11 years since Lebanon’s March 14 movement

Friday 25/03/2016
Former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri (C), and other Lebanese leaders attend a ceremony to mark the 11th anniversary of the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut.

Beirut - On March 14th, 2005, Lebanese protesters from all sectarian and political backgrounds gathered in Beirut to call for the immediate end of Syr­ian tutelage over Lebanon. The demonstration marked the largest gathering in Lebanese history.
Mobilised behind the Lebanese flag, they demanded sovereignty, freedom and independence.
The success of March 14, a po­litical movement that assembled groups opposed to Syrian presence in the country, exceeded all expec­tations.
Two months after March 14’s in­ception, Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon. Exiled and imprisoned Christian leaders returned to the country or were released from pris­ons. An international tribunal was established to investigate assassi­nations of anti-Syrian dissidents, most famously the former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
There were general elections that year, culminating in a March 14 electoral sweep and the movement formed a national government and enacted laws at an unprecedented rate.
An international donor confer­ence in Paris pledged more than $10 billion in direct aid and loans to help Lebanon restore its civilian and security infrastructure.
After Syrian military presence and many Israeli incursions and occupations, Lebanon appeared on the verge of restoring its sovereign­ty, independence and freedom.
But March 14’s early momentum was soon met with opposition.
Syrian and Iranian loyalists, who framed themselves as an axis of resistance opposing a perceived post-colonial Western- and Zionist-imposed regional order, mobilised to show popular support for the Syrian presence in Lebanon.
On March 8th, just days prior to the March 14th protest, they gath­ered behind the Shia Hezbollah in what was famously labelled the Thank You Syria gathering, mark­ing the inauguration of the March 8 movement.
The past 11 years of political quarrels between the Marches have proven sufficient to bleed off and corrode the March 14 alliance.
At least three prime reasons can be cited as responsible for the movement’s demise:
First, March 14 was a coalition that assembled incoherent political groups. Populist Maronite leader Michel Aoun demanded exclusivity to Christian leadership. After facing rejection, Aoun formed his own opposition before merging with March 8. Walid Jumblatt, who had inherited Druze leadership from his slain father, Kamal, soon broke rank and restored ties with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.
The Future Movement, the Leba­nese Forces and the Kataeb (Phal­ange) parties appeared as clien­telistic networks splitting public spoils and manipulating foreign aid among close fellows.
Second, the movement failed to demonstrate national integration. It appeared as a Sunni-dominated movement with Christian and Dru­ze supporters. Hezbollah and the Amal movement were quick to play on Shia fears of marginalisation and exclusion. Hezbollah and Amal strengthened their grip on the Shia community, denying March 14 a crucial claim to national inclusive­ness and representation.
Third, and most important, the March 14 movement was unable to establish the Lebanese state’s exclusive right to arms. This factor has proven the most overwhelming and decisive in expanding its vul­nerability to sabotage. During the drafting of a ministerial statement, it famously conceded that the re­sponsibility for defending Lebanon lay with the “army, resistance, and people”, implicitly recognising Hezbollah’s and its Syrian allies’ right to arms, the use of violence and Shia autonomy.
The consequence is a state-spon­sored Lebanese Army and security forces possessing limited author­ity and paralysed by political and sectarian disagreements. Formal state security commanders loyal to Hezbollah are appointed to key positions. An informal security infrastructure established by Hez­bollah, supported and financed by Iran, is ready to overwhelm any political dialogue and sabotage the country’s civil peace altogether.
The deficiencies of March 14 have proven many but Hezbollah’s military might and its ability to overwhelm the country’s political establishment is the single most important factor responsible for its setbacks.
Co-opting with Hezbollah has proven the only strategy capable of preserving peace and avoiding civil violence. Yet the cost continued to pile up as Hezbollah became unre­strained in its vocal attacks against Saudi Arabia, March 14’s main backer and the country’s major economic partner. Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam and March 14 ministers appeared help­less while Hezbollah’s ally Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil abstained from voting along with other Arab states gathered to express solidar­ity with Saudi Arabia against at­tacks on its diplomatic missions in Iran.
Despite the sacrifices, assassina­tions, explosions, splits, sectar­ian fragmentations and divisions, March 14 will be remembered as having inspired a generation of Lebanese committed to non-vio­lence as they sought to become an independent and sovereign state.