Commemorating Lebanon’s War Amid Continued Crisis

Media Monitors Network
April 15 2005

Commemorating Lebanon’s War Amid Continued Crisis
by Laurie King-Irani

“The true, lasting and successful opposition in Lebanon, 30 years
after the onslaught of the vicious war, will be the group or party
that demands “the truth” for all. In other words, the real opposition
is opposition to impunity.”

At midnight on April 13, ringing church bells and the call to prayer
echoed across Beirut. These haunting sounds intermingled over
Martyrs’ Square, the unfinished main plaza of old Beirut where
thousands of Lebanese have been mixing, day and night, since the
assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in
mid-February. The blending of the aural symbols of Christianity and
Islam was but one component of a carefully orchestrated series of
events designed by the family and supporters of the late prime
minister, the architect of downtown Beirut’s reconstruction, to
commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the beginning of Lebanon’s
long and devastating civil war.

Entitled “a celebration of national unity,” the week of commemorative
events dovetailed with the themes of the massive demonstrations that
took place in Martyrs’ Square in February and March. Those
demonstrations saw tens of thousands of Lebanese demanding
accountability from the Lebanese government for the killing of Hariri
and nearly 20 others, coupled with calls for an end to Syria’s
political, military and intelligence presence in Lebanon. The
unifying demand of the protests, which have brought Christians,
Sunnis and Druze together in an unprecedented alliance, has been
“al-haqiqa” – the truth. Although the main political tribune of
Lebanon’s Shiite community, Hizballah, has not joined in these
demonstrations, the party’s leaders have been adamant in voicing the
need to safeguard national unity and have staged immense
demonstrations featuring the Lebanese flag, rather than the yellow
Hizballah banner.


Yet even as thousands of Lebanese from nearly every point on the
country’s diverse political spectrum fill the city center, the
centers of government — no less than the centers of opposition to
the government — appear increasingly hollow and insufficient for
carrying out the pressing tasks at hand, most notably forming a
cabinet, running parliamentary elections, effecting overdue
institutional reforms, providing security and grappling with
Lebanon’s massive debt. The Lebanese press, on both the left and the
right, warns of the dangers of the current “political vacuum” (firagh
siyasi) and “national crisis” (azma wataniyya). Meanwhile, the US
media and the International Crisis Group have described Lebanon as a
country “awash in arms” and on the brink of a perilous political
transition. The implicit message of such reports is that conditions
are ripe for a reprise of the civil war and that cooler heads will
not prevail for long.

As Lebanese went out to see art exhibits, films, concerts and panel
discussions about the 1975-1990 war, they were learning that Omar
Karami, unable to form a cabinet, had stepped down as prime minister
designate for the second time in six weeks. As the cabinet was to
have set the rules for upcoming parliamentary elections, the
likelihood that the balloting will take place on schedule by late
April is now slim. A key sticking point was whether to arrange voting
on the level of the governorate (muhafaza) or the smaller level of
the district (qada’). The latter approach would ensure greater
representation by confessional groups having less demographic weight
in the population, and it is the preferred method of balloting among
most members of the opposition to the government. In the event that
elections cannot be held on time, the current parliament’s term will
be extended. The majority in the current parliament are “loyalists”
who back President Emile Lahoud and acquiesce in Syria’s interference
in Lebanese affairs.

Despite Karami’s resignation, the public mood is surprisingly upbeat.
A friend who called from Beirut described bicycle races, Arab-Cuban
music concerts and the screening of a 1961 Fairouz film, all of which
took place in Martyrs’ Square over the weekend. He laughed into the
phone and asked: “What kind of crazy people are we? We are
celebrating our war!”

Celebrating the war is not quite as crazy as denying it or ignoring
it, though, which is what most Lebanese did for three decades. If
addressed at all, the 15 years of carnage were usually described as
“the war of others on our soil.” This perspective prevented any
serious probing of Lebanese accountability, perhaps out of fear that
such questions could rekindle angry recriminations and even fighting.
No truth commission or war crimes tribunal has ever been convened. In
2001, a writer for Beirut’s al-Safir newspaper explained why not:
“It’s simple: the war has not yet ended. We have not yet had any
transition. No one dares to raise such issues now, as there is
actually less freedom of thought, expression and assembly now than
there was during the war.”

