TCS Daily


'The Source of the Chaos'

By Michael Totten - October 24, 2005 12:00 AM

BEIRUT -- The Lebanese army fully deployed into the streets of Beirut while awaiting the release of U.N. special prosecutor Detlev Mehlis's report on his investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Armored vehicles and heavy artillery were placed in front of possible targets. Neighborhoods formed watch groups. The government suspended gun licenses. The streets were eerily quiet. Many stayed home in case Syrian terrorists lashed out in anger at their former subjects.

And now, 250 days after Hariri was killed, the truth -- or at least something that looks like the shape of the truth -- finally emerged. Syrian President Bashar Assad's brother-in-law Ashef Shawkat was named the chief suspect. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud was named as a possible accomplice.

Fear and suspense then turned to relief.

When asked if he fears Syrian retaliation in Lebanon, Makram Z. was perfectly calm. "It will take a long time before this is fully resolved, perhaps one or two years. In the meantime, Syria will lay low and buy time...The way these people think and act, and the way they were all brought up, indicates nothing stops them from acting like this, especially if they are from the old school of the Baath Party. But I don't suppose they will stir things up now that it is known world wide."

His friend Claude D. also thinks Lebanon will be okay. "In 1970 we saw anti-Christian riots when [Egyptian President] Nasser died. And for what? He died of a heart attack. No one killed him. Yet when Hariri was killed, both Christians and Muslims united in anger and grief. Lebanon is more mature than it was."

He is worried about one thing, though. "If Lebanon reacts well to this crisis, the winds of freedom will blow onto the other Arab regimes. And they won't like it."

Makram gestured to another friend who preferred to remain anonymous. "This man," he said, "he is a Sunni. They were against Syria's presence in Lebanon all along. We Christians were expected to oppose Syria, and our opinions were a little more tolerated. But the Sunnis were never allowed to oppose."

"Is this true?" I said to Makram's anonymous friend. He grimly nodded yes, it was true.

Nabil Abou-Charraf, one of the Cedar Revolution's student leaders from St. Joseph's University, sounded supremely confident when he spoke to me on the phone from Paris. "This report was made by a neutral international magistrate known for his integrity. It indicts both Assad and Lahoud. It is not a political report, but there are political responsibilities. It is impossible that Assad did not know what was happening. Lahoud must resign."

Did he fear retaliation from Damascus? "There might be security problems in the short term, but this is the end."

Several people who attended the million-person anti-occupation rally in March told me they found the courage to stand up to the Syrians because they finally knew they weren't alone. Individual dissidents can be persecuted. A million cannot be.

A million, however, can be terrorized. And Lebanese have been terrorized by car bombs since February. They were not isolated as individuals. But they did feel isolated as a country.

The Mehlis report put a stop to that. I've heard variations on that theme for three days.

Joumanna Nasr, an economics and finance student at the American University of Beirut, put it simply. "I don't think now with the international eye on them and with the truth out on the table that the Syrians can afford to meddle in Lebanese affairs."

Another AUB student, who preferred to remain anonymous, was somewhat less optimistic but still hopeful for the same reason. "Dramatic changes will happen in Syria. Those changes will no doubt directly affect the situation in Iraq, the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel...Instability will continue for some time. The report at least lets us know that the instability is not going undocumented as it points to the source of the chaos."

Hotel manager Jad Lian said it bluntly. "Syria can do no harm to Lebanon. All the eyes of the world are open on it. They can do nothing to save their own butt. They burned themselves alive."

Some Lebanese are still afraid. But I was only able to find one single person, a bartender, who is truly bracing for hell.

"I'm not really into politics, but come on," he said. "This is our country, and this is serious. Something bad is going to happen in the next couple of days. Something big and something terrible."

One of his patrons, a Lebanese man named Rami who spoke English so well I first though he was American, shook his head and sipped his drink. "I don't think anything is going to happen," he said.

Later that night after iftar -- the breaking of Ramadan fast -- thousands of people rallied in Martyr's Square and around Rafik Hariri's grave site across the street.

The young were ferocious. They jubilantly sang patriotic Lebanese songs. They fiercely screamed "Down with Assad!" and "Down with Lahoud!" in Arabic. Dozens carried signs that said "Justice." Younger kids threw firecrackers onto the pavement.

But not everyone at the rally was young, and not everyone looked happy or riled up. Older more conservative people quietly watched from the sidelines. Some Muslim women wore the hijab over their hair. Old men smoked cigarettes and wore the heavy look of grief on their faces. They gathered around Hariri's grave and shared the bitter joy of the truth and the pain of loss. They seemed to find comfort in numbers.

A jovial fat man told me he was worried about what might happen next. But he was also unshakeable. "What happened today is an accomplishment. But we need more. I am a bit worried about what Syria will do next. They have a dangerous mind. But nobody cares. Nobody cares."

A young woman carried a sign that said "[Emile] Lahoud is a big ugly fat bitch" in English. Lahoud is still president of Lebanon. This is not your typical Middle East country. "We will have peace here in Lebanon," she told me.

The young man who was with her looked me straight in the eye. "We'll give it everything we have," he said. "We have to."

A thirty-something woman held aloft a t-shirt that said "I LOVE MEHLIS" in bold black font. A young man standing next to her wore a U.N. jacket out of solidarity with Mehlis and his investigation. "It's over," he said.

Michael J. Totten is based in Beirut, Lebanon. He is a TCS columnist whose work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the LA Weekly, and Beirut's Daily Star. Please visit his daily Web log and Middle East Journal at http://michaeltotten.com.

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