in Lebanon, and they don’t want to recognize it!”
Still on the topic of Hezbollah, Mallat’s words became increasingly impassioned as the conversation progressed.
“They took us into a war that nobody wanted in Lebanon,” he said. “They ruined the country! They ruined our people, including a million Shiias who were on the street, whose houses were destroyed. For what? Were we consulted? And then we say we’re afraid of civil war. I don’t think it helps to come out with all these, you know, sweet words,” he said.
On the morning of my conversation with Mallat, two bombs were detonated on civilian buses North of Beirut, in an attack viewed by many as an effort to scare people out of protesting on the 14.
Protest they did, however, as the masses called for a better future, Lebanese flag in hand.
When I had asked Mallat if a strong show of support on the 14 could lead to change, he looked at me briefly but intensely, as if disappointed by my naiveté. “Look,” he said, taking a breath to work out his argument, “last year, like now, the 14 of February, we had a million people on the streets saying ‘Lahoud must go.’ We had an extraordinarily developed constitutional plan, which had been agreed upon. On the 16 of February, we put the plan on the table, and it was supposed to go. And then, a week later, they give in to Nabih Berri, bringing in the dialogue, and that’s it.”
He pauses, reflects deeply.
“Since then, we’ve been on the retreat,” he added. “So what’s the motto tomorrow with Hariri? What’s their bloody motto?”
Their bloody motto was a familiar one, with the political leaders of the Cedar Revolution calling for peace and unity among the Lebanese people. Saad Hariri, the murdered Prime Minister’s son, echoed Mallat’s words about the importance of a tribunal. “The international tribunal is the only way for a solution,” he said, from behind bulletproof glass. “It will stop the cycle of terrorism, blood, and assassination that has struck our country for the past 30 years.”
As for the other speakers, their words were vivid, harsh and confrontational. Druze member of parliament Walid Jumblatt, to give one of many examples, compared Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to a “snake that all snakes flee from, the missing link, the whale that seas spit out, a liar, a beast and a tyrant to end all tyrants.”
Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, hit even closer to home when addressing Lebanese President Emile Lahoud directly.
“You will ultimately go into the garbage bin of history,” he yelled, to the sound of cheers from an enthusiastic crowd. “The Lebanese people will regain their palace and their presidency.”
Whether or not these words will lead to action is anybody’s guess.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Mallat, toward the end of our conversation. “They’re losing the country. And it’s our country.”
Let’s hope they can win it back before it’s too late.