Thursday 10 March 2005    


The Week



Mary Wakefield talks to hip, fun-loving young people in Beirut and sees how cameras and lip-liner are helping to spread democracy in Lebanon

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Issue: 12 March 2005
Cover Story
A revolution made for TV

Mary Wakefield

On Tuesday, half a million people were demonstrating in the streets of Beirut, chanting and waving flags. If you only gave the TV a quick glance, you probably assumed that they were protesting against the Syrian presence in Lebanon. In fact it was a rally organised by Hezbollah in support of Syria, but for almost a month now — since the assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri — the newspapers have been full of Beirut rising up in outrage against occupation, men and women in the streets dressed in red and white, shouting, ‘Syria Out!’: the Cedar Revolution.

Last Saturday, in Beirut, I set off in search of the revolution. I took a friend for company in case of a hostage situation, and walked west to the Place des Martyrs to show solidarity. Syria may once have been a help to Lebanon — squashing the PLO in 1976, seeing off Israel in 1990 — but after 15 years of Syrian soldiers, and with its President, Emile Lahoud, in Syria’s pocket, Beirut has understandably had enough. It looked as though, with America behind them, the people had found the courage to demand that Syrian troops and their secret service withdraw in accordance with the 1989 UN-brokered Taif accord. And having been on holiday to Lebanon once, I felt entitled to join in.

In the centre of town nothing had changed: women with Yves Saint Laurent handbags and lips outlined heavily in purple sat around in Starbucks; glossy black jeeps raced past houses pocked with bullet holes from the civil war. On every wall there were posters of the late Hariri — looking stern in black, smiling in beige, strolling in his garden — but no sign of an uprising.

We walked on, through what had been Hariri’s pet project, Beirut Central District — a vast, sandstone shopping precinct designed to entice shoppers back to derelict downtown. BCD is a fitting memorial for a billionaire construction magnate who spent his time in office trying to bond with the West: Dunkin’ Donuts, Nike, Häagen-Dazs, T.G.I. Friday’s — no major US high-street retailer goes unrepresented. Oddly, Hariri’s body, and those of the seven bodyguards who died with him, are for the time being buried under mounds of earth in the Virgin Megastore carpark.

Looking for Hariri’s grave, round the back of BCD, we found the revolution: 15 or so tents pitched around a statue of the 1916 martyrs, banners declaring ‘Independence ’05’, and some students lying on the ground under blue tarpaulins, smoking rollies and drinking bottles of mineral water. It probably doesn’t kick off until later, said my friend, so we read the graffiti around the statue — ‘Fuck you Syria’; ‘We’re working for a united Lebanon’; ‘Kiss me Hariri’; ‘Swim away President Lahoud’. A girl with dyed red hair and an Independence ’05 sticker round each bicep was writing ‘Together is forever for real unity’. She signed herself Diana, with a circle over the ‘i’. Another girl and two boys introduced themselves. ‘We brought down the government,’ said the girl, proudly. ‘Omar Karami resigned after our demonstration.’ Were you scared? ‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘25,000 people turned up and the soldiers surrounded us. Everybody was freaking out, but then this group, Independence ’05, started handing out flowers. Give them to the soldiers, they said, it’s hard to hit somebody with a rose in their hand.’ Wow, I said. Good idea. Joyce had an Independence ’05 sticker on her back. ‘So everybody is united now, in opposition to Syria?’ It seemed unlikely — the Druze, the Maronites, the Sunnis and the Shia have been fighting each other since Lebanon was created. ‘Pretty much,’ she said. ‘Come tonight — you’ll see.’

After dark, we made our way back to the Place des Martyrs — renamed Freedom Square by the revolutionaries. About 1,000 people had gathered in front of a scaffolding platform to listen to speakers from the various opposition parties — now allied under the command of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Boys swung their cedar tree flags from side to side, everybody yelled and chanted in Arabic. I tapped a young girl on the shoulder. What are they saying? I asked. ‘They say we must all be together, whatever our religion, and united in freedom, truth and unity. They are chanting that we want the truth about Hariri,’ she said. ‘We want to know who killed him.’ Who do you think it was? ‘Oh the Syrians — but we want them to admit it. Hey,’ she added, ‘what are you doing tonight? We’re going to a nightclub in the hills, come if you want, here’s my number.’

‘Out Syria! Out Syria! Out Syria!’ cried the crowd. ‘We’re revolutionaries!’ said my friend happily. But I felt a bit gypped. Everybody around me was young, good-looking, having fun, but that wasn’t really what I had had in mind. Only 1,000 or so people? I thought it was the whole of Beirut. Why was everybody under 30? Even in the middle of the crowd, right at the front, it felt less like a national protest than a pop concert. Bouncers in black bomber jackets wore laminated Independence ’05 cards round their necks, screens to the left and right of the platform reflected the crowd back at itself, and up against the Virgin Megastore wall were five plastic Portaloos. To the left of the main speaker, a man in a black flying suit with blond highlights, mirrored Oakley sunglasses and an earpiece seemed to be conducting the crowd. Sometimes he’d wave his arms to increase the shouting, sometimes, with a gesture, he’d silence them. The upturned faces of the revolutionaries were bathed in white light from the TV arc lamps.

Eventually I worked out what was bothering me. ‘This whole thing is for the cameras,’ I said to my friend. ‘It’s a television show.’ ‘Don’t be so cynical,’ she said. ‘It’s a celebration — they brought down the government, remember.’ I walked over to the vast tent that covered Hariri’s grave in the Virgin car park. Production assistants with clipboards busied themselves around trucks full of monitors and amplifiers. Girls from a company called Future TV were putting make-up on teenagers selling ‘Freedom bracelets’, and the Future Youth Association stood behind a trestle table giving out stickers and blue ribbons in memory of Hariri. In front of the grave, hundreds of multicoloured candles had melted on to the ground. Wreaths of lilies lay in piles and two or three white doves tottered about in the wax. By Hariri’s head, a mini advertising hoarding demanded ‘The Truth’.

