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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.

Tags:Lebanon