On February 14, 2006, a year after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, hundreds of thousands of citizens assembled in the center of Beirut. They gathered with a simple mandate: President Emile Lahoud, who with the help of Syrian President Bashar Assad had illegally forced the extension of his term on the people of Lebanon, must step down. That Tuesday evening, Beirut was buzzing with the tide of peaceful renewal.
This massive display of freely expressed popular support gave unique momentum to a unanimous UN Security Council statement calling for free presidential elections. True political change looked within the reach.
Three months on, Lahoud is still in place, more ensconced than ever in a country that has all but ground to a halt. Lack of leadership at all levels, domestic and international, has created a grave situation. The Middle East, which needs reform badly, has been deprived of its one potentially successful non-violent movement. As one looks at the region in contrast to Lebanon, the descent into violence is overwhelming: A logic of war governs the nuclear dispute between Iran and the United States; Iraq is in the throes of civil strife; Palestinians have been brought to civil war and starvation by a corrupt leadership and a brutal Israeli government that refuses to acknowledge any partner for dialogue . As dictators across the region, including Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, are brought back into the international fold despite a declared US policy of support for democracy, the Lebanese Spring appears to have been defeated by a callous regional system of authoritarian/sectarian regimes bent on extremism. The worldwide confrontation between the United States and Islamic militants is making the situation worse, with moderates in the middle constantly overtaken by the outbursts of violence.
The Lebanese setback, epitomized by the continuation in power of a usurper president, adds to the feeling that the Arab/Middle East system of authoritarianism is returning to plague the country with regional wars, as it did in the early years of the civil war in the mid-1970s. In Lebanon, various factions tied to Syria are openly arming themselves. Hizbollah, whose leader has threatened to "cut the arms" of those who would try to disarm the party forcefully, may not be the most worrying example. Several fringe Palestinian and Islamic groups are increasingly assertive.
With Lahoud at the helm, a crippled government is incapable of defending helpless citizens against the militants or preventing them from rearming. A Lebanese soldier was killed at the border last week by a Palestinian group associated with Syria, and the tension within the Lebanese government between the pro-Syrian Lahoud and the anti-Syrian Prime Minister Fouad Siniora renders the State unable or unwilling to exercise its sovereignty in the country.
A massive effort is needed internationally and domestically to save the Cedar Revolution, and this effort must be based on the one positive difference that distinguishes the present situation from the one that prevailed in the 1970s, when the term "Lebanonization" became synonymous with the failure of states racked by brutal regional interference. The difference is that this time there is a strong, confident civil movement. Non-violent Lebanese must be supported and embraced openly, those who advocate violence denounced and punished. The international tribunal investigating and judging the assassins of Hariri will help with some retribution, but it works too slowly and cannot on its own deter those who are bent on undermining the non-violent Revolution. the international community must take positive measures, including the open embrace of Lebanese patriots with political, legal, and financial support. The enemies of peace must know the dire consequences of keeping to violence, including travel bans, freezing the assets of individuals and close kin, and even the threat of UN troops if they choose to escalate.
There is a groundswell of decency in Lebanon, and it is spreading. To demonstrate that every citizen is entitled to participate in government and that nobody is above the law, I am running for the presidency of Lebanon. But I am just one of the thousands of Lebanese who have pledged our fortunes, lives, and sacred honors for some measure of the freedom Americans enjoy as your birthrights. In the past year, the Lebanese proved there was an alternative to extremism by offering a unique counter-model to violence. While we paid a heavy price with the lives of our friends and colleagues who fell to the assassins, bravery is everywhere to see. It is catching up in the region, not least in Syria and Egypt, where the Republican dynasties, fearful of the challenge to their authority, have thrown dozens of people into prison in recent weeks. These prisoners of conscience openly acknowledge the inspiration they drew from the Lebanese example, and all realize that the future of world peace is premised on the success of non-violent leaders dictating the new terms of governance in the region. No country is riper for such change than Lebanon, this is why the Beirut Spring must not be allowed to wither and fade.