On the streets of Beirut, they call it the "intifada for independence." In the corridors of Washington, they prefer to call it the "Cedar Revolution."
In a media age, such branding could be crucial. The name given to Lebanon's popular political movement is shorthand for its historical roots and its future direction. The label will help shape how the world understands Lebanon's small but telling part of the ongoing struggle for democracy throughout the Middle East.
Lebanon Putting the Squeeze on Syria (washingtonpost.com, Mar 1, 2005)
Bush Gets Stoned by the World Media (washingtonpost.com, Feb 24, 2005)
Washington's Waning Influence in Iraq (washingtonpost.com, Feb 22, 2005)
Who Killed Rafiq Hariri? (washingtonpost.com, Feb 16, 2005)
After the Network Stars Depart (washingtonpost.com, Feb 15, 2005)
World Opinion Archive
The "intifada" brand emerged on Feb. 18 when Beirut's Daily Star reported that the opposition leaders, outraged by the Feb. 14 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, were "calling for an 'intifada for independence'" as they stepped up attacks on the government.
The Jerusalem Post reported that "the so-called civilian intifada . . . has done what years of civil war and internecine fighting failed to achieve. It brought the citizens of Lebanon together as Lebanese."
When the protests forced the resignation of the pro-Syrian prime minister on Monday, the Daily Star quoted opposition leaders saying "the resignation marked the 'first success of the peaceful intifada' it waged on the government." A correspondent for the Morocco Times uses the same phrase.
And when the Daily Star interviewed an 18-year-old student at Hariri's grave on Wednesday, she said, "we came to thank him for starting this peaceful intifada for Lebanon's freedom."
It's easy to see why the Bush administration prefers not to adopt the "intifada" label. Intifada is an Arabic word meaning "shaking off." It was coined by Palestinians during their spontaneous uprising against Israeli military occupation in 1987. To speak of Lebanon's "intifada" places this month's events in the tradition of the Palestinians' struggle against Israeli occupation. And it implies that Syria, a decaying Arab autocracy, and Israel, a favorite U.S. ally, have something in common as occupying powers.
All of those ideas are credible on the streets of Beirut, where Israel is remembered and reviled for its 1982 invasion. The Israeli Defense Forces, led by then defense minister Ariel Sharon, launched a surprise attack designed to install a friendly government in Beirut. Israel's bid to dominate the country collapsed amid fierce factional fighting and massacres that devastated Beirut and killed upwards of 10,000 civilians. In the ensuing chaos, the Syrian military moved in, effectively installed their own friendly government, and demanded the Lebanese go along.
Given this history, the "Cedar Revolution" brand is more congenial to the Bush administration. It was coined by Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky in a Feb. 28 news conference that touted President Bush's foreign policy.
"In Lebanon, we see growing momentum for a Cedar Revolution that is unifying the citizens of that nation to the cause of true democracy and freedom from foreign influence," Dobriansky declared. "Hopeful signs span the globe and there should be no doubt that the years ahead will be great ones for the cause of freedom."
The Cedar Tree is the national symbol and depicted prominently on the Lebanese flag. The brand name portrays the anti-Syrian protest movement as essentially an effort to recover Lebanon's national tradition. It gives the movement a Lebanese, not an Arabic, face. It evokes benevolent nature, not unpleasant memories of Israeli military might. It fits rather more comfortably with Bush's foreign policy notion that "freedom is on the march" in the Middle East.
But no one in the Lebanese press is talking about "the Cedar Revolution." The cedar tree is the traditional symbol of the country's Maronite Christians, derived from a reference in the Christian Bible (Psalms 92:12, "the righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon."), according to the Flags of the World Web site. It was incorporated into the Lebanese flag in 1943 when Christians were a majority of the population and the much poorer Shiite Muslims living in the dusty south were all but shut out of power.
That era is gone. Today, Shiites are the biggest single ethnic/religious grouping in Lebanon. They are represented by Hezbollah, the Shiite political party that holds 12 seats in the 128-member parliament. Denounced by the United States as a terrorist organization, Hezbollah is respected across the Lebanese political spectrum for driving the Israelis out of southern Lebanon in 2000. In the words of the newsweekly Monday Morning "the alliance between Damascus and Hezbollah is now decisive" in maintaining the country's pro-Syrian political order.
That's why opposition leader Walid Jumblatt is calling for dialogue with Hezbollah. Jumblatt says he disagrees with Washington's (and France's) insistence that Hezbollah disarm immediately.
Al Manar, Hezbollah's TV station and Web site, reported Wednesday that Jumblatt's representative will soon meet with Hezbollah's leadership.
Hezbollah, it is safe to say, wants no part of a U.S.-backed "Cedar Revolution." But it might be persuaded to join an "intifada for independence," especially if the new government would allow it to keep its weapons after Syria departs.
A lot hangs on how the Lebanese brand this moment in their political history.