The fact that Lebanese are now actively debating the war and its
causes, on Internet discussion lists, on radio and television, and in
Martyrs’ Square, is evidence of fears surmounted and demons faced. It
signals that the 1975-1990 war has indeed ended, although the
internal Lebanese dilemmas that sparked and sustained it remain.


The Lebanese war, which began on April 13, 1975 in the Beirut suburb
of Ain al-Rummaneh, was a multi-dimensional horror show in multiple
installments. Several interlinked conflicts were fought out amid a
tormented civilian population, destroying thousands of lives while
introducing disturbing new terms — car bombs, suicide bombers and
hostage takers — into the world’s political vocabulary. The war even
spawned a new word: Lebanonization, a term connoting the total
breakdown of social order and internecine conflict without bounds.
The war was a nightmare from which the Lebanese feared they might
never awaken.

Beginning in 1975 as a confrontation between right-wing Lebanese
Christians and left-wing and Arab nationalist Lebanese Muslims allied
with the Palestinians, by 1990 the war saw Maronites killing
Maronites, Shiites killing Shiites, two governments vying for
legitimacy, indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighborhoods,
mafia-like militias assuming state and municipal administrative
functions, and the near destruction of Lebanon’s once vibrant
economy. Seemingly interminable, the Lebanese war took place against
a larger canvas that featured the rise to power of the Likud in
Israel in 1977, the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the
Israeli-Egyptian peace accord of 1979, the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war,
the 1987-1993 Palestinian intifada, the decline and breakup of the
Soviet Union, and the emergence of the United States as the world’s
sole superpower, announced in 1991 with the US-led war to dislodge
Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait. All of these developments
reverberated through Lebanon’s war system, each boosting the fortunes
of some militias at the expense of others. But it was the last
development that effectively quashed active fighting between and
among Lebanese militias.

The war did not end organically through popular activism or peace
talks, though Lebanon witnessed many such endeavors over the 15 years
of conflict. Rather, external pressures halted the fighting. Syria’s
price for participating in the US-led coalition to drive the Iraqi
army out of Kuwait was gaining decisive control over Lebanon. With US
support and Israeli permission, Syria crushed Gen. Michel Aoun’s
rebellion in October 1991 and put all other Lebanese militias and
warlords on notice that no further internal skirmishes would be

In less than a year, most militia leaders had traded in their
fatigues and battle gear for the tailored suits of parliamentarians,
ministers and businessmen cooperating with Syria and taking care not
to obstruct Damascus in the pursuit of its political and economic
interests in Lebanon. The first law passed by the newly reconstituted
Lebanese parliament in the spring of 1991 was the General Amnesty Law
(al-‘afw al-‘amm), which granted immunity to any and all Lebanese
individuals and groups for war crimes and crimes against humanity
committed between 1975 and 1991. Impunity was thus the midwife of the
post-war political order, and silence was the price that Lebanese
citizens were asked to pay for the privilege of no longer sleeping in
bomb shelters, hurrying past unfamiliar parked cars, scanning the
urban horizon for snipers or queuing up for water.

As in other venues where past crimes go unpunished, the ultimate cost
exacted by impunity was the violation of Lebanon’s collective memory.
Damage to the Lebanese people’s ability to remember has engendered
perennial doubts about the truth of what has happened, what is
happening and what can happen. Impunity and its effects have put
political identity and agency in question for over a decade, creating
a complex problem that is at once judicial, personal, geographic,
social, educational, political and psychological.


