Flags fluttering, horns honking, and fingers flashing V for victory, Lebanon's opposition converged on downtown Beirut yesterday in the biggest democratic protest in the history of the modern Middle East.
Their numbers - about a million strong - were a retort to the rival protests staged last week by the terrorist group Hezbollah, and a message to each other and the world that the Lebanese people are serious in their demands for - as the crowd chanted over and over - "Freedom, Sovereignty, Independence."
They want Syria's Baathist regime out of Lebanon. They want to know who plotted the bombing on February 14 that killed the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, which most blame on Syria. And what they have already achieved is that after years under Syria's shadow, they have regained their dignity. The colors of the movement are those of the Lebanese flag, reflecting its red and white stripes and green cedar tree. And those colors are everywhere - in the red-and-white ribbons, scarves, and bandannas, on balloons, kites, banners, posters, and even the form-fitting clothing favored in this most Bohemian of Arab capitals.
What these protesters repeated in interview after interview, in a Martyr's Square so packed with people that it was, at times, almost impossible to move, is that they want war and repression to end. They want peace, work, and, most immediately, they want Lebanese democratic self-rule - not Syria's jackboot version of "stability." "We have children here," said housewife Goumana Fayad, who attended the demonstration with her two teenage sons. "We want them to be educated to live in peace."
Among the most promising aspects of this opposition movement is the extent to which it has brought together disparate factions, namely Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Druze. Previously, the democratic opposition was predominantly Christian. Hariri was a Sunni Muslim. His assassination has galvanized Lebanon's Sunni community, which made a strong showing at yesterday's demonstration, many with entire families in tow. From 18-year-old Sara Abou Abdo, wearing a silver headscarf, came the comment: "All Lebanon has to be free to take their decisions on their own, and all people should come to favor freedom."
Many of the demonstrators want the free world to keep a spotlight on Lebanon right now. That tack may be their best chance for keeping both Syria and the pro-Syrian, Iranian-funded Hezbollah at bay. Lebanon is currently the focus of intricate diplomatic maneuvers by both America and the United Nations aimed at pressing Syria to comply with last year's U.N. resolution 1559, which requires that all Syrian troops and security forces leave Lebanon and that the militias disarm, a clause that points straight to Hezbollah. So far, Syria has dragged its feet, and Hezbollah remains armed.
In recent weeks, both President Bush and Secretary of State Rice have often urged Syria's speedy departure and lent support to Lebanon's democratic protesters. That's a notable departure from U.S. policy over the past generation, which, under the banner of supporting the status quo, gave a nod to Syria's chokehold on Lebanon. It was not until 2003, as Mr. Bush prepared to overturn the Middle East apple cart by overthrowing Iraq's Saddam Hussein, that America began to describe Syria's presence in Lebanon as an "occupation." More recently, in keeping with Mr. Bush's post-September 11, 2001, doctrine of promoting democracy rather than simply "stability," so long favored in the Middle East, the White House has been telling Lebanon's democrats that America will keep its faith with them.
In Beirut yesterday, it was clear that message has been heard. Unlike the Hezbollah demonstrators with their chants of "Death to America," many in the crowd were friendly to Americans. "Thank's Free World," (sic) said one poster, held high by a woman in a bright red jacket, Rawya Okal, who told me: "We thank Mr. Bush for his position." Overhearing this in the throng, a middle-aged man in a green baseball cap, Louis Nahanna, leaned over to say, "We love the American people" - adding, "Please don't let Bush forget us. Your support is very important."
Asking more people what they thought of Americans turned up the same refrain. From a young driver, Fadi Mrad, came the message: "We want to change. We need freedom. Please don't let Bush forget us." From a group of young men came not only the message "Our hope is America," and "We believe in democracy in the Middle East," but also praise for Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. There was also an invitation from one of them, young Edgard Baradhy, for his heroine, Ms. Rice, to come to Beirut "and I am ready to take her for coffee."
At one point, two young men sitting on a sidewalk mistook this reporter for a Frenchwoman, and called out "Vive la France!" The European nation's president, Jacques Chirac, has also come out in support of the democratic movement. When I told them that I was American, they got to their feet and came over to say, "Welcome to Lebanon."
And in the numbers game played out over the past week that has left commentators comparing Hezbollah's crowds to those of the democratic opposition, it is important to note that yesterday's protestors showed up not under the orders of any authority, but because they are willing to risk Syria's ire. Unlike the Hezbollah demonstrators, who dispersed at speed the moment their rallies were over, yesterday's demonstrators lingered - sitting, talking, waving flags, and savoring a display of public will in which almost one-quarter of Lebanon's 4.4 million people had demonstrated for their right to join the free world.
These demonstrators are well aware that hazards lie ahead. In losing Lebanon, the repressive Syrian regime may face a fight for its own survival back home in Damascus, and will no doubt be looking for ways to undercut Lebanon's democratic movement, or slow down its withdrawal until world attention drifts. Last night in Beirut there was talk that Lebanese authorities, some still in thrall to Syria, might try to clear away the tent encampment in Martyr's Square, from which the democratic demonstrators have operated since Hariri's murder set off this uprising. There is also the threat of Hezbollah, now serving as the proxy face of Syria in Lebanon - literally parading posters of Syria's President Assad through the streets of Beirut last week.
But there is also a keen sense here of just how fast and far Lebanon's people have come in the quest to recover their rights. Back in 2002, on a visit to Beirut, a group of student leaders here told me that they felt that despite Lebanon's prewar history of democratic institutions, their country had since been abandoned by the free world. They despaired of Syria ever exiting Lebanon, and saw no alternative but to immigrate if they could. They were scared enough of Syria's security agents that they asked their names not be published. Now, at least two of them have turned up among the democratic protesters. And the democratic activist who convened that group, Fadi Amrou Jamra, commenting on yesterday's landmark protest, says, "You want elections? We're ready for elections now!"
- Ms. Rosett is journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.