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Double vision in Beirut

BY FRANCES Z. BROWN / 16 May 2005

HOW, exactly, does democracy march? According to White House spokesman Scott McClellan, it walks like the Lebanese. As the so-called Cedar Revolution rolls toward its fourth month, having toppled Beirutís pro-Syrian government and driven Syriaís longtime military presence out of Lebanon, it seems that much of the West canít get enough of the Cedar Revolution as democracyís poster child. Today Beirut, the bumper sticker might run, and tomorrow the world.

The Lebanese street sounds a different note. Like Scott McClellan, the remarkably unified Lebanese opposition is thrilled at their uprisingís success in spurring the Syrian withdrawal. But the movementís local brand name ó The Independence Intifada is telling. While the West celebrates the Lebanese quest for "democracy" through "revolution," the Lebanese mantra is one of "independence"-- from all foreign intervention and designs. Cedar Revolution versus Independence Intifada: a semantic distinction between two interrelated concepts? Perhaps. But the branding of the movement affects the way the uprising is viewed in a wider context ó either as evidence of the winds of democracy sweeping the developing world, or as part of an extensive movement against historic domination by outside powers. ó 

By any moniker, Lebanonís political transformation since February 14 has been extraordinary. The enormous bomb that killed Lebanonís former Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri triggered a historic popular outcry, and an unprecedented unification of politicians of differing religions and ideologies, all opposed to Beirutís pro-Syrian government. Syria was widely blamed for having a hand in Haririís assassination, a claim that it denies. The resultant two months of street protests and opposition political assertiveness, echoed and bolstered by international pressure, finally prompted the resignation of pro-Syrian prime minister Omar Karami and his government, and the official withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, where they have been since 1976. With a temporary "national unity" cabinet now in place, parliamentary elections have been slated to begin May 29.  Almost as soon as the extraordinary political movement began, so did the inevitable race to label it.

Names inform popular understanding of an event, and Western governments and media immediately seized upon the label Cedar Revolution to promote their view. The term reinforces the Bush administrationís warm embrace of the winds of democracy seizing the world.

But back on actual Lebanese soil, the term Cedar Revolution is underutilised at best, and offensive at worst. Although some local media have begun picking up the term, some citizens express concern that the term Cedar is not a unifying national icon ó rather, it has long symbolised two Maronite Christian right-wing parties, the Phalange, and the Guardians of the Cedars.

To be sure, the cedar graces the Lebanese flag, which has been embraced by multitudes during the Beirut Spring. But some Lebanese are troubled that the flag itself is descendent of an 18th century Maronite flag and the French mandate-era Lebanese Legion, a reminder of the historic dominance of the French-favoured Lebanese Maronite Christians.

Meanwhile, the term Independence Intifada echoes among the opposition politicians, billboards, and citizens of Beirut. The chant "Freedom! Sovereignty! Independence!" has become the movementís hallmark. "We just want a true independence," one activist told me; his "independence" mantra accentuates that Lebanese are tired of all foreign interference. Further, the word "intifada" harkens to another, ongoing struggle: the Palestinian uprising against Israel. Itís a defiant word from the viewpoint of a country that views Israeli and American interests as nearly synonymous. This uprising, the term suggests, is not confirming any American foreign policy grand scheme.

For Lebanon, the independence being invoked is an economic imperative as much as a political one. Hailing from a country of merchants, Lebanese citizens complain loudly that the Syrian occupation enabled Syrian politiciansí corrupt business interests, as well as the multitudes of Syrian guest workers, to ravage the Lebanese economy.

Beside the cacophony of slogans proclaiming "independence!", both economic and political, the term "democracy" scarcely raises a peep.

But further, the word choice indicates a wide Lebanese suspicion towards the facile labelling and forceful insertion of "democracy." Some feel that the dogged American insistence on the democratic mantra has made the term a cliche: "They gave Iraq a delivery democracy, like a pizza," Bashir, a manager of a clothing store, tells me.

Lebanese also profess that democracy is too complex an institution to become a policy sound-bite. "We want true democracy, free from foreign intervention, but if it happens overnight it will be a mess," Nour tells me. Besides, it seems that the US is hardly a credible democratic champion. "Elections are never fair, not even in the US. Look at Al Gore," Bashir says.

Does it matter that the T-shirts on Lebanese streets proclaim independence and Intifada, not "revolution"? The disparity between Lebanese and Western rhetoric could just be question of semantics: After all, independence implies self-determination, which promotes democracy.

But this difference in naming signifies a deeper disparity in the ways the West and Lebanon understand the past three monthsí events. This dissimilarity may only increase with time. As an episode recedes in history, terminology often gives meaning to events, not the other way around: Just ask any southern American who has heard about "The War of Northern Aggression", or any Vietnamese who has studied "The American War."

Brand names provide a mental shortcut. The Cedar Revolution is a quick mode for the West to classify Lebanonís movement alongside the uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine: popular campaigns, inspired by Western models of free speech and authentic democracy, to unseat corrupt political structures. On the other hand, the omnipresence of the Lebanese slogan "independence" reinforces a very Lebanese notion of exceptionalism. And "Intifada" conjures up another struggle ó this one not a feather in the American policy machineís cap.

Both sides, Lebanese and West, can genuinely celebrate this springís historic developments. But as the details begin to fade, the two very disparate labels will enable two incongruent recollections of the movement. On one hand, it was an event that confirmed the American promotion of worldwide democratic revolution; on the other, it was an event that embodied the Arab aspiration of independence from outside oppression. With this discord, how can the "logical next step" for both sides possibly be harmonious?

Frances Z. Brown is a teacher in Beirut

©2005 Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation


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