Although the Lebanese war had a definite starting date, its ending
seemed uncertain until very recently. The war’s conclusion has, in
fact, been unfolding gradually for over two decades; disparate
events, like puzzle pieces falling into place, have closed the war’s
various chapters. In retrospect, it is clear that the regional and
international dimensions of the war began to end with the departure
of the PLO in 1982, and with Israel’s evacuation of south Lebanon in
2000. The local dimensions of the war have not been not so easily
erased. But one index of inter-confessional reconciliation emerged
during the April 1996 Israeli assault on Lebanon, codenamed Operation
Grapes of Wrath. Maronites, Sunnis, Druze and Armenians joined in
solidarity with Lebanese Shia to assist Shiite families fleeing
indiscriminate Israeli bombardments of towns and villages in the
south. Young people of all confessional backgrounds volunteered with
the Red Cross, and in the wake of Israel’s aerial massacre of over
100 civilians sheltering at a UN base in Qana, the outpouring of
unified national grief and outrage was genuine and profound.

Another index of reconciliation appeared in the summer of 2001 with
the visit of Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir to the Chouf
Mountains, where he met with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt at Mukhtara.
Despite a history of mutual bloodletting that goes back to the
mid-nineteenth century, the Druze and Maronite communities are the
two founding sects of contemporary Lebanon, a country unique in being
comprised solely of minority groups. Eighteen officially recognized
ethno-confessional sects make up Lebanon, and although some have more
demographic weight than others, power sharing and accommodation are
constitutionally mandated. The long-standing formula by which
Lebanon’s prime minister is Sunni, the president is Maronite and the
parliamentary speaker is Shiite was sealed in 1989 by the Taif
Accord, signed by the various communal representatives to help end
hostilities. This agreement also transferred some executive powers
from the president to the cabinet and changed the balance of
parliamentary seats to reflect the demographic reality that
Christians were no longer the majority community in Lebanon.

The warming of Druze-Maronite relations had significance not only for
members of these two sects and for Lebanon as a whole, but also for
Lebanon’s relationship to Syria, whose leaders saw the rapprochement
between the patriarch and Jumblatt as a potential threat to Syrian
control of Lebanon. A Druze-Maronite reconciliation might demonstrate
the limitations of Syria’s “divide and rule” approach, and risk
weakening patron-client relations linking key players in Lebanon to
Damascus at a time when Syria was still reeling from the death of
President Hafiz al-Asad.

The dramatic events of 2005 did not arise out of a vacuum, but rather
built upon these earlier developments. The last 60 days have
demonstrated that Lebanon’s war has finally ended. In refusing to use
violence as a primary means of responding to Hariri’s assassination,
Lebanese from across the political and confessional spectrum have
announced that killings, bombings, rumor and blackmail are no longer
acceptable ways of conducting politics. The nighttime bombings that
have taken place in East Beirut and Jounieh have been denounced
broadly as attempts to destabilize the country. Most Lebanese suspect
these explosions are the work of Syrian or Lebanese intelligence
agents unhappy to be losing their grip on the population. Sadly, some
Lebanese individuals have taken their anger out on innocent Syrian
workers, some of whom have been seriously injured and even killed.
Yet by calling for “the truth” and insisting on and securing an
objective forensic investigation of the assassination, the Lebanese
have signaled they are ready to look into the dark shadows of their
collective political history and dispense with comforting myths,
rumors and stereotypes.

Mai Masri, a Beirut-based, award-winning Palestinian filmmaker, said
that “people of all backgrounds and ideologies are really talking to
one another and listening to each other for the first time. There is
no fear any more; there is a big sense of freedom. Young people want
something new and different. They don’t want the leaders of the war
years. People are talking to each other, but the leaders, whether
loyalists or the opposition, are not.” At present, there is little if
any institutionalized articulation between the tens of thousands of
citizens who are protesting and the leaders of the opposition.
Indeed, as Masri remarked, “There are many, many people who define
themselves as being neither with the opposition nor with the
loyalists. They want something very different from what is being
offered by the politicians.”

