Lebanon Threatens Anti-Syrian Activists
Dissenters Fear Damascus's Influence
By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 3, 2001; Page A18
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Members of the Free Patriotic Movement, gathered at an architect's office south of Beirut, faced a crisis. Several of their younger colleagues had been arrested for distributing leaflets advocating "sovereignty, independence and liberty" for Lebanon -- meaning an end to Syrian domination. As they discussed how to help the men put in prison last month, it became clear how sensitive their point of view has become in a country where about 20,000 Syrian troops still guarantee security and Syrian influence remains decisive after a quarter-century of full-scale political and military intervention. In the streets outside the architect's office, a half-dozen truckloads of armed soldiers had gathered. Noise came from another room, where troops toted off computers, equipment and furniture. A captain with two patrolmen entered the room where the group was meeting, told everyone there to remain silent and ordered them into the waiting vehicles.In a crackdown on anti-Syrian activists, Lebanese authorities jailed as many as 200 people over the course of a week, including journalists, lawyers and engineers. When relatives and other supporters gathered outside the Palace of Justice to demand their release, plainclothes officers broke up the rally with kicks and punches. Lebanese officials have not given a precise account of who was arrested or how many people are still in jail. Most were Christians, and most are believed to have been released on bail pending trial on charges such as insulting Syria and destabilizing Lebanon. Those still imprisoned include three men -- including two journalists -- who are accused of collaborating with Israel, the most serious charge. Some others have already been given sentences of up to six weeks for distributing anti-Syrian literature.
Military officials say the arrests helped foil an Israeli plot to undermine Lebanon. Those involved and a broad array of others see the crackdown as a lurch toward authoritarianism in a place that regards itself as the Arab world's most democratic country, and as another demonstration of subservience to Syria. Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and most of Lebanon's Christian leaders have criticized the arrests. But few have said they believe security and armed forces officials -- who report to President Emile Lahoud -- will heed calls for an investigation into the roundup and the violence that took place outside the Palace of Justice. Adonis Akra, a Sorbonne-educated philosophy professor who was among those arrested, said the Free Patriotic Movement has distributed literature without incident for three or four years, usually duplicating material published on the Internet or in local papers by supporters of former Gen. Michel Aoun.  Aoun is a controversial figure, who in 1989 started what he dubbed a war of independence by ordering Lebanese troops under his command to open fire on Syrian positions in Lebanon. In a relentless artillery campaign, the Syrian military put down his uprising, and Aoun ended up in exile in France. Akra said the Free Patriotic Movement does not promote conflict, only an opportunity for Lebanon to rid itself of outside interference. "We don't have weapons. It's a nonviolent message," he said. "We want a Lebanese identity . . . and we basically want the Syrian army to withdraw."
This is not an easy time for opposition groups anywhere in the Arab world. If the opening of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in the 1990s suggested more economic, political and intellectual freedom, then the renewed violence of the past 11 months has reversed the trend. Concerned that the Palestinian uprising could fuel radicalism and dissent, Arab governments have been more careful than usual about what their citizens discuss in public. A brief experiment with more open debate in Syria has been restrained. Jordan has restricted public rallies and demonstrations. Egypt has confined most protests to college campuses, when it allows them at all. The Lebanese arrests, however, provided one of the clearest examples yet of how unwelcome opposing voices have become. In May 2000, Israel ended a two-decade occupation of southern Lebanon, disbanding a local militia that helped it control the area and setting the stage for Lebanon to rebuild a unified nation after decades of outside manipulation and civil war. The Israeli withdrawal has instead produced a new type of instability as the rift widens between those who want to focus on internal economic and political problems and those who, in alliance with Syria, want to leave Lebanon positioned as part of Damascus's struggle against Israel.
The debate has regional implications. As long as Lebanon remains under Syrian sway, guerrilla forces sponsored by the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement could launch attacks against Israel. While that possibility remains, say a growing number of Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslim allies of Hariri, the country's economy will be hampered and its traditions of democracy and free speech jeopardized. "It felt like a military coup," Gebran Tueni, editor of the An-Nahar newspaper, said of the arrests. "We felt they were able to do anything at that moment, to arrest anyone or take us from our offices." Tueni helped inaugurate what looked for more than a year like a vigorous debate about the country's future. In an open letter to Syrian President Bashar Assad last year, he challenged the young leader to rethink his country's sometimes heavy-handed tactics in Lebanon and reevaluate the need for leaving an estimated 30,000 Syrian troops here. That previously taboo topic was picked up by powerful Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, Jumblatt and others, and was debated for more than a year. There were even signs that Lebanese discontent had registered in Damascus: Lebanese detainees were released from Syrian prisons, and in June the Syrian army withdrew from prominent positions in Beirut in an effort to lower its profile.
But calls for Syria to remove the 20,000 troops who remained after that pullback continued and led to a newfound unity among some Lebanese. Christians, who make up one-third of Lebanon's 3 million people but are under pressure because of emigration and expanding Shiite influence, have pursued the issue with vigor, seeing independence from Syria as a way to reinvigorate their role in Lebanese life. At the beginning of August, Sfeir visited Jumblatt's Druze stronghold in the Chouf Mountains, where Druze killed 3,000 Christians in 1860 in the first of many rounds between the two Lebanese communities. Animosity has run deep between the two groups since, and their show of amity was regarded as a milestone. "It was like forgiveness," said the Rev. Phillipe Haje at the Our Lady of the Hill Maronite Church, where Jumblatt attended a Mass with Sfeir as part of their reconciliation. "Druze and Christians are at the heart of Lebanon, and if the heart is wounded, the whole body is wounded." But Lahoud, a Christian who also attended the Mass, was booed by hecklers, a sign of his diminished popularity among people who should be his chief constituents. As Damascus's main ally in Lebanon, he was also barraged with demands to release from jail a former Christian militia leader, Samir Geagea.
Christian activists view Geagea's imprisonment as evidence of their waning status. Other warlords from the 1975-1990 civil war ended up not in jail, but in positions of authority. However, pro-Syrian Lebanese interpret demands for his release as proof that Christian radicalism -- linked, in their view, to pro-Israeli sentiment -- remains a threat. The prospect of Sfeir and Jumblatt in alliance undercut a main reason justifying the Syrian army's continued presence. Originally asked to intervene in 1976 to protect Christians from Palestinian and Lebanese Muslim attacks, the Syrians have remained in Lebanon partly as a stabilizing force, with predictions that the Lebanese would renew their civil war if unrestrained. 2001 The Washington Post Company