Past versus future in Lebanon

After lurking in the shadows for the past few weeks, the old Middle East– with its stale anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric, its support for autocratic strongmen– made a massive appearance Tuesday in Beirut.

“We are united here to above all thank Syria, the Syrian people and the Syrian army which has stayed by our side for many long years and is still with us,” the head of the Syrian-backed group Hezbollah told the crowd.

“The Syrian presence is not only military… Syria is in our hearts, our spirits and our souls,” said Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shiite Muslim group which fought Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon in the 1990s.

The massive crowds gathered the day after Syrian and Lebanese leaders agreed on a two-stage pullback of Syrian troops in Lebanon but stopped short of announcing a complete withdrawal as demanded by the international community.

“Beirut is free, America out,” chanted the teeming crowd gathered in the central Riad Solh Square.

The Associated Press reported:

Organizers handed out Lebanese flags and directed the men and women to separate sections of the square. Loudspeakers blared militant songs urging resistance to foreign interference. Demonstrators held up pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad and signs saying, “Syria & Lebanon brothers forever.”

Other placards read: “America is the source of terrorism”; “All our disasters are from America”; “No to American-Zionist intervention; Yes to Lebanese-Syrian brotherhood.”

Despite the heartening demonstrations of recent weeks against Syrian domination, I didn’t allow myself to believe Lebanon was on the fast track to independence and democracy. Clearly, such caution was in order.

But just as clearly, what is shaping up in Lebanon is a struggle between the old and the new, between the past and the future, between the power of arms and the power of democratic ideas.

Robert Fisk, an icon of the anti-imperialist Left, knows where he stands.

Writing from Beirut, Fisk predicted that Bush’s call for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon would only hurt the Lebanese.

“Have we forgotten 150,000 dead?” he asked referring to the estimates of the number of people killed in the Lebanese civil war of 1975 to 1989. “Have we forgotten the Western hostages? Have we forgotten the 241 Americans who died in the suicide bombing of 23 October 1983? This democracy, if it comes, will be drenched with blood — but the blood will be that of the Lebanese who live here, not that of the foreigners who wish to bestow freedom upon them.”

(Contrast his thinking with that of Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab and Lebanon Daily Star editor Rami Khouri.)

I fervently hope that Lebanon does not spiral down into another bloody conflict. But if it does, the fault will surely lie more with Hezbollah and Syria than with Bush. Does Fisk really prefer continued Syrian-enforced “stability” to a struggle for genuine democracy?

And can someone please tell me when favoring the former over the latter became a hallmark of the Left?

Update: I found a free link to Fisk’s March 7 piece in The Independent. Nothing there changes the meaning of what I quoted above.