Commentary by Tamer Mallat – June 13 2011
On June 15, 2011, Syrian revolutionaries will enter their third month of protest. Thirteen Fridays have already past, over 1,300 Syrians have lost their lives – excluding those listed as missing -, and over 12,000 remain incarcerated in a prison system where torture, humiliation, intimidation, rape and extra-judicial execution constitute the modus operandi of regime violence. In face of looming defeat, Bashar al-Assad appears to have waged an open war against the people of his own country. The army is being deployed everywhere, helicopters are gunning down peaceful protestors; for the regime, the “enemy” appears to be no other than the entire population of Syria. And yet, the Syrians have not succumbed to Bashar’s murderous folly. Friday June 10, hundreds of thousands of protestors braved the plethora of bullets being fired at them to continue to voice their demands: the Syrian regime must go. However, in neighboring Lebanon, the scene is very much different. For a country that has suffered from the Assad dynasty’s tyranny for almost three decades, the Lebanese have been awfully quite. Worse even, the majority of Lebanese can be best described as being completely apathetic, to be as diplomatic as the limits allow.
This shameful Lebanese silence is a conundrum. Lebanon, long before the advent of the Arab Spring, represented the haven of freedom and contestation in the broader Arab world. The Cedar Revolution of 2005 came to epitomize the Lebanese “exception”. The barbaric assassinations of the country’s outspoken critics under Syrian domination pushed the majority of Lebanon’s citizens to the edge. Fed up with a three decade-long culture of impunity, over a million marched down to demand the liberation of Lebanon from Assad’s rule. Still, to summarize Syria’s seemingly invisible hand of tyranny to the 2004-2008 period does little justice to the Lebanese, Syrian and foreign victims who have lost their lives or suffered since Hafez’s coup d’état in 1970. For a society notoriously known as being politically clamorous and fearless, how did the Lebanese come to be so silent?
Today, Lebanon continues to constitute another “exception” in the Arab world. With Arab societies mobilizing and fighting for regime change, the Lebanese exception has become one of lethargy, sordid apathy, and symptomatic aloofness. More shocking is the timing of this quiescence: the battle for a Syria devoid of ruthless dictatorship concerns us here in Lebanon as much as it concerns our friends over in Syria. The Assad regime’s umbrella of influence, despite having been hindered after the withdrawal of the Syrian army in 2005, continues to cast a frightening shadow over Lebanon. Transcending institutions, political parties, the economy, and the security apparatus, the iron fist of the regime next door knows no limits. A successful crackdown and repression of the Syrian Revolution would have dire consequences on Lebanon. Bashar al-Assad will never forget the humiliation he faced after we kicked him out of our country six years back. From our side, we must not forget the frustration felt when the Syrians failed to mobilize in 2005 to join us in our common struggle for freedom and justice. Let’s not let them say the same about the Lebanese in 2011.
More frightening than the silence of Lebanon are the reasons that bring the Lebanese to be so quiet. Over the past week a number of people – family, friends, or random individuals – have called me or expressed what can be summarized as follows: “Whatever you do don’t get involved in what is going in Syria. This is exactly what the regime wants us to do in order to give them a pretext to attack Lebanon or create a civil war here. It’s better to pass this over in silence as to limit the extent of Syria reprisals in the future.” Although these claims represent a tangible reality, these discourses are first and foremost an evident manifestation of internalized fear. This terror comes from a mixture of confusion that emanates from Lebanon’s March 14-leaning political elites who do not know what stances they must take. Such a confusion and fear, in a country where “top-down” dynamics are the norm, leaves ordinary Lebanese perplexed. Moreover, the fears of a civil war comeback add another psychological barrier to commitment. Mobilization exists in Lebanon as a phenomenon that is dependent on party or leader calls for social movement. Today, with no more Samir Kassirs to express the necessary truths, Lebanon stagnates in fear. By pretending that the situation in Syria does not concern us, the Lebanese are merely pushing back an unavoidable destiny. One day or another, and whether we mobilize or not, if the Syrian intifada fails to bear fruit, Lebanon will pay a heavy price.
Lebanon has become today a platform from which Syrian dissidents are seeking refuge and attempting to re-organize. Further, with thousands of refugees spilling over the north of the country, and the continued failure to form a cabinet, it becomes increasingly difficult to neglect the paramount nature and link with events next door. On March 13, 2011, the Lebanese once again surprised themselves and proved to the region that they are capable of spontaneously mobilizing in face of perceived threats to their liberty. The Syrian Revolution, in many ways, is more critical than our internal struggle against oppression; both are linked, but stopping short of fighting the domestic symptoms won’t cure the regional disease. If the Lebanese wish to permanently break the chains of regional over-determination, they must find a way to overcome their fear and apathy. The Arab Spring only happens once in history. Let’s not miss our chance to finally hop on the Arab bandwagon of liberation.