People Power in Lebanon

The right has, unfortunately, attempted to appropriate the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon as vindication of Bush's invasion of Iraq. The argument is that moves towards "democracy" in the Middle East (no matter how feeble and superficial) are a logical flow from Bush's war, coming from the realisation by the dictators in the region that since he got re-(s)elected he will be a position to invade their countries.

Ignoring the obvious problem with this theory, namely that the US military machine is bogged down in Iraq and is in no position to invade anywhere else, the key issue with this theory is that it downplays the role of the Lebanese in their own struggles. Like the right's attempt to give Reagan the credit for ending the Soviet Union, this "great man" theory of history steals the glory from those who took to the streets and places it in the hands of people who would happily have supported their mass murder if they had protested against a US backed tyranny. Just compare, say, the support for death squads in Latin America to the praise for the 1989 people's revolts in Eastern Europe

As in 1989, the key players in the struggle are the people directly involved. After all, when people took to the streets all across the Stalinist states they had seen the West look the other way as the dictators had repressed revolts in East Germany (1953), Hungry (1956), Czechoslovak (1968) and Poland (1982). It was unlikely, to say the least, that they expected the Americas to start a war over them given this track record. Rather than Reagan bringing down Stalinism, it was the heroism of those subjected to it that did so. That the right ignores this in favour of hero worship is belittling those popular movements and says a lot about their rhetoric and idea of liberty.

The same can be said of Lebanon. The events there are disconnected from the invasion and quagmire of Iraq. They were triggered by the assassination of ex-PM Rafik Hariri and Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive war had nothing to do with it. So why do Bush supporters make a link between Iraq and Lebanon? Simply because they know little about the Middle East beyond Bush's interactions with it. As with the history of revolts against Stalinism, they are ignorant of the dynamics within these states and, of course, the role the US has played in the past. Combine this with a proto-fascist love of the leader principle and we have the link.

As such, the history of Lebanon is of vital interest. The country had a relatively free parliamentary democracy between 1943 and 1956. In 1957, the CIA intervened covertly in the Lebanese elections to ensure that the constitution would be amended to allow far-right Maronite President Shamun to have a second term. Shamun's followers obtained a solid majority in the elections, which the opposition considered rigged and deprived of a legal platform from which to voice their political opinions, they sought to express them by extra-parliamentary means. A small civil war broke out, with Shamun lying to the Americans that the opposition were Communists. The Marines were duly sent in 1958 and, once safely in power, the Maronites created a police state. It should be remembered here that the US also overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953 and helped install the Ba'ath Party in power in Iraq.

In 1975, another civil war broke out between the Maronites and the Arab population (including Palestinian refugees). In spite of creating a militia, the Phalange (modeled on Franco's and Mussolini's Black Shirts), the Maronites started to lose to the oppressed Shi'ites and Palestinians. It was this, the prospect of a PLO-dominated Lebanon, that caused the Syrians to act. After getting approval from the Israelis through Kissinger, they sent 40,000 troops into Lebanon and massacred the Palestinian fighters, saving the Maronites.

In 1982 the Israelis mounted an unprovoked invasion of Lebanon as they sought to destroy the remnants of the weakened PLO in Beirut. The Shi'ites of the south were radicalised by the Israeli occupation and threw up the Hizbullah, which pioneered suicide bombs and roadside bombs. The Israeli occupiers were forced out in 2000. Syria, however, retained about 14,000 troops in the Biqa Valley. While some parts of Lebanon supported the withdrawal of the Syrians, other parts did not. The Shi'ites, and especially Hizbullah, supported the Syrians, as did many Sunnis.

Then the Syrians same mistake as Shamun did, seeking to keep Emile Lahoud as president. When his 6-year term was about to expire last autumn, the Syrians ensured that the Lebanese constitution was amended to allow him to remain for 3 more years. This angered the Lebanese public and Rafiq al-Hariri resigned. When he was assassinated, the Sunni community concluded (despite lack of evidence) that the Syrians were responsible and that they had to go. With the Sunni's joining other Lebanese communities in wanting to get rid of the Syrians, the crowds managed the downfall of the government.The last time such cross-community opposition happened was in 1943 and it ended the French Mandate.

