Lebanon's intifada offers lessons for the Arab Spring

The outcomes of the Arab revolutions, even if sometimes undesirable, cannot invalidate the endeavours of those desiring change.

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There has been a tendency to regard the emancipatory impulses in the Arab world this year as unique. It's as if there was 2011, and before that, lethargy. That's not quite accurate. A look back at Lebanon in 2005 provides a useful prism through which to examine what is happening in societies now intoxicated by the fragrances of liberation.

In 2005, following the assassination of former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, most Lebanese, except the Shia supporters of Hizbollah, demonstrated for a month at Martyrs Square. They accused Syria, with some justification, of being behind Mr Hariri's killing, and demanded a Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon and an overhaul of the Syrian-dominated Lebanese political order. A combination of domestic and outside pressure forced Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to pull his army out, terminating 29 years of Syrian hegemony.

This was no mean feat, regardless of the uncertain outcome of what the Lebanese called the Independence Intifada. The Syrians sought to reimpose their writ in Beirut, and with their Hizbollah allies almost succeeded in doing so. Yet despite this, large pockets of resistance to Syria and its partners remained and Mr Al Assad never regained what he had lost in 2005.

Four salient realities of Lebanon's Independence Intifada have been replicated in Arab upheavals today: the use of a public space for protest; a demand that those in charge of the instruments of repression be replaced; acceptance of the necessity of foreign intervention to counterbalance the dictator's clear advantages; and a tendency to question the accomplishments and legitimacy of the revolts in light of their potentially unsatisfactory aftermaths.

In all the Arab uprisings, there was a rapid realisation of something the Lebanese grasped in 2005 (and others before them), namely that a successful protest movement must control a public space from which it can operate. Whether Martyrs Square in Beirut, Tahrir Square in Cairo, or Pearl Roundabout in Manama, protestors instinctively seek out a space where rallies can be held, towards which people can converge, which is accessible to media, and that retains, or can be infused with, symbolic relevance. Most importantly, such spaces must stay off limits to the authorities, effectively becoming "liberated" spaces.

Protecting the autonomy of such areas usually leads to the establishment of tent cities, maintained by youths, even as the authorities seek to deny access to those spaces. Sometimes this official response is successful, as in Bahrain; sometimes it is a fiasco, as in Tahrir Square. In Martyrs Square, the Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces tried to do the same, but failed when they were unwilling to resort to violence. Moreover, Mr Hariri's tomb is at the square, so it was difficult for the security forces to seal off the area.

At times, these spaces of protest can be entire cities, or large parts of them, as in Libya and Syria. Benghazi became the headquarters of an opposition council that, ultimately, was recognised as Libya's government. In Homs, the Assad regime has repeatedly sought to crush rebellious quarters, but has been unable to do so. This shortcoming has only further emphasised that it has lost ground, which can be calamitous for an absolute leadership ruling through fear.

A second message from Lebanon in 2005 was that the street can impose change on the agents of repression. The Lebanese protests led to the resignation of senior security officers. This was perhaps the first time in the Arab world that citizens, as opposed to a monarch or president, successfully ousted intelligence and security officials.

In Egypt, the inability of protesters to dent the state's security edifice created a problem that lingers to this day. The army sacrificed President Hosni Mubarak to save itself, and largely succeeded. The same is true in Yemen, where family members of President Ali Abdullah Saleh still control major security organs. In Libya the opposite occurred. The destruction of Muammar Qaddafi's army and security apparatus left a vacuum that the new Libyan government is having trouble filling.

A third message from Lebanon was that international intervention is often necessary to equalise the relationship between protesters and their rulers. In 2005 the Lebanese appealed to the international community, and even perpetuated a David and Goliath narrative to appeal to western media. This earned them animosity among many Arabs, who did not like it that protestors loudly welcomed the backing of President George W Bush. Yet outside support was crucial in keeping the security forces in line when managing the protests.

In many ways the debate has been resolved. From Libya to Syria to Egypt, oppositions have welcomed, indeed called for, foreign assistance against their oppressors. A key factor is that the insurrections began from within, which endowed outside intercession with legitimacy. This has only underlined a point the Lebanese embraced in 2005: in the uneven struggle with a superior foe, all means are justifiable to secure one's emancipation.

And finally, the instability in Lebanon that followed the intifada of 2005 substantially marred the magic of that moment. Political divisiveness, the summer war of 2006, and the nearness of civil conflict in 2008, all made observers reconsider the validity of what had happened.

However, such a benchmark seems excessive. No matter what the outcomes in Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, they cannot invalidate the endeavours of those desiring change. Overthrowing a suffocating political order is admirable in itself, whatever the costs. Credit the Lebanese for understanding this paradoxical point before their Arab brethren did.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle