Lebanon Readies for Historic Elections

For the first time in 30 years, Lebanese voters will go to the polls without Syrian troops in their country. Protests and international pressure forced Syria to withdraw its troops after the assassination in February of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. This report is the third in a series on democracy in the Middle East.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Lebanese voters go the polls next week for the first of a four-part parliamentary election. And, for the first time in 30 years, they will vote Syrian troops in their country. That's the result of the mass street protests and international pressure for a Syrian withdrawal following the assassination in February of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria was widely blamed for his death. The demonstrations that followed became known as the Cedar Revolution. The tree is a symbol on the Lebanese flag, but is this Lebanon's democratic spring? NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Beirut in the final part of our series on prospects for democratic change in the Middle East.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

The grave site of Rafik Hariri still attracts visitors. Hariri was buried in the center of Beirut, the area he spent so much of his own money to rebuild. It is a simple memorial. A mound of red dirt covers the coffin, blanketed with wreaths of white flowers. His bodyguards are buried nearby. In death, it seems, they still guard the man who did so much to heal Lebanon after the devastating 15-year civil war. Bossem Fata(ph), a businessman from northern Lebanon, came here with his son to pay respects.

Mr. BOSSEM FATA (Businessman): This is the least we can do, actually, for such a great man, you know, who sacrificed his life for what he believed.

AMOS: Many Lebanese say to understand the outpouring of emotion, think of Hariri's assassination, a one-ton bomb in the middle of the city in the middle of the day, as Lebanon's September 11th. It explains the spontaneous street protest that so surprised the West and Syria and the Lebanese themselves, says newspaper publisher Jamil Maruyi(ph).

Mr. JAMIL MARUYI (Newspaper Publisher): It is as if we were in a big shell and this bomb cracked the shell and we went out. This is not a festival. This is a crime scene. You have people who went out there with their children to take back their dignity.

AMOS: It was also a powerful symbol for the rest of the Arab world, says Reinoud Leenders, a political analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Washington think tank.

Mr. REINOUD LEENDERS (International Crisis Group): It has never happened before, so many people in the streets asking for the police state to be dismantled. This is a major change. People have gone and broken through a wall of fear.

AMOS: A police state run by neighboring Syria and its Lebanese allies. Journalist Rami Khouri says many Lebanese finally had enough.

Mr. RAMI KHOURI (Journalist): They named the leaders of the Lebanese and the Syrian security and intelligence agencies and said, `We want these guys out. We want them off our back.' This is unprecedented.

AMOS: And it worked, says Khouri. Two months after Hariri's death, 14,000 Syrian troops and Syria's intelligence agents had packed up and moved back across the border.

Mr. KHOURI: The Syrians pulled out. The Lebanese security chiefs have been retired or resigned, and it's a victory.

(Soundbite of piano introduction to "Imagine")

AMOS: A victory celebrated in Beirut, producing the most telegenic revolution in the Arab world with young flag-waving Lebanese men, women and children. It was a revolution embraced by the Bush administration as the most successful example of a new democratic movement in the Middle East, they say, set off by stirring images of elections in Iraq.

(Soundbite of "Imagine")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Imagine there's no heaven...

AMOS: But in a wide range of interviews, Lebanese and outside analysts say events in Lebanon had little to do with Iraq. Reinoud Leenders, based in Beirut, is with the International Crisis Group.

Mr. LEENDERS: This movement is not the product of the US decision to have a broader Middle East initiative promoting democracy. This is purely about local resentment against Syrians and Syrian presence in this country.

AMOS: Augustus Richard Norton served in Lebanon with the United Nations in the 1980s. Now he teaches international relations at Boston University.

Mr. AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON (Boston University): There was a period of a few weeks during which the administration was, I would say, then irrationally exuberant. This probably reflected a lack of a full understanding of the nuances of Lebanon as a very complicated political system.

AMOS: Even with the Syrians gone, that complicated political system remains in place. Lebanon carefully divides political power along sectarian religious lines. The constitution allots high government positions and seats in Parliament according to a strict formula. At the top, the president must be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the parliament a Shiite Muslim. Lebanese even vote separately, explains Sophie Asada(ph), a Lebanese analyst, who has campaigned to change the system to a more democratic one.

Ms. SOPHIE ASADA (Lebanese Analyst): We have to vote according to sect. So if you are a Catholic, during the working day, you have to go to a specific building that is only meant for Catholics who will go and vote there. And so the same for Sunnis and the Shiites, etc.

AMOS: It is a system put in place in the 1940s, adjusted after the civil war, but still encourages sectarian groups to vote their own narrow interests rather than for the country as a whole, which may explain why many of Lebanon's Shiite Muslims have mixed feelings about the goals of the Cedar Revolution. Rihaad Shahafradeen(ph), a banker and business professor, is a Shiite Muslim.

Mr. RIHAAD SHAHAFRADEEN (Shiite Muslim): So it's something where it's healthy to see people pouring in the streets, standing up for something. Now this is from one side. The other side, I wish we had such demonstrations when the Israelis were occupying us.

(Soundbite of children playing)

AMOS: Shahafradeen's family runs the Sauder Foundation(ph) in Southern Lebanon, the first charitable foundation to address the needs of Lebanon's Shiite Muslims, now the largest sect in the country. There are generous scholarships for the nursing college and for the kindergarten.

(Soundbite of children singing)

Unidentified Woman and Children: (Singing) ...everything in spring takes flight.

AMOS: There is also an orphanage for children who lost parents during the more than two decades of Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon, which ended five years ago. Many Shiites who lived through those years have a different political view than Lebanese in Beirut and in the north, says Shahafradeen.

Mr. SHAHAFRADEEN: Israelis definitely are the problem. Israel will--is and will remain our enemy until they resolve the Palestinian issue. We have a problem with the Syrians. Syrians are not our enemy. We never considered them as enemies.

AMOS: In this part of the country, the most powerful political force is Hezbollah, the Islamist Party of God, backed by Syria and Iran to challenge the Israeli occupation. The Bush administration labels Hezbollah a terrorist group and co-sponsored a UN Security Council resolution calling for Hezbollah to disarm. That call has not been echoed in Lebanon, not by mainstream political leaders in the north or in the south; not publicly, at least, from Christian or Sunni politicians. Hezbollah is expected to do well in the upcoming elections. So are anti-Syrian politicians. In some ways, it is a new and uncertain political landscape, says Rihaad Shahafradeen.

Mr. SHAHAFRADEEN: Where would that lead us to? To which extent are we able to realize the change and be the change we want to see? I don't know.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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