The people make a stand over the lies of Lebanon

By Robert Fisk in Beirut

The Independent

15 March 2005

Never before have we seen anything like it in Lebanon. Never before have we seen anything like it in the Arab world.

Almost a third of the population of Lebanon was there; they walked many miles through the city to Martyrs' Square, they arrived by bus from the far north and from Sidon in the south, most of them young, many of them children.

This was not just a game of power. Nor was it, per se, a democratic revolution. It was an insurrection by the people against the lies and corruption of government as well as the foreign control they have lived under for so many decades.

Yes, they wanted the Syrian army out - they are leaving anyway - but they also wanted President Lahoud of Lebanon to resign. They wanted no more compliant Lebanese governments led by weak old men; and most of them - to tell from the lapel badges they wore - were demanding the truth about the murder of the former premier Rafik Hariri on 14 February.

There was an ocean of Lebanese banners. And never before had those flags, used with such cynicism and so much derision in the past, appeared so magnificent. It wasn't just the green cedar tree in the centre - always so refreshing after the black stars and governessy eagles that grace the flags of so many Arab regimes - but the fact that it was raised in protest at dishonesty and murder. It was the young of Lebanon, so often courted by the elderly and guilty men of this country, who were using their flag to get rid of them.

Up in the palace at Baabda, President Lahoud and his entourage seem as isolated from their country's mood as the Americans and their appointees in the Baghdad "green zone" do from Iraq's tragedy. Indeed, from the Baabda "green zone", there had emerged one of those spectacularly inappropriate statements that only exiled presidents usually make. "Any small firecracker could lead to a catastrophe," President Lahoud said.

But what did this mean? Was it a threat? A warning? Did he know something the Leban-ese did not? Or was he merely showing his concern for the million who want him to step down - or, in the words of Lebanon's now-returned opposition leader Walid Jumblatt, to leave with the Syrians.

But no, it turned out he feared that Hariri's murderers might throw a hand-grenade into the crowd. "What will become of our children?" he asked.

But it was for their children that so many hundreds of thousands of Lebanese protested yesterday. And one could not fail to notice so many hopeful aspects of their demonstration. They were happy and smiling and laughing; some even brought picnics or marched to trumpets and drums.

Many were the children whose parents had sent them abroad to be educated in Geneva, London or New York in the dark years of the civil war, returned now and anxious to rid themselves of the sectarian past. The Lebanese troops who stood around the square pointedly wore their rifles reversed over their shoulders, barrels pointed to the ground. They were not going to harm their countrymen.

Of course, there were some wearying signs: Christians tended to keep to the east of Martyrs' Square and Muslims to the west - their ethnic locations when the square was the civil war front line

There was a large and cruel cartoon of the Shia Hizbollah leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, one of his arms tugged by Lebanon, the other by Syria, with the words "Make up your mind!" written above. And yet that is the question all Lebanon is asking. For if Nasrallah remains loyal to Syria, he will cut off much of the Shia community from their fellow citizens.

There was a clutch of secondary speakers at the rally: Nayla Mouawad, widow of the assassinated president Rene Mouawad, and old Mikhail Dagher and the smart opposition MP Ghenura Jaloul who vainly tried to present Mr Lahoud with opposition demands last week. But Mr Jumblatt stayed away in his Moukhtara castle, unwilling to risk assassination on the road to Beirut. Hariri's two sons had already fled the country.

Now all await the United Nations' detailed report on Hariri's killing. Who did it? That was the question they were asking yesterday in their tens of thousands. And still Mr Lahoud remains silent.