One of the most visible and controversial members of the unwieldy
anti-Syrian opposition, Druze leader Jumblatt, demanded in a weekend
press conference that his fellow opposition members hammer out a
political program. Asking “Ma ba’d?” (“What’s next?”) after the
elections, he highlighted the opposition’s lack of a comprehensive
strategy. Those opposed to the current government, he stressed, must
develop a clear set of policies to deal with Lebanon’s pressing
domestic and foreign matters. Others in the opposition have been
focused primarily on the technicalities of the elections, as well as
the fate of jailed Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and the
possible return of the exiled Aoun. These latter two issues, in
particular, would seem to be to be far from the concerns of young
people in Martyrs’ Square.


Lebanon is a country that has never been a nation, yet which managed
to cohere without having a working state administrative structure for
nearly two decades. Despite giving much blood to pan-Arab and
Palestinian causes, despite a key militia’s battle against Israeli
occupation forces in south Lebanon, doubts still remain about
Lebanon’s Arab identity and role. Of course, Lebanon is also the
country where Palestinian refugees live the most hellish lives, where
Christian militiamen aided and abetted by the Israeli army
slaughtered over 1,000 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians at Sabra
and Shatila in 1982. Lebanon is home, moreover, to an ideology
asserting that Lebanese are Phoenicians, not Arabs. Yet many Lebanese
are perplexed when Syria is hailed as the guardian of Arab
nationalist causes, since Syria neither sacrificed thousands of its
civilians nor witnessed the destruction of its cities, as did
Lebanon, in the framework of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Despite having survived 15 terrifying years of war and 15 years of
post-war limbo, Lebanon is still a “precarious republic,” in the
words of political scientist Michael Hudson, and an “abducted
country,” in the words of journalist Robert Fisk. Even before the war
began, the title of a book by Lebanese political scientist Iliya
Harik asked Man yahkum Lubnan? (Who Governs Lebanon?), a question no
one would have thought to ask about Hafiz al-Asad’s Syria (though one
might ask it today about Bashar al-Asad’s Syria).

For the late Pope John Paul II, Lebanon was “not a nation, but a
message” (of Christian-Muslim coexistence, presumably). Former
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens disparaged Lebanon as “not a
nation, but a game.” Perhaps the most stinging comment in this vein
came from Maronite intellectual Georges Naccache, who dismissed
Lebanon’s National Pact of 1943 with some acidity. Of the unwritten
agreement between Christians and Muslims, in which the two
communities pledged not to rely upon the West or the Arab world,
respectively, in the pursuit of communal interests, Naccache said:
“Deux negations ne font pas une nation” (“Two negations do not make a


Today, one might offer an updated version of Naccache’s observation:
two oppositions do not make a nation. Neither the loyalists nor the
anti-Syrian forces have articulated what they are for. They only
proclaim what they are against.

The loyalists, led by Lahoud, his term in office having been extended
through Syrian arm twisting in blatant violation of the Lebanese
constitution in September 2004, have no political program beyond
holding on to power and privilege. Comprised of Christians, Shiites
and a few Sunnis, the loyalists present themselves as being against
US and Israeli interference in Lebanese and wider Arab affairs. The
opposition, a fractious and shape-shifting collection of groups and
individuals encompassing the Christian Lebanese Forces and the Druze
Progressive Socialist Party along with leftist movements and Hariri’s
predominantly Sunni Mustaqbal (Future) party, defines itself as
upholding Lebanese sovereignty and protesting Syria’s interference in
Lebanese affairs. Their program, to the extent that one exists,
strikes some in Lebanon, even those sympathetic to their demands, as
being too close to US desiderata for Lebanon and the region. Neither
loyalists nor the opposition, however, have fresh answers to the
perennial institutional problems that have plagued Lebanon since
before the war. The leadership of both groups, in fact, represents
confessionalized patron-client politics and division of the spoils as

With the exception of some recent comments by Jumblatt, neither group
has broached the crucial question of how to transform Lebanon from a
system of contending power bases defined by sectarian affiliation
into a unified yet pluralistic democratic system characterized by
equal representation, power sharing and access to justice. This is a
question not merely of constitutional engineering, but rather of the
restructuring of Lebanon’s entire political order from the ground up.
It touches not merely upon governance, but on identities as well.

