BEIRUT, LEBANON —
It was a bloodless revolution that sent a signal to the wider Arab world, but on the 10th anniversary of an uprising that ended the Syrian occupation of Lebanon there are few signs of mass celebration.
On March 14, 2005, an estimated one million Lebanese flocked to the center of Beirut in the culmination of protests sparked by the previous month’s assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Called the Cedar Revolution or the Independence Uprising, the protests ended three decades of domination by Syria and raised hopes that the country could unite and control its own destiny.
But a decade later, with sectarianism fueled by internal division and external interference, many who marched that day wonder what became of their hopes.
Beyond sectarian boundaries
One of the organizers of the March 14 rally, Ahmad Al Rachwani, recalled the day. “We had seen huge amounts of people approach us at Hariri’s funeral telling us they wanted to help and change things -- Christians, Muslims, atheists, Druze, whoever,” he said.
Opposition to Syria's influence, previously stifled by the long arm of its security forces, had been growing in the years leading up to 2005. On March 14, Rachwani saw just how far the cause had crossed sectarian boundaries and gone beyond the political classes.
“When I arrived there were Lebanese flags everywhere," he said. "We were too far away to hear the speeches, but left and right you saw Christians and Muslims together, old and young. We all had hopes, and though not everyone had the same hopes they agreed that we needed a change.”
Rachwani is a member of the Future Movement party, which is part of the March 14 coalition of parties that took its name from that day. On Saturday, he will attend a meeting to mark the anniversary.
The day will also see the coalition's introduction of a new National Council in what is being seen as an effort to emphasize its cross-sectarian credentials.
But many of those who worked alongside him in 2005 will not be present. Rachwani says many have dropped out of politics, disillusioned at what had happened to their efforts.
“I think [at the the meeting] there’s going to be a lot of criticism from me. These people deserve to be in the conference, and my message will be that we shouldn’t forget the people who made March 14, we shouldn’t forget what their concerns were.”
Michael Kerr, co-editor of Lebanon: After the Cedar Revolution, placed the protests in the context of the uncertainty in the region created by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, “which undermined the legitimacy of ruling elites.”
He argued that it acted as a precursor to the Arab Spring in showing “that the Baathist state in Syria is not an unchallengeable power.”
The Syrian occupation began in 1976 in response to start of the Lebanese civil war, which lasted until 1990 and was fueled by sectarian tensions within the country.
Even when the occupation ended after the Cedar Revolution, the sectarian political system within Lebanon remained.
“I wanted to be part of it because there, for first time, it was about Lebanon, and not a specific community or party,” said Nour Hage, a fashion designer from Beirut who was 16 when she attended the rally with hopes that the country could flourish without Syrian control.
“But what we were fighting for changed back to being what it always had been - politicians bickering with one another.”
Sahar Atrache, who is a Lebanon analyst for International Crisis Group, said, “March 14 represented a national movement that brought together a wide range of Lebanese, but soon afterwards it became a part of the political landscape. The essence of the system did not change, and after the withdrawal, the misgovernment, corruption and clientalist system continued and was perpetuated.”
And while the March 14 rally united many, it did not unite all.
The week before, a demonstration took place in support of the Syrian presence, leading to the creation of the March 8 group, which includes the Iran-backed Shia group Hezbollah.
In the years since, Hezbollah’s military and political influence has grown.
Events like the Israel-Lebanon war of 2006 and Hezbollah support for the Syrian government in the Syrian war -- entering its fifth year -- have driven sectarian tensions. Iran's rival Saudi Arabia backs the March 14 bloc, which is opposed to the intervention of Shi'ite dominated Hezbollah.
For Kerr, a professor of conflict studies at King's College, London, the creation of the two political camps and how they have interacted emphasizes the contradictions thrown up by the events of 2005.
“On one hand, division and the open expression of it is healthy," Kerr said. "But on the other hand, the ability of the Lebanese to resolve these differences remains inimically linked to the external linkage politics that binds its divided communities to the fate of regional geopolitics, and in particular the place therein of its two neighbors, Israel and Syria.”
Today, efforts to elect a Lebanese president are deadlocked, with the March 8 and March 14 blocs failing to agree as infrastructure problems and corruption blight the country.
Meanwhile, jihadists such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State militants seek to ratchet up Sunni-Shia tensions. And the investigation into the death of Hariri continues, threatening to fan divisions.
“We wouldn’t have stopped what subsequently happened in the region but we could’ve increased Lebanon’s immunity toward the problems it faced,” said Ayman Mhanna, who is a part of the Democratic Renewal Movement and a director for the Samir Kassir Foundation.
But though he called the protests Lebanon’s “missed opportunity,” Mhanna, who was part of the opposition to the Syrian occupation, sounded a positive note.
He said the fact there can be public criticism of the ruling political parties, which was unthinkable under the Syrian regime, should not be underestimated.
“To say there was not a historical shift is shortsighted," Mhanna. "After what happened it’s harder to go back to what there was before.”