The Perils of People Power
by Manuel L. Quezon III
The blossoming of people power in Lebanon has the world enthralled — those parts of the globe, at least, for which such spontaneous, peaceful uprisings are admirable. In the long list of successful people power efforts, from Manila, to Prague, East Berlin and Kiev, and this latest manifestation of joyful, defiant, and uniting national pride in Beirut — touted by not a few Lebanese commentators as the coming of age of a generation of Lebanese reared in the ruins of civil war — must hang the pall of the teargas and the smoke from the machine guns of the Chinese military that crushed people power in Tianamen Square. People power can succeed, but it can also dismally fail.
Aligned against the factions and the perhaps, previously politically unaligned population protesting in Beirut is President Bashir Assad of Syria. He, and the government he inherited from his father, now face a challenge, right at the doorsteps of his country. The result — the reaction of Bashir and his allies, particularly in Lebanon, seems more nimble than might otherwise be expected. The first tactical opportunity seized by the Syrians, if accusations are to be believed, was one which provoked people power in the first place. The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri may have sparked outrage, but it left Hariri dead, and Lebanese oppositionists grappling behind the scenes with each other, in order to find a leader. The opposition in Lebanon must therefore keep the momentum of protests not only moving, but headed in a direction favorable to the formation of an alternative government. The leadership vacuum is signified by the announced impending return of Gen. Michel Aoun, and thus the injection of yet another variable into the opposition’s political mix.
The second, third, and fourth tactical opportunities seized by the Syrians were to reiterate the fact that there is at least nominal control of the Lebanese government by their allies, the ability of these allies to mobilize (although not as spontaneously) large numbers of Lebanese willing to demonstrate in Syria’s favor, and the willingness of Bashir to partially defuse the principal demand of the Lebanese opposition by announcing, sincerely or not, the withdrawal of Syrian troops back to the Syrian border.
The president of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud, is widely acknowledged as pro-Syrian; he in turn simply reappointed Omar Karami as prime minister ten days after the initial shockwaves resulting from the first people power demonstration pushed Karami off his pedestal. Syria can still count on a significant number of friendly members of Parliament in Lebanon, while Hezbollah, in the end, managed to put a dent in the enthusiasm of Lebanese oppositionists and observers by pointing out they too could muster tens of thousands of people.
The Lebanese opposition must now muster the unity and, more importantly, the ability to manage logistics, that Hezbollah has, and which, though not particularly dynamically, the Lebanese government retains, and which Syria can buttress as it sees fit with cash, intelligence, and the presence of troops in comfortable proximity to the action. The looming election in Lebanon is, itself, the first, and perhaps most difficult, test opposition politicians and the reformist public face. Even if Syria and its allies play their cards clumsily, they are still playing with a deck stacked against the opposition. There is much within the Syrian and Lebanese government’s power to present at least the basis for the suspicion that people power lacks an overwhelming majority of Lebanese behind it.
So long as Syria can maintain that there is a significant portion of the Lebanese population friendly to it; as long as the levers of power are in the hands of their allies; and as long as their troops and agents have not been directly confronted by Lebanese oppositionists and folded in the face of direct defiance, it can preserve the hope that the opposition will start fighting among itself, providing new opportunities for Syria to divide and conquer.
People power, after all, is not just a phenomenon, it is a political strategy. It is a proven means for mobilizing and channeling public support against an entrenched, but morally weak, government. The strengths of people power — its amateur enthusiasm, youthful abandon, relative lack of traditional controls — are also its greatest weaknesses, as these things can be swiftly eroded when confronted by naked aggression, and slow erosion through counter-propaganda and by the besieged regime simply staying in place.
One commentator, Amir Taheri, proclaims the rise of people power as having “triggered the law of unintended consequences,” which is certainly true. One of the most interesting of those unintended consequences, as far as the Middle East is concerned, is that the cheerleading by Washington, on one hand, and the flexible but far from fluid response by Damascus, on the other, are, at this point, a throwback to a more familiar way of contending parties jockeying for position behind the scenes.
There will be those who argue that Washington’s prodding and praise are cynically opportunist; but then so is Damascus’s combination of publicly giving way while steadily mobilizing its pawns.
What is incontestable is that this is surely a more familiar, and because of this, less dangerous, way for nations to expand their influence while reducing that of their enemies.