Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 2   No. 4

April 2000 


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Special Report: Lebanon's Intifada
by Gary C. Gambill

An unprecedented explosion of Lebanese protests against the Syrian occupation has taken place over the last month, fueled by signs that American support for Damascus has weakened in the aftermath of last month's Geneva summit between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad. The emergence of a civil revolt that some are already calling Lebanon's "intifada" poses a serious problem for the increasingly isolated Assad regime and its satellite government in Beirut.

    The unrest began on April 13, the 25th anniversary of the Lebanese civil war, when a demonstration protesting the Syrian occupation was organized by members of the Free National Current (FNC), a grassroots opposition organization headed by former Prime Minister Michel Aoun, who was ousted in October 1990 after the Syrians invaded and occupied East Beirut (Aoun is now in exile in France). Three members of the FNC were arrested by security forces, two at Holy Spirit University in Kaslik and the third in Hazmie, on charges of distributing leaflets "harmful to the government and its ties with a sisterly country." On April 16, security forces searched the homes of FNC members Patrick Khoury (in Achrafieh) and Tony Mokhaiber (in Bouggi) and arrested another activist, Maroun Nasrani.

protests
Security forces beating student protestors on April 18
    The arrests sparked a massive protest by over eight hundred students shouting anti-Syrian slogans and distributing leaflets calling for withdrawal of Syrian forces outside the Justice Palace in Beirut on April 17, culminating in the arrest of five students (Tony Atiq, Antoine Orleans, Patrick Samaha, Ziad Abs and Naim Aoun--a nephew of the former prime minister) and clashes with security forces that left at least four wounded. Security forces later arrested two other students, Rabih Maalouli and Paul Bassil, in a midnight raid.

    The protests spread and gained momentum on April 18 and clashes with security forces intensified. The most serious encounter took place outside a military court in East Beirut on April 18, when internal security troops and army commandos fired tear gas canisters and water hoses and beat demonstrators calling for the release of several students arrested the day before. Twenty people were injured (one of them with serious and possibly irreversible spinal court injuries), including a cameraman for Murr Television, and three more arrests were made.1

    On April 19, the protests spread to most universities throughout the country and attracted the participation of many different political currents. Security forces cordoned off universities in a desperate bid to contain the demonstrations (the students had planned to assemble at the National Museum). Classes at the American University of Beirut, Universite St. Joseph, the Lebanese American University, the Lebanese University and Balamand University were canceled. That afternoon, students were permitted to leave their campuses one at a time through security checkpoints. Another student, Jean-Paul Deeb, was arrested in Nahr al-Mot for distributing pro-Aoun leaflets.

   
protest
A student demonstration at the American University of Beirut on April 19
Meanwhile, nine of the detained students were put on trial and quickly sentenced to prison terms ranging from ten days to six months in prison.2 According to FNC sources, the students began a hunger strike shortly after their arrival at Roumieh prison. The Central Security Council issued a statement explaining that the demonstrations were disrupted by security forces because they had not been approved by the Interior Ministry and warning that "security personnel will use all necessary means to prevent any act that may undermine security or order."

    "It's a shame that clubs fall on the heads of innocent young people and water hoses break up their peaceful and civilized gatherings," the FNC's Central Bureau for National Coordination said in a statement on April 20. "These young people did nothing wrong -- they only called for freedom . . . their call angered those who have never known what freedom means."

    Protests and periodic arrests continued unabated throughout the month of April. On April 21, several hundred people held a demonstration in Bkirki. Security forces arrested two students--Pascale Mrad and Tarek Traboulsi--in Furn al-Shabbak, an eastern suburb of Beirut eastern, on the night of April 22. On April 25, over 200 protesters held a demonstration outside the Murr Television (MTV) station. Three more students--Elsie Mouffarege, Jean Bassil, and Salim Ali Ramlawi--were arrested on the night of April 26 for putting up posters displaying the names of other students who had been arrested. On April 27, over 200 demonstrators gathered in a Beirut park to protest the continuing arrests by security forces. Members of the FNC report that intelligence and security forces have harassed and intimidated their families through threatening phone calls and have placed their residences under 24-hour surveillance.