As if it were that simple. The truth is that the Syrians would have had to be nuts to kill Rafik Hariri; the assassination galvanised international feeling and gave Bush an excuse to use words like ‘now’ and ‘non-negotiable’. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t do it: Syrian extremists, angry with Assad for appeasing the West (voting for the war in Iraq and handing over Saddam’s brother, for instance), may well have taken matters into their own hands.

The truth is that the revolution is much smaller and more stage-managed in real life than it appears in photographs. But that doesn’t mean that Lebanon wouldn’t be better off without Syria: Damascus encourages rifts between the various Lebanese factions, it manipulates Lebanon’s government and, as Walid Jumblatt says, ‘There is no normal economic relationship between Syria and Lebanon. It’s their mafias and local clients overmilking our cow.’

The truth is that the Cedar Revolution has been presented and planned in just the same way as Ukraine’s Orange revolution and, before it, the Rose revolution in Georgia. But just because it is in American interests doesn’t mean it’s an American production. ‘The Lebanese people were watching the Ukrainian revolution very closely,’ a Lebanese academic told me. ‘The reason the Cedar Revolution looks so similar to the scenes in Kiev is that they set out, quite deliberately, to copy it.’ The Financial Times reported that a 32-year-old Lebanese businessman called Khodor Makkaoui founded Independence ’05 after Hariri’s murder brought people on to the streets. ‘My friends and I saw that lots of political parties were waving their own flags, and we thought we needed to have one visual identity which would be more impressive,’ he said. ‘We raised money from people we know and started printing Lebanese flags.’ Presentation is everything. In 1990, thousands of Christians demonstrated for weeks on end, calling on Damascus to withdraw its troops from the country. But Makkaoui wasn’t around to print flags or claim a colour, so the cameras didn’t take much notice.

The truth is that, on the streets of Beirut, you could probably find a quote to support every attitude towards Syria’s presence in Lebanon. On Saturday night, in a hotel bar in the Muslim quarter, we met a Beiruti boy called Bashir. ‘How come you’re not at the revolution?’ Bashir shrugged, ‘Why would I be? That’s just for teenagers, to have fun.’ Don’t you want Syria out? ‘Don’t believe what you read in the papers,’ said Bashir. ‘The Syrians are OK. Anyway, the demonstration doesn’t matter. A thousand people won’t make a difference. America will make a difference.’

‘What you think of Syria being here depends what your business interests are,’ said a sausage magnate from Byblos. ‘I’m all for Syria going — I’ve got property here, and if they leave I reckon it’ll double in value. But I have friends in every political party, even high up in the government.’ Aha! So who killed Rafik Hariri? I asked. ‘I’m not sure, but you know, it’s safer not to speculate about that sort of thing.’

In the Christian quarter the anti-Syrian feeling was more heartfelt. ‘It’s wonderful that the Syrians are going,’ said a middle-aged woman who had fled to Paris during the war. ‘But they must leave before the elections in May, otherwise they will rig them again. I’m amazed you’re here, though,’ she said. ‘The pictures of Beirut on television make it look as if the whole place is a riot.’

An old man, Michel, saw our freedom stickers and came over to kiss our hands. ‘Bless you,’ he said. ‘I am going now myself, to cheer for freedom.’ A little later I asked a taxi-driver how his old Merc kept going. ‘It’s the Syrians,’ he said. ‘They’re the best mechanics. I’ll be in trouble if they go.’ So you want Syria to stay? ‘It’s complicated. We’re certainly not all like those kids.’ He waved a hand in the direction of the revolution. ‘But I just want peace and I’m scared of Bush demanding that things happen like this’ — he snapped his fingers. ‘Anyway, if America is so concerned about occupied countries, why don’t they do something about Israel?’

So it’s a tricky business, the Cedar Revolution — a bit bogus, unrepresentative, but a great PR success. On Monday Syrian troops began to withdraw peacefully from both northern and southern Lebanon. Bashar al-Assad would never have got round to ratifying the Taif accord without pressure from America, and it’s unlikely that Bush would have had such unconditional support from France, Germany or England without those photographs of freedom fighters in the Place des Martyrs.

But, like everything about Lebanon, there’s another side to the story. The same photographs that ensured international support have given Bush an excuse to use the sort of language that sounds better coming from Clint Eastwood. In response to the news that Syrian troops were beginning to pull out, the White House said, ‘This does not add up to Syria leaving Lebanon. We will continue to hold their feet to the fire, not accept half-measures and call a spade a spade.’ And as 500,000 Lebanese gathered in Riad el-Solh Square to protest against American interference, Bush ignored them entirely and spoke over their heads to the teenagers in the Place des Martyrs. ‘All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience,’ he told them. ‘The American people are on your side. Millions across the Earth are on your side.’ It’s an odd way to promote democracy in the Middle East — to ignore an eighth of the country’s population.

As I walked back through Beirut at midnight on Sunday, the streets were silent. Soldiers stood in side streets, machine guns at the ready, and both Syrian and Lebanese flags hung from balconies. I should have been nervous — it would have made a better story — but the truth is that, in spite of everything, Beirut feels like a safer place to walk around at night than either New York or London. It would be a great shame if, after all it has achieved, the fun-loving, hip, made-for-TV Cedar Revolution helped bring violence back on to the streets.