Lebanon's Slow Slide From Hope To Deadlock

Nicole Fayad, an activist in the March 14 movement, lights a candle honoring figures killed since 2005.
Nicole Fayad, an activist in the March 14 movement, lights a candle honoring figures killed since 2005. (By Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 24, 2006

BEIRUT -- It was Feb. 16, 2005, and Ghena Hariri, dressed in black with a white veil, sat silent in an ambulance driving to the blue-domed Mohammed al-Amin Mosque in Beirut's Martyrs' Square. Next to her was a coffin draped in the Lebanese flag. Inside it was the body of her uncle, Rafiq al-Hariri, who was killed with 22 others when a bomb ripped through his convoy as it skirted the Mediterranean Sea.

The streets outside her windows teemed with hundreds of thousands gathering for the former prime minister's burial.

"I was hoping his death was not for nothing," the 27-year-old Hariri recalled, sipping coffee at a cafe. Her voice was soft, the words slow. "It's a loss you can't explain. I can't explain how I felt. It was a surreal time for me. But when I looked at how people were reacting, what was happening, I thought there was something good that's coming out of it."

"Lebanon is resurrecting," she remembered thinking.

Hariri's death and burial culminated in an event known simply as a date, March 14, possibly the largest demonstration in Lebanese history. The participants were drawn together in a protest over Syria's 29-year military presence here and its suspected role in Hariri's killing. Many of them were joined, too, in a call for a new Lebanon that would transcend decades-old politics steeped in feudal-like personalities, sectarian barriers honed by civil war, and patronage and corruption that almost ritually blurred principle. To those who took part, the date itself became iconic.

But nearly two years later, March 14 has come to represent something else: less the birth of a new country and more a border between two that coexist, suspicious, angry and unreconciled, entrenched in a terrain with almost no shared ground. Rather than a resurrection, it now marks the start of Lebanon's cold war, where the government and its supporters are pitted against an emboldened opposition led by Hezbollah and its allies, each with its perspective and foreign patrons, each prone to brinkmanship.

"It was a moment, and it developed into a line," said Marwan Hamadeh, the telecommunications minister who was targeted in an assassination attempt Oct. 1, 2004. "It was then that the demarcations started between us and them."

The fate of March 14 is a story of disillusionment and frustration, punctuated by political battles, assassinations and this summer's devastating war with Israel. The traumas have further fractured a country prone to deadlock, its constituencies relying on foreign alliances that have long guided Lebanese politics. In images and words, it has become a fight that partisans on each side cast in the most existential of ways: One wins, the other loses. And today those two Lebanons stare at each other across coils of barbed wire that surround a vacant, wind-swept Martyrs' Square.

"When I look at it now, I'm scared," Hariri said.

Outside the cafe's window were posters of her uncle. "We miss you," one read.

"When you lose somebody this way, you become full of anger, and I was. I was," she said. What followed comforted her. "I looked at it and thought, 'It's no longer me or my family. It became the country.' " She thought for a moment. "I'm back to angry."

A Spontaneous Movement

Before Rafiq al-Hariri's assassination Feb. 14, Nicole Fayad, a soft-spoken, 42-year-old financial director at a school in the neighborhood of Badaro, never considered herself political. But she reacted like many in Beirut did to the bombing: with fear and anger at the attack's audacity. And the day after the funeral, she answered a call conveyed by text message on cellphones to protest in Martyrs' Square.

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