AT LAST: Lebanese Cultural and Artistic Community Protest Syrian Atrocities

It has been a mystery to many as to why the Lebanese, who successfully fought Syrian domination of their country by fomenting what is known as the Cedar Revolution, have stood relatively silent on the current popular uprising in neighboring Syria. Having suffered under the Assads for 30 years, the Lebanese were expected to be at the forefront of the international movement of solidarity with the Syrian people.  Astonishingly, though, they merely looked on while many groups in scores of world capitals vigorously protested the atrocities in Syria.

How can we explain this? In fact there are some very specific reasons for the Lebanese reserve. Some members of its progressive community attribute the seeming indifference to sectarianism in Lebanon. Bluntly put, because the groups supporting the Syrian uprising would predominantly hail from the Sunni Muslim community, while the pro-Assad group would come from the Shiite Muslim community, there has always existed the possibility that Lebanon could erupt in further civil sectarian-based strife as the result of these clashing allegiances; expressions of solidarity could break Lebanon’s fragile communal peace.  

Thus the solution of “non-intervention” was arrived at to prevent overt and incendiary displays of solidarity,  since, as some have put it, “the security of Syria is the security of Lebanon.” This same strategy was employed with respect to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which was set up to investigate the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Since the country is split on the STL and the two groups cannot reach an agreement, the pro-Assad group suggested that an ultimatum hung in the air: either justice or communal peace. The implication was that, just as protesting Syrian atrocities might destroy communal peace, cooperating with the STL in the name of justice could similarly spark civil strife.

But this did not sit well with a small group of courageous students who went to protest Syrian repression in front of the Syrian embassy in West Beirut on August 3. Predictably maybe, the students were met by the Lebanese equivalent of the Syrian Shabiha – a  group comprised mainly of elements of pro-Assad Lebanese parties and other likeminded thugs – which reportedly came out of  the embassy and attacked the protestors. The students did not belong to any of Lebanon’s major political groups – neither the 14th of March movement nor the 8th of March group. Nevertheless, they were attacked physically, with some being taken to hospital, and one even undergoing serious surgery.

The events on Hamra Street in West Beirut have had major national repercussions, mainly for the right of freedom of speech and police protection. This was not a surprise since the new cabinet is correctly labeled pro-Syrian. Perhaps the most important result was the galvanizing of hundreds of activists, writers, journalists, poets, musicians, and some politicians, who gathered in Martyrs Square, where many Lebanese and Syrians were executed by the Ottomans early in the 20th century, in downtown Beirut to show solidarity with the Syrian people. It was peaceful by all standards, although Shabiha attempted to disrupt the event,  inciting some of Lebanon’s most prominent intellectuals and artists to come forward and denounce the bloody practices of the Syrian regime.

Outsiders may wonder about the political and cultural role of intellectuals in Lebanon. The predicament of Lebanon’s intellectuals and artists cannot be explained without also examining the attitude of a government that subscribes to the “non-intervention theory.” The activities of the Lebanese Minister of Culture on the eve of the gathering in Martyrs Square shed some light on this. On that night, he was giving a speech during a dinner held by the Free Patriotic Movement, the political party to which he belongs. During the dinner, he defended the Syrian army and the “strong” relationship between Lebanon and Syria, going so far as to compare the Syrian popular uprising to a confrontation between the Lebanese army and a group of militant Islamist Palestinians in Nahr Al Barid refugee camp in northern Lebanon, according to Abduh Wazen, editor of the Cultural section of Al Hayat newspaper. The fact that the Minister of Culture, Gaby Layoun, recognizes no difference between terrorists and the genuine pro-democracy movement now happening in Syria speaks volumes as to why Lebanese intellectuals tarried in taking to the streets.

When a country’s best artists and intellectuals turn out to register protest, one would expect some sort of recognition and legitimization from the Minister of Culture, especially when many of them are members of  the country’s two main opposing political groups. But in the case of Lebanon, the Minister was dining and lending support to the official Syrian position. Was the Minister of Culture fazed by the activities of his country’s intellectuals? Apparently not, according to Wazen. “He does not consider himself their minister and they do not recognize him as a Minister of Culture, given their understanding of the requirements of that post.”

Thus, there are several factors that hindered the development of early protest by Lebanon’s intellectual and artistic communities. Since Lebanon has no “Ministry of Culture” but rather only a “Minister of Culture,” as Wazen put it, whose main objective is to provide support to his political party and its Syrian ally, intellectuals cannot expect much support or protection of any kind.

Against the many odds, however, Lebanon’s best artists and intellectuals came out and said NO to the atrocities and the butchering of innocent civilians that has occurred in almost every Syrian city.


                                                                                                                 Elie Chalala

This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63


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