After Withdrawal, Letdown in Lebanon

Times Staff Writer

When anti-Syria fever swept Lebanon this year, 25-year-old law student Nabil abu Charaf didn’t think twice. He told a sympathetic boss that he wouldn’t be able to work quietly as a lawyer-in-training while the nation’s youth clamored in the streets for change. He joined the mass of die-hard protesters living in a tent city on Martyr’s Square, fueled by adrenaline and ideals.

A fervent member of the “people power” campaign repeatedly cheered by the Bush administration, Abu Charaf camped under the Mediterranean stars during 72 days of political turmoil. He didn’t go home until popular protests and international pressure forced Syrian soldiers out of Lebanon.

“All of the guys who went down had to sacrifice their jobs and their studies for the cause,” said Abu Charaf, a Maronite Christian who attends St. Joseph’s University in Beirut. “All of us made sacrifices for the Syrian withdrawal.”

But as voters head to the polls today for a parliamentary election billed as the nation’s first free vote after 30 years of civil war and Syrian domination, Abu Charaf is one of the many Lebanese who speak of a sense of letdown. Instead of celebrating the creation of an independent government, Lebanon seems to have fallen into a funk.


“We are disappointed because, you know, politics have changed 180 degrees, but we still have the same people” in power, Abu Charaf said. “That’s the problem. The new generation, the youth, can’t accept it.”

Less than four months have passed since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri sparked massive outrage against Damascus’ military and political control over Lebanon. Back then, Beirut felt breathless.

Demonstrators thronged the streets, blaming Syria for Hariri’s death. There was heady talk of unprecedented unity among previously hostile religious groups. Lebanese hoped that their tortured country might finally make peace among its sects and liberate itself from foreign meddling.

It was an idea encouraged by the U.S., armed with a U.N. Security Council resolution that placed immense pressure on Syria to withdraw. The U.S. described the Beirut demonstrations as the sort of democratic awakening that would be expected from the emerging, post-Saddam Hussein Middle East.

But the so-called Cedar Revolution has sputtered, leaving Lebanon to struggle with the woes that have stuck to the country for generations. Aging warlords are steering themselves back into power. Famous families are preening their sons for parliament.

The anti-Syria alliance hastily forged among mainly Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims after Hariri’s death wasn’t able to agree on much beyond a shared desire to see Syria leave.

Once their common enemy faded back over the border in a caravan of army trucks, many warlords, clan chiefs and religious leaders reverted to securing as much power as possible.

“Syria went fairly cleanly and fairly quickly, which left our politicians high and dry,” said Jamil Mroue, publisher of Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper. “Shorn of his mane, even a lion looks emaciated. Politicians in this town lost their cause.”


It’s not clear just what Lebanese were expecting. Many acknowledge that it’s too soon to expect a national overhaul. Still, the Syrian withdrawal revitalized bold ideas such as power passing to younger leaders or, at least, a new election law.

But instead, the same candidates have drawn up the election lists with the usual backroom dealing, often teaming with ideological opponents to collect more votes. The election law hasn’t changed since it was designed in 2000 by a parliament dominated by Syria’s Lebanese allies. And there has been relatively little campaigning or popular outreach leading up to today’s election.

“Honestly, I’m not going to vote. I don’t have any confidence in the team that’s running for this election,” said Ali Nasreddin, a 26-year-old public relations worker who wandered through Beirut on Friday night.

The sense of alienation is particularly keen among Lebanon’s youth. Abu Charaf says he has several friends abroad who plan to return to Lebanon to stuff blank ballots into the box in silent protest.


Four weeks of voting will kick off today in the capital, where politics continue to be dominated by the Hariri family. Saad Hariri, the 35-year-old son of the former prime minister, has invoked the name and picture of his lionized father to lead a bloc of candidates vying for the city’s 19 parliamentary seats.

Hariri’s bloc is guaranteed to win nine of the legislative posts, because all the candidates for them are in league with Hariri.

“Our main problem now is to give motivation to the people of Beirut to go and vote,” said Hariri, resting at home Friday after receiving a string of Beirut clans who had come armed with poems of tribute, flowers and pledges of loyalty to his family.

Gone is the sea of flags that for months washed the capital in red and white, fluttering from balconies and car antennas. These days, yellow dust streaks the photographic exhibition erected alongside Rafik Hariri’s grave. The white doves that once perched on a slab of melted candle wax at Hariri’s shrine have long since flown off; a thin trickle of mourners came to pay their respects earlier this week.


The unraveling of the opposition to the Syria-allied government came into focus with the dramatic homecoming of Gen. Michel Aoun, the divisive civil war icon and virulent Syria foe who had been exiled by order of Damascus.

Aoun has always been a volatile figure, and he cut a controversial path home from his Parisian exile. He immediately took credit for driving out the Syrians, a boast that made local opposition leaders seethe.

The tension grew as Aoun repeatedly derided the opposition, pointing out -- with more truth than diplomacy -- that many of them had been obedient allies to their patrons in Damascus before switching sides a few months ago.

“They will never be the opposition,” said Aoun, who received reporters Friday in a grove of fir and mimosa at his sprawling home in East Beirut. “They collaborated with Syria and accepted money.”


Concern is also high among Muslims, who are only allowed to take half of the parliamentary seats even though they are believed to be the majority. Meanwhile, the most popular political group, the Shiite Muslim party and armed guerrilla group Hezbollah, has been using the election season to build alliances with other Lebanese parties.

Hezbollah is poised to increase it seats in parliament from 12 to 13, but officials seem more concerned with protecting Hezbollah’s guns than boosting its clout. That means striking alliances, including deals with Christians and the longtime rival Shiite group Amal. With a fight brewing over their guns and their Syrian allies gone, Hezbollah officials say they are eager to bolster domestic support.

The United Nations, United States and various Lebanese parties have called on Hezbollah to put down its guns in favor of political participation. But Hezbollah, which is backed by both Iran and Syria, has insisted that it won’t disarm in the foreseeable future.

“Hezbollah protects itself internally through the alliances we have, either in politics or in the election,” said Sheik Mohammed Kawtharani, a member of Hezbollah’s political bureau. “The parliamentary seats are not so important. What are important are the alliances we have with the other parties.”