Lebanon: The forgotten revolution

Uprisings elsewhere in the region shouldn't blind us from the upheaval in Beirut.

The bronze statue in downtown Beirut, commemorating those who fought for Lebanese freedom from foreign occupation - first against the Ottomans, then against the French - is presciently one of the few surviving structures in Martyrs' Square from before the Lebanese civil war. Pocked with bullet holes, it is now in a no-man's land; flanked by busy roads on either side.

Although the Middle East is saturating news reports at the moment, Lebanon has been mostly ignored since the uprisings began in Tunisia in mid-January. However, it was in Lebanon where the first Middle Eastern revolution was quietly staged in early January 2011, and Lebanon whose future is most uncertain.

Visible from the Martyrs' statue is a massive tent-like mausoleum in which rests the body of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated on 14 February 2005 when his motorcade was bombed in central Beirut. Lebanon has seldom been stable, but the controversy and mystery surrounding the circumstances of Hariri's murder are the key to understanding its unclear future.

Hariri was a self-made billionaire construction mogul of the Sunni Islamic faith, and held the Prime Ministerial position for two non-consecutive terms from 1992 till 1998, and then from 2000 till 2004. However, he eventually resigned from office in October 2004, purportedly over a disagreement as to the extent of Syria's influence in Lebanese affairs. Indeed, Syria had occupied Lebanon since 1975, in an uneasy relationship based primarily on protection, but its popularity had been severely waning since 2000. In fact, it was in 2000 that the Israelis withdrew from southern Lebanon, and when the Syrian president Hafez al-Asad died, leaving the title to his son Bashar. Under these circumstances it seemed that the Syrians had little left to offer Lebanon, and their presence became less welcome in the country.

A month before Hariri quit, in September 2004, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1559 which called for respect of Lebanese sovereignty and the withdrawal of all foreign occupations. Though this request carried international weight, Syria still made little attempt to withdraw. Five months later, Rafiq Hariri was dead, the victim of a calculated bombing.

On 30 May 2007, the UN Security Council established the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to attempt to find the perpetrators of Rafiq Hariri's murder. Though Syria were initially suspected, it appears now that certain anonymous members of the Lebanese Shia Islamic organisation Hezbollah are most likely to be indicted, a move which threatens to destabilise Lebanon's fragile peace.

The US and the Dutch governments have branded Hezbollah a terrorist organisation, but many others do not agree, citing its social development schemes and property development unit as evidence. The latter, named Waad SAL, helped rebuild the southern suburbs of Beirut, partially from their own funds, after the 33-day war with Israel in 2006. Nevertheless, Hezbollah's Iranian funded military wing serves as a powerful political tool in Lebanon, with many claiming that they win elections and policy concessions through threat of violence rather than positive policies. Others argue Hezbollah are the only real ideological alternative to a corrupt, secular, pro-West group of politicians, headed by the Hariri dynasty. In fact, Rafiq Hariri's son, Saad, became Prime Minister in 2009.

The main divide in Lebanon can be understood from the 'Cedar Revolution' that took place in March 2005, a direct consequence of Hariri's death. Though the 8th March that year saw tens of thousands of pro-Syria demonstrators arrive at Martyrs' Square in a Hezbollah organised protest, March 14th saw over one million anti-Syria demonstrators cram themselves into the area.

Political alliances were built from these protests, with Rafiq Hariri's son, Saad, heading the March 14th alliance, backed by Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the small but powerful Islamic group, the Druze. The secular Free Patriotic Movement fronted the March 8th alliance, with strong support from Hezbollah. Roughly a month after the protests, Syria had completely withdrawn.

In late 2010 and early 2011, instability returned to Lebanon as pressure began to mount on Saad Hariri when the Special Tribunal's pace quickened. Furthermore, the Syrian-Saudi attempts at mediating between Lebanon's conflicting March alliances failed. Amid leaks that certain members of Hezbollah would be accused by the UN, the organisation made it clear that it would not accept any indictments of its own people. In protest at Hariri's staunch reluctance to denounce the issue, Hezbollah pulled representatives out of the cabinet in mid January 2011, forcing the government's collapse.

In the search for a new cabinet and Prime Minister, fears of a new rise in sectarian violence were widespread if Saad Hariri were to be reappointed. Eventually, in what is claimed to be a self-interested move, Walid Jumblatt switched allegiance from the pro-West faction to the Hezbollah-backed pro-Syria faction, necessitating the appointment of Hezbollah's preferred candidate, Najib Mikati as Prime Minister. Thousands of angry people gathered to protest in Martyrs' Square, but little came of it. As the wave of large Middle Eastern protests began in Tunisia, Lebanon had already revolted and emerged anew with an Islamic-backed government.

Though Martyrs' Square is quiet for now, the streets of Beirut are crawling with soldiers anticipating a potential outbreak of violence in reaction to the imminent release of the UN indictments. Politically untouchable, it is likely now that Hezbollah will pressure Mikati to block any UN decision, which will greatly anger much of the secular, Sunni and Maronite Christian population in Lebanon, as well as the Israeli, and the US governments. Hezbollah themselves see the tribunal as biased, and believe Hariri was killed by Israel to destabilise Lebanon.

Ultimately the legacy of the country's tumultuous history ensures that whatever the UN decides, peace and stability in Lebanon look to be severely under threat.

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.