So, as with Eastern Europe, the US approach to Lebanon has hardly been as a defender of freedom (however defined). In fact, in 1991, under Bush I, the US quietly supported the Syrian assault against the Lebanese nationalists in power at the time - the same people whom the right are cheering today. That suggests Syria is under fire today because American imperialism sees it, like Iran, as an obstacle to extending its domination over the Middle East.

Clearly, then, much of the authoritarianism in the Middle East that Bush says he is against has been been supported (when not actually imposed) by Washington. Similarly, the rhetoric about democracy does not seem to apply to US supported authoritarian regimes. All of which suggests that the Bush Junta's support for people power and democracy in Lebanon may be a tad hypocritical. Particularly as we know that any similar expression of people power in the US (or, for that matter, a client regime) will be denounced as "undemocratic" and its participants told in no uncertain terms that they live in a democracy and so they had better do what they are told!

Finally, this expression of people power raises a few problems for the US. If, as the Bush Junta argues, Lebanon cannot have free elections until every Syrian troop has left then how was the election in US occupied Iraq valid? And if Syria does withdraw that leaves the US in Iraq and Israel in the West Bank and Gaza as the last military occupations in the Middle East. If Syria had to leave Lebanon, then surely these have also to end? And if Lebanese people power can force a Syrian withdrawal, then the Iraqi opposition to the US occupation will be emboldened and may take to the streets to get what the ballot box has denied them. And, it should always be remembered, the Iraqi people voted against Bush, against the occupation. Nor should we forget that Lebanon is the most democratic of Arab states, suggesting that people power need not have lack of elections to justify it.

And that, from the elite's perspective, has always been the problem with people power. As well as limiting (even destroying!) the power of state and capital, it, and its consequences, are unpredictable. That is why they have spent so much time and effort either destroying it or ensuring it has no meaningful influence in political and economic decision making -- at home and abroad. For once people have a taste of direct action, of making the decisions about what affects them, they want more freedom and that bodes ill for the ruling elite. And that is why anarchists have welcomed and encouraged people power -- at home and abroad!


Since this article was written, there was a number of pro-Syria counter-demos. The largest saw hundreds of thousands (perhaps half a million) take part. Made up largely of Shi'ites, this demonstration was huge compared to the smaller anti-Syrian demonstrations held previously and opposed foreign (i.e. US) interference in Lebanon affairs.

Clearly the situation in Lebanon is more complex than originally protrayed in the article. That does not invalidate its main argument, namely that the people responsible for social change are those involved and never heads of foreign governments spouting the rhetoric of freedom (while in practice undermining it at home and abroad).

Given that the anti-Syrian protesters have mostly been Christians, with some Druze and Sunnis and these are in the minority, the right-wing argument (assertion) that their demonstrations are automatically pro-democracy seem as inadequate as the notion that Bush or the Iraqi elections inspired the original demonstrations.

As for Bush, he is arguing for "democratisation" only for regimes that US imperialism dislikes. For client regimes, any show of elections are praised to high-heaven no matter how empty or superficial they are in practice. Even the Iraqi elections were deeply flawed, held under occupation, 42% of the electorate did go to the polls (polls which were held after a period of martial law followed by a 3 day lock down lock down of the country).The voters had no idea who they were voting as the candidates' names were secret until the last moment.

In Lebanon, there have been parliamentary election campaigns for decades, suggesting that they had little to learn from Iraq. Indeed, elections are already scheduled in Lebanon for later this spring. If, as Bush asserts, they are invalid due to the Syrian occupation then why were the Iraqi ones any different? Nor should we forget that it was the US who had invited Syria into Lebanon in the first place.

Given the huge demonstration, it is possible that the majority in Lebanon want Syria to remain in some capacity. Now, if so, what would it do to Bush's talk of supporting democracy?

But, then again, he significantly failed to mention the hundreds of thousands on the streets when he spoke of having "a message for the people of Lebanon: All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience. Lebanon's future belongs in your hands." Apparently, this massive crowd are not Lebanese. All of which shows his commitment to freedom in Lebanon, or anywhere else, does not exist.

The opposition to foreign intervention, of all kinds and from all sources, should be supported. However, neither side expresses a movement of the oppressed majority for their own interests and, consequently, have little to recommend itself to libertarians. All we can hope is that those involved see their power, grasp it and reject all bosses once and for all, home-bred as well as foreign.


More writings from Anarcho