Lebanon’s “14 March”: from protest to leadership

Hazem Saghieh
1 April 2008

Three years ago, on 14 March 2005, Lebanon witnessed an unprecedented event: a demonstration of a million or more civilians protesting against the assassination of their former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri a month earlier and demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from their country. The occasion led observers to draw comparisons with Ukraine's "orange revolution" of the winter just passed, when protestors encamped on the streets of Kyiv refused to accept the results of a fraudulent presidential election and eventually - through their sheer persistent and peaceful democratic defiance - forced a re-run and in the process became citizens of a free state.

Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based Arabic paper al-Hayat. Hazem Saghieh's articles on openDemocracy include:

"Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?"
(21 February 2005)

"Lebanon's election, no solution"
(20 June 2005)

"Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family"
(14 December 2005)

"How the European left supports Lebanon"
(14 August 2006)

"Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat"
(19 December 2006)

"The Arab defeat"
(11 June 2007) Despite everything that has happened since - the series of assassinations of leading Lebanese figures (journalists, politicians, generals), the war of July-August 2006, the polarisation of Lebanese politics - the events of 14 March 2005 have assumed a kind of legendary significance in Lebanese eyes. There are two reasons for this. First, the huge assembly brought together people from the country's disparate sectarian communities who until then had only ever joined in battle. Second, it engaged a whole new generation in civilian politics, when for so long the only way to get involved had been behind the barrel of a gun. The protests' impact was such that they completely eclipsed the gathering orchestrated by Hizbollah a few days earlier in an attempt to shore up the three pillars of Lebanon's then status quo: Syrian domination, the Lebanese security apparatus and the armed Shi'a resistance (see "Rafiq al-Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?", 21 February 2008).

It is true that what happened in Beirut's "Freedom Square" that day was more a transient coalition between Lebanon's different denominations than a lasting form of trans-sectarian national unity. In this sense the mass outpouring held up a mirror to Lebanese society, especially after all the decay brought about by the years of Syrian rule. Nonetheless, the coalition still had the capacity, in theory at least, to develop into a deeper form of national and popular solidarity. It was this potential which gave the 14 March demonstration - and the movement subsequently named after it - its strength.

A three-year report-card

Yet three years on, it would be difficult to argue that the movement has accomplished its mission. The political activities of the "14 March movement" lack consistency: the alliance mobilises its supporters to commemorate certain potent anniversaries, but allows the energy of these events to dissipate once the occasions themselves have passed. Moreover, there is scarcely any sign of attempts to build solid grassroots support for the movement or to reach out to Lebanon's remoter regions.

In their reliance on outmoded and parochial forms of political action, the 14 March leaders have not tried systematically to address, convince or lure either the Shi'a of Lebanon or the Christian supporters of the former general Michel Aoun. These two blocs together constitute about 50% of the population and regard themselves as either allies or representatives of Syrian influence in Lebanon. The 14 March group, instead of developing a coherent message capable of attracting those "others", has preferred to indulge in vague and sentimental rhetoric about national unity. Just as importantly, it has failed to outline a narrative of Lebanon's recent history and its conflicts which all the country's different communities could accept (see Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon", 22 August 2006).

Also in openDemocracy on Lebanon's travails:

Roger Scruton, "Lebanon: the missing perspective" (20 July 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Lebanon: war takes root" (3 August 2006)

Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon"
(22 August 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Lebanon: the war after the war"
(12 October 2006)

Mai Ghoussoub, "Lebanon: slices of life"
(31 October 2006)

Mai Ghoussoub, "Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award"
(13 February 2007)

Fred Halliday,
"Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises"
(22 June 2007)

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, "Washington in Lebanon and Palestine: fatal manipulation"
(6 August 2007)

Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon divided"
(7 August 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Lebanon: short memory, system failure"
(25 September 2007)

The main components of the alliance have, it is true, begun to relinquish their divisive narratives regarding pan-Arabism and some versions of key episodes that took place in the decades of Lebanese history since the civil war of 1975-90. But if the 14 March movement is to gain in credibility it needs to move beyond collective amnesia and obliteration; it must provide an alternative approach which enables the Lebanese to look back with a modicum of self-criticism, and to look forward with a shared vision of their national future. What makes such a mission so crucial is that the key forces across the Lebanese political spectrum today fought each other so fiercely in the recent past (see Robert G Rabil, "Lebanon divided", 7 August 2007).

The originating and still compelling objective of the 14 March politicians is to establish responsibility for Rafiq al-Hariri's murder, including the prospect of an international tribunal to deliver justice over the crime - and exact revenge from the perpetrators. To ask that they go further and crystallise a genuine social and ideological vision is not to seek a luxury, but to demand a necessity. After all, the very nature of their social and political position - confronted as they are by a fundamentalist organisation such as Hizbollah and a quasi-totalitarian regime such as that of Syria - ought to provide them with the added impetus to articulate and champion modern ideas regarding women's rights, tolerance, liberty and resistance to tyranny in all its forms.

The movement's actual performance in this respect - its shallow rhetoric, the triviality of its political rallies, the empty praise heaped on its leaders - is notable for the absence of any such expansive, modern, forward-looking discourse. Yet its poverty of ideas is all the more surprising, given that the overwhelming majority of Lebanese intellectuals are sympathetic towards the 14 March movement.

Wanted: a new strategy

So much could be done that is not being done. The intensity of the political debates raging in Lebanon today, for example, makes it remarkable that no one has seen fit to establish a research centre to assist the country's decision-makers, providing accurate and reliable information about existing threats posed to the country's security and the people's well-being, and proposing alternative courses of action. Such lack of initiative is compounded by the 14 March alliance's inability to build social relationships and friendships between members of the very sectarian groups of which it is itself composed. It is a great pity those members come together only for electoral purposes, and that no bonds have developed between them beyond that.

It can be cogently argued that the 14 March group's members face the threat of assassination, with enemies on the scale of Syria and Iran pitted against them. These enemies, the group's defenders affirm, would not hesitate again to plunge Lebanon into war in order to divert attention from the domestic political scene; and to continue their attempts to paralyse Lebanon's government and its parliamentary life, not least in blocking the election of a new president (seventeen efforts to agree a successor to Emile Lahoud, who left office on 24 November 2007, have been unsuccessful). All this is true; yet it should at the same time be a stimulus to come up with new, more dynamic and less provincial ideas in the interests of moving from a transient sectarian coalition to lasting national unity.

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