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David Ignatius

Beirut's Berlin Wall

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page A19

BEIRUT -- "Enough!" That's one of the simple slogans you see scrawled on the walls around Rafiq Hariri's grave site here. And it sums up the movement for political change that has suddenly coalesced in Lebanon and is slowly gathering force elsewhere in the Arab world.

"We want the truth." That's another of the Lebanese slogans, painted on a banner hanging from the Martyr's Monument near the mosque where Hariri is buried. It's a revolutionary idea for people who have had to live with lies spun by regimes that were brutally clinging to power. People want the truth about who killed Hariri last week, but on a deeper level they want the truth about why Arab regimes have failed to deliver on their promises of progress and prosperity.

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A crowd was still gathered at Hariri's resting place well after midnight early yesterday. Thousands of candles -- many bearing Christian icons, others Muslim designs -- flickered in a semicircle around the grave and melted together into a multicolored patina of wax. Mourners have written angry messages in Arabic on a nearby wall denouncing Syria, whose troops occupy Lebanon and which many Lebanese blame for Hariri's murder. "The Ugly Syrian," says one. "Get Out of Here," says another. For people who have been frightened even to mention Syria's name, it must feel liberating just to write those words.

Over by the Martyr's Monument, Lebanese students have built a little tent city and are vowing to stay until Syria's 15,000 troops withdraw. They talk like characters in "Les Miserables," but their revolutionary bravado is the sort of force that can change history. "We have nothing to lose anymore. We want freedom or death," says Indra Hage, a young Lebanese Christian. "We're going to stay here, even if soldiers attack us," says Hadi Abi Almouna, a Druze Muslim. "Freedom needs sacrifices, and we are ready to give them."

Brave words, in a country where dissent has often meant death. "It is the beginning of a new Arab revolution," argues Samir Franjieh, one of the organizers of the opposition. "It's the first time a whole Arab society is seeking change -- Christians and Muslims, men and women, rich and poor."

The leader of this Lebanese intifada is Walid Jumblatt, the patriarch of the Druze Muslim community and, until recently, a man who accommodated Syria's occupation. But something snapped for Jumblatt last year, when the Syrians overruled the Lebanese constitution and forced the reelection of their front man in Lebanon, President Emile Lahoud. The old slogans about Arab nationalism turned to ashes in Jumblatt's mouth, and he and Hariri openly began to defy Damascus.

I dined Monday night with Jumblatt in his mountain fortress in Moukhtara, southeast of Beirut. He moved there for safety last weekend because of worries that he would be the next target of whoever killed Hariri. We sat under a portrait of Jumblatt's father, Kamal, who was assassinated in 1976 after he opposed the initial entry of Syrian troops into Lebanon. With me was Jamil Mroue, a Lebanese Shiite journalist whose own father was assassinated by Arab radicals in the 1960s. It was an evening when the ghosts of the past mingled with hopes for the future.

Jumblatt dresses like an ex-hippie, in jeans and loafers, but he maintains the exquisite manners of a Lebanese aristocrat. Over the years, I've often heard him denouncing the United States and Israel, but these days, in the aftermath of Hariri's death, he's sounding almost like a neoconservative. He says he's determined to defy the Syrians until their troops leave Lebanon and the Lahoud government is replaced.

"It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq," explains Jumblatt. "I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world." Jumblatt says this spark of democratic revolt is spreading. "The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it."

Where will this amazing Lebanese intifada go next? The answer may lie partly with the Shiite militia, Hezbollah, which is probably the most powerful political organization in the country. Hezbollah officials and leaders of the opposition have been trading signals this week about whether they can form a united front. What's clear is that the Lebanese are fed up with the status quo and that Hezbollah -- like all the other parties -- must adjust to change.

The circle of mourners around Hariri's grave was two and three deep when I visited yesterday afternoon. Many people were weeping, more than a week after his death. In every face you could see that same emotion: Enough!

davidignatius@washpost.com


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