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Democracy Demands in Lebanon May Shake Arab World


They've dubbed it the cedar revolution, referring to the cedar tree, Lebanon's national symbol.

In one protest march alone, close to one million Lebanese took to the streets of Beirut, an enormous turnout in a country with a population of 3.5 million.

Lebanon's massive street protests after the February 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri have not only shaken the Lebanese government. Persistent demands for democracy and government accountability also have the rest of the Arab world watching closely.

Even now, more than a month after the Hariri assassination, demonstrators still come to Martyrs Square, along Beirut's seafront, to make their voices heard. "I think it's my duty to fight for my children. I want them to be able to have a free country. This is for us the last corner of the world where we can live in peace." said one the demonstrations who added she is very optimistic there is a good chance for peace in the Middle East. She added she felt this way "because … this is the first time ever, we're not afraid to ask for the truth, to ask for freedom, to be in a really democratic country."

The demonstrators support the political opposition, and are demanding the withdrawal of Syrian forces, the truth about who killed Rafik Hariri, the removal of pro-Syrian Lebanese security officials and free and fair general elections, held on time, in May.

Christian opposition politician Samir Franjieh tells VOA, the demonstrations have brought the Lebanese together like never before. He says they are also bringing a final closure to the divisions of the country's brutal 15-year civil war in the 1970's and '80's. "This is new for Lebanon, but also new for all the area. We gave, in the past, a model of violence and killing, and we are giving now the other model, a model of peace, of non-violent, democratic action," he said.

Mr. Franjieh says the Lebanese were inspired by the non-violent, so-called "orange revolution" in Ukraine, but he says they were also expressing long-repressed anger and frustration about Syrian dominance of the country.

Not everyone agrees that the demonstrations are a model for democratic reform. Sheikh Mohammed Katharani is a member of the political bureau of Hezbollah, a militant group the United States considers a terrorist organization and says must be disarmed.

Sheikh Katharani tells VOA the demonstrations are an expression of emotions. He says they come from the heart, not the head. They're not really political, he says.

Hezbollah did get its own supporters out into the streets - about a-half-a-million demonstrators showed up in support of Syria and Lebanon's pro-Syrian government.

And, there have been protest rallies in front of the American Embassy in Beirut, denouncing what many see as U.S. meddling in Lebanon, in order to serve Washington's interests and those of its ally, Israel.

Rallies from both sides of the political divide have been peaceful, and that has been hailed as a good sign for the future. But whether they can come together to solve Lebanon's problems is uncertain.

Lebanon has no working government, with caretaker Prime Minister Omar Karame threatening to resign for a second time, if he is unable to form a unity Cabinet that includes the opposition. The opposition is accusing him and his Syrian backers of stalling to delay elections the government is likely to lose.

Political analyst Sami Baroudi of Beirut's Lebanese American University says the Lebanese people want elections and greater democracy, but with guaranteed sectarian representation for its Christian, Muslim and Druze communities. "I think, definitely, there is this euphoria. There is this sense of unity. But, at the end, we also identify with the small sects, the islands that we belong to. We are proud Lebanese, but at the same time, we feel that the sect to which we belong ought to get its fair representation in the system," he said.

The Taif peace agreement of 1989 that ended Lebanon's civil war set out guaranteed representation for the country's diverse population groups.

Opposition leader Samir Franjieh says Lebanon can set an example to others by demonstrating that democracy and stability are possible in a multi-sectarian society. He says other countries in the region need to pay attention. "The fall of Baghdad is like the fall of the Berlin Wall for the Arab world, so everything began to move," he said.

The Bush administration has hailed the fall of Saddam Hussein and the recent elections in Iraq as an opening for democratic change in the whole region, and cited some signs of democratic reforms in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Many in the region have, however, warned against overly optimistic assessments, and against outside imposition of democracy.

The popular calls for change that have echoed through the streets in Beirut have sparked both optimism and uncertainty for what lies ahead, but there is a sense that the months to come will be the real test for Lebanon's democratic future.