Last but not least, neither the loyalists nor the anti-Syrian
opposition have decisively captured the hearts and minds of Lebanon’s
largest, most unified and best organized group — Hizballah, which is
more than a militia or a party, but indeed, an institutional order
unto itself. Unrepresented in the National Pact, kept on the margins
of the pre-war political system, the large numbers of Lebanon’s Shia
who back Hizballah do not see themselves reflected in the ill-defined
platform of the opposition. Rather, they view its leaders as the
privileged children of those who excluded their parents and
grandparents from power in the 1950s and 1960s. Meanwhile, they
perceive Syria’s departure as a threat to Hizballah’s survival and
fear that authorities will strip Hizballah of its weapons (as
required by UN Security Council Resolution 1559), thus ending the
group’s role as the vanguard of national resistance and truncating
its autonomy in the southern suburbs of Beirut and the south of the

To assuage Shiite fears and concerns, many in the opposition, most
notably Jumblatt, have urged that the Taif Accord, not Resolution
1559, should be the road map for the coming transitional period. The
two documents are similar in their demands, particularly those
concerning Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, but the Taif Accord does
not require the disarming of Hizballah. It appears that UN
representative Terje Roed-Larsen is using a blend of the two
documents to chart his way through negotiations with various Lebanese
interlocutors among the loyalists and the opposition, indicating that
the international community, including the US, will not make
Hizballah’s disarmament a priority at this stage.


Ten years ago, the twentieth anniversary of Lebanon’s war came and
went without much comment or emotion. No one commemorated the date in
public; no one celebrated the war’s cessation. Looking back did not
inspire the same urgency as did looking ahead in 1995. Fifteen years
of war were bracketed and shoved aside, even though evidence of their
destructiveness was all over Beirut. The lunar urban landscapes were
something to look beyond, toward the horizons, as suggested by the
omnipresent signs announcing Horizons 2000, the ambitious urban
renovation project launched by the billionaire Hariri, who promised
to restore Beirut, “the ancient city of the future,” to its former

On the twentieth anniversary of the war that had destroyed it,
Beirut, touted in the local press as “the world’s largest
construction site,” was criss-crossed daily by huge dump trucks and
tractors and dominated by high-rise construction cranes as various
groups and individuals protested the project’s plans to transform
Beirut into Hong Kong on the Mediterranean, not to mention decrying
the project’s troubling quasi-public, quasi-private nature and its
expropriation of private lands through legal means of dubious

As for the thousands of wartime handicapped and orphaned, the 150,000
dead, and the 17,000 disappeared and still missing, there was only
numbness and averted gazes for them in 1995. Only a very few spoke in
terms of investigating war crimes, assigning accountability or
reconciling former combatants. To pursue such questions in a country
that had recently passed a general amnesty law while rewarding
warlords with key ministerial positions and lucrative business deals
was ill-advised. Though Beirut’s infrastructural horizons appeared to
be expanding, its political horizons had shrunk considerably.

As work on Horizons 2000, the apple of Hariri’s eye, proceeded apace,
it seemed odd that Martyrs’ Square remained unreconstructed even
after “Centreville” was renovated and buzzing with wealthy
restaurant-goers and shoppers. Though the late Hariri, who is buried
now at the edge of the square, could never have imagined it, this
empty space, now filled with diverse voices calling for change, is
where Lebanon’s war has decisively and finally ended. This venue for
public display of diverse opinions by Lebanese who do and do not
agree with the opposition, representing every sect and a variety of
political currents, may prove to be Lebanon’s largest political
reconstruction site.

But it cannot be Lebanon’s only site of acknowledgement and
accountability. The truth to be sought now in Lebanon, as the freedom
to open old war files grows, is not just for Hariri, but also for all
the war’s victims, especially those who lack the wealth and
connections to stage festivals of unity. The true, lasting and
successful opposition in Lebanon, 30 years after the onslaught of the
vicious war, will be the group or party that demands “the truth” for
all. In other words, the real opposition is opposition to impunity.