In theory, a news event that puts a crimp in Bush administration self-congratulations and infuriates my in-laws should leave me pleased as punch, but I think yesterday's huge pro-Hizbollah demonstration in Beirut was a pretty lousy development. In fact, to invoke the increasingly popular concept of writing people out of rational debate, can we all at least agree that Hizbollah's putting 500,000 or more people in the street was not good news? We can concede that many of those people may have been bussed in, some possibly from as far off as Syria. We can dismiss it as a fascist display. We can note that it took a lot more courage for the opposition to put tens of thousands of people in the street in protest against the occupying power than for Hizbollah to put hundreds of thousands in favor of it. We can dispute the official figure of 1.6 million demonstrators. After all that, it was still a goddamn big demonstration, and to dispute that is just wishful thinking. If for no other reason, it was bad because momentum is the one thing you never want to lose in these people power movements, and the narrative of the Lebanese public rising as one against the Syrian occupiers is now a much more difficult play. Coupled with the return of the never-popular prime minister Omar Karami, this is a serious setback to what was looking like a relatively smooth transition.
Other bad news: The vast, if unsurprising, range of factions willing to demonstrate on Hizbollah's behalf. Maronite stooge Suleiman Franjiyeh came out for Hizbollah. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party or "Hizbalkawmi" came out for Hizbollah, as did Nabih Berri's Amal party, the other big Shi'ite political organization. (For reasons too complicated to go into, the Hizbalkawmi are not actually a Syrian party but a disarmed North Lebanese militia with members in Parliament; you can read more about them in Daniel Pipes' Greater Syria.) It may be that Lebanon's Shi'ites are not as tied to Hizbollah as they seem (recall how Muqtada al-Sadr, supposedly a wildly popular Robin Hood figure to Iraq's Shi'ites, went busto like Howard Dean in Iowa once Iraqis actually voted), but at the moment I don't see anybody else holding the reins of this enormous demographic.
That's (some of) the black cloud. Now for some silver lining. The defining aesthetic characteristic of the demonstration (on TV at any rate) was the prominence of the Lebanese flag. Apparently these were handed out by Hizbollah members to demonstrators, but even if was a calculated gesture, it's significant that they thought to make the gesture. The thinking may have been that the demonstration would go down better both with the media and with the demonstrators themselves if the overall mood was one of patriotic excitement rather than loyalty to the occupier, pan-Arab or pan-Syrian fervor, etc. (That's at the high level anyway; the content of individual placards and pictures was less encouraging. Click the Hizbalkawmi link above for some examples, and also for one pic of a really out-of-place looking floozy in a tight pink shirt.)
It's also more than likely that the support for Syria on display yesterday (and in this poll, which is open to dispute) is not as big as it looked. By this I'm not referring to the talk about inflated figures or people being coerced into demonstrating. But there's another obvious angle here: This demonstration wasn't really about Syria at all, but about Hizbollah and its place in the post-occupation country.
Michael Young makes a very plausible case that Hassan Nasrallah, ambitious to become an international leader, has misjudged the winds. But if you posit that Hizbollah's real goals are mainly domestic (something they always say themselves), yesterday's demo makes perfect sense. In fact, it seems long overdue. For at least five years I've been wondering why Hizbollah, which has the power, the reputation, and apparently the popular support to run the country, was apparently content to get by with 12 out of 128 seats in parliament. Young accurately refers to Nasrallah's contempt for ordinary Lebanese politics, and there's plenty to be contemptous about, but that may be changing. If I were Nasrallah, I'd be calling now for a census of the population of Lebanon, an end to "confessional" representation, and direct voting. I assume he's got his reasons for not doing that, but those are the effective conditions of the "Taif" agreement, which also calls for Syria to leave and the militias to be disarmed. As far as I can see, Nasrallah's in the catbird seat: He doesn't disarm until he wants to, and when he does, he can start taking heap big control of the government. As time passes, I suspect people are going to forget that the we're-glad-Hariri's-dead march was ostensibly about the cobwebbed Syrian regime and see it as Hizbollah's coming out party.
I guess that's not actually good news. Looking at the pictures I can't help thinking "Go ahead and march on that street and that park, you fucking slobs. Hariri built every inch of that, and it's the last good thing you'll see in your fucking miserable lives." We could go to Pipes again to argue that American policy is doing nothing but empowering shiekhs, ayatollahs and raving lunatics. (Not that the bastards will ever thank us: Read this interview with Hizbollah's Mohammed Fneish, wherein I doggedly try to get him to admit the Iraq war was good for Shi'ites in general and his group in particular, and he churlishly refuses to admit it.) And if the May elections take place in an environment where Syria has "redeployed" but is still working out its ever-complicated troop withdrawal schedules (not an impossibility), will the U.S. do anything? Ultimately, is Lebanon really that important to the U.S.?
But a few more bits of good news:
• Bush continues to lay on the get-outta-town rhetoric. I don't think (nor do I hope) that he actually intends to back it up, but Bashar should be given no wiggle room.
• Yesterday's march won't have much impact on the overall People Power trend (if there is such a trend) in the Arab world.
• Things are still relatively peaceful in Lebanon. (This talking point, which I've heard a lot today, is overrated: Since 1990, almost everything in Lebanon has been relatively peaceful.)
• Ultimately, this is democracy in action. There are a lot of Shi'ites in Lebanon, and from what little I know about them I don't find them very interesting. But in a democracy the masses get to have their voices heard, or so I've been told.
• There's been so much Lebanon shit around here lately that it feels like the grand old days of the early 90s, when Michael Young was still putting out his wonderul Lebanon Report, which boasts my favorite magazine cover of all time.
All in all, I'd trade all of the above for Hariri still alive.