The taste of Bitterness in Syria
Syria is going through new layer of emotions as a result of the Hariri assassination.
Before describing local reactions, I must say it was very moving to watch the extraordinary demonstration in center-city Beirut yesterday, the city in which I grew up. Many TV channels carried live feed of the procession from Martyr’s square to the UN building. The demonstrators carried signs with various nationalist slogans. Some said “Syria out,” others simply bore the crescent and cross together, but most were pictures of Hariri or the Lebanese flag. Like witnessing a downpour in the desert, it was extraordinary to watch the mass demonstration. Such manifestations of creative spirit have been absent from the Arab world for so long. Much of the public anger expressed in the days immediately following Hariri’s murder had given way to a celebration of Lebanon’s surprising unity. The participants were orderly and calm. There was a minimum of speechifying. Perhaps the leaders sensed that the day was a day of the people; they had better tag along, rather than try to direct. It was a beautiful first day of spring. It gives one faith that the Lebanese will finally get what they have been praying for these last 30 years – national reconciliation, independence and freedom.
Of course anyone familiar with Lebanon and the Arab World knows how elusive such goals can be. We can expect many setbacks and disappointments along the way. When Lebanon’s many sectarian leaders do try to organize and channel the new sentiment and popular expectations toward their own ends, solidarity will be sorely challenged. But who can deny that something new has happened? It has electrified people. Out of the barren Middle Eastern political scene has sprung the possibility to hope.
Bitterness and cynicism have reigned as king and queen of the region for so long that most people have forgotten the simple and much maligned power of faith in the future. And it has not come out of Iraq or Palestine, but out of little, exceptional Lebanon, which so many had written off as the Noah’s Arch of disorder. Long live Lebanon!
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If Lebanon has seen a renaissance of spirit, Syria has had its spirit drained. The Ba’th (Renaissance) Party is in all time disarray. Fa’iz Ismail of the Progressive Front wrote the other day that the Party would not discuss “domestic maters” in its much anticipated meeting this summer. Only foreign topics would be on the table. That means no party reform as many had hoped, no legalization of new political groupings, and no end to the straight jacket of socialism and one party rule. If Lebanon is entering a new era of freedom with new leaders, Syria is mired in the old. There are no demonstrations here.
Syrians are grumbling and confused, disappointed and frightened. They are angry too. One neighbor of a friend, a well known doctor whose son attends the Lebanese American University in Beirut, insists his son will not return to Lebanon to complete the new semester. The son claimed that of the 300 Syrian LAU students, half will not return to Beirut. “You don’t know how the Lebanese hate us,” he said. “We don’t feel comfortable there, and we don’t want to return.” Perhaps these students and parents will reconsider their decisions in a few days should anxieties calm down. For the time being, no one is taking chances. The manager of a tourist company I spoke to said he had ordered Lebanese buses for his tourist groups, so they could pass into Lebanon from Syria unmolested. Syrian buses and cars have been stoned in Lebanon. One military officer claimed that his wife’s car had its windows broken while she was on a shopping trip across the border two days ago. The tents of Syrian itinerant farm workers were burned and destroyed near Tripoli. The Syrians are leaving Lebanon with or without government orders.
Many people are angry. “Tuzz `alla Lubnan” (Fart on Lebanon) is a common refrain around here among taxi drivers and shop keepers: “They are the ones who need us. We don’t need them. Perhaps some leaders are getting rich in Lebanon,” they add, “but for the Syrian people, Lebanon is a burden.” No soldier likes serving in Lebanon. Many will remind you that for the ordinary Syrian, Lebanon has been a constant drain in treasure and lives.
But everyone is worried underneath their show of hurt national pride. There are at least 300,000 Syrian workers in Lebanon (some say as many as 1,000,000) who may be forced to come home. What will Syria do with them? They are all supporting families. People are angry at Syria’s leaders. As one taxi drive said by way of a local aphorism: “When the leaders eat unripe grapes, it is the people who taste the bitterness.”
Arabism is dead: There is no popular will to stay in Lebanon. Ninety per cent of Syrians, maybe more, say Syria must leave. They know Syria’s presence in Lebanon has outlived its usefulness and welcome. “Arabism is dead,” the more reflective say. “The Saudis and people of the Gulf,” they don’t like us. “Jordan? Oh yes! We have great relations with Jordan. Iraq? Egypt? Morocco? Everyone is thinking of themselves. The Palestinians are ready to give up their rights.” One hears such comments wherever on goes. Some have said this for a long time, but others are letting it cross their lips for the first time. There is a new disappointment. Perhaps the often-interred Arab nation is actually dying? Even the Syrian government and Ba’th Party will have to eventually wake up to the reality. As the Minister of Information wrote several months ago, “There is no Baath Party in any other Arab country except for perhaps Yemen. No one wants to unite with us. Let’s not pretend. It is time to recognize this and change.” The Baath Party has its hands over its ears.
The Christian shops in the neighborhood had their televisions tuned to LBC and the Lebanese demonstration all day long. The noise and hubbub coming from their shops was audible on the streets. Muslim shops were listening to something else. Not a few were tuned to recitations of the Koran. Syrians are worried for their future and divided in how to respond to the events in Lebanon.
A month ago, foreign reporters were swarming all over Damascus trying to read the impact of Iraqi elections here. Only 14,000 Iraqis voted. It is the impact of events in Lebanon that they should have come to report on. That is what the Syrians are paying attention to.
Today, the Syrians taste the bitterness. Perhaps in the future, Lebanon will bring them something sweet. As my devout local newspaper seller said when I asked him what he thought of Lebanon: "The Lebanese have freedom. Every sect has a party to express the needs of the people. Isn't that what everyone wants and what Allah intended? Al-hamdulillah."