    Echoing Syrian propaganda, Lebanese officials have repeatedly declared that the protests are being orchestrated by foreign governments. "Those who are raising their voices today are being manipulated by embassies or capitals which are playing Israel's game," said President Lahoud in a statement released on April 21.3 "These voices are only stirred when the telephone rings in an embassy or capital to serve Israel." Such outlandish statements have contributed to public perceptions that the Lebanese government has become politically paralyzed by Damascus. Buoyed by such perceptions, the Intifida has revitalized nationalist sentiments and human rights concerns among many quarters of Lebanese civil society.

    The Beirut Bar Association issued several condemnations of the arrests and has been actively involved in working to secure their release. Too active, perhaps. Salim Gharios, a council member at the Beirut Bar Association, was severely beaten by three unidentified assailants on April 23 as he drove home to his residence in Mansourieh. "I was attacked because of my outspoken principles," Gharios told a reporter at Sacre-Coeur Hospital in Hazmieh, adding that he had "strongly and publicly criticized the arrest of pro-Aoun students."4

    A variety of opposition groups across the political spectrum from the Lebanese Communist Party to the rightist Lebanese Forces also condemned the government crackdown. Even a few members of parliament have criticized the arrests. Metn MP Nassib Lahoud condemned the government's "unacceptable treatment of protesters . . . staging a peaceful demonstration" and demanded the immediate release of the detainees. Batroun MP Boutros Harb declared that "freedoms are sacred in Lebanon and all Lebanese should have the right to express their views freely."5

Nasrallah Sfeir
Sfeir: "I hope that guardianship over Lebanon will cease to exist"
    Christian clerical leaders have offered clear, if carefully worded, statements of support for the intifada. The Maronite Christian Patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, strongly condemned the arrests and expressed his hope that Syria's "guardianship over Lebanon will cease to exist."6 Lebanon's Greek Orthodox church also lined up squarely on the side of the intifada. Archbishop Elias Aoudi, who has rarely criticized either the Lebanese or Syrian regimes in the past, told his congregation in Moseitbeh on April 23 that Lebanon has become "a country that buries democracy." He lashed out at government officials who have accused the protesters of pro-Israeli sympathies. "They are not collaborators, they are Lebanese to the bone," said Audi. "Those who do not tolerate the truth want to silence students."7 Muslim religious leaders, on the other hand, either remained tight-lipped or issued statements supporting close relations with Syria.

    The intifada has attracted a great deal of attention from international human rights groups. Amnesty International issued a call for the Lebanese Government to "halt all trials of civilians before the Military Court" and "release the detained students if they are not to be tried before civilian courts, in trials conforming to international standards."8 "Military court trials and prison should not be the response when Lebanese peacefully criticize Syria's role in their country," said Hanny Megally, the executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "And senior government officials should not be suggesting that the exercise of freedom of expression at this historic juncture is unpatriotic. This is intimidation, and it is unacceptable."9

The Syrian Reaction

    Although Syrian officials have avoided directly commenting on the intifada itself, the government-run Syrian daily Al-Ba'ath accused the "deluded students" of "disturbing Lebanese security" and "serving the national interest of Israel."10

    However, Damascus is clearly worried that challenges to Syrian authority may continue to intensify and garner even greater public support. Syria has begun reducing its military presence at various checkpoints along roads in Beirut and the Beqaa Valley and transferring them to the control of Lebanese security forces. By temporarily suspending the most visible and intrusive manifestation of the occupation (thousands of Lebanese motorists pass through Syrian checkpoints everyday and are often subjected to interrogations and searches by Syrian intelligence), Syrian officials are hoping to reduce public hostility to the occupation.

    On April 21, Syrian forces abandoned six roadblocks in the Beqaa Valley. Two days later, they dismantled a checkpoint outside the village of Labwe, northeast of Baalbek, and a second at the entrance to Brital, a major Hezbollah stronghold. Only three major Syrian military checkpoints remain in eastern Lebanon: one just outside of Baalbek, another in Shtaura and a third at Mdeirej on the Beirut-Damascus highway.11

    None of Syria's 35,000 soldiers stationed in Lebanon have left--they have merely been redeployed from outlying checkpoints to various camps and barracks throughout the country. In response to reports of this limited redeployment, the FNC released a statement saying that "any step less than a pledge by Syria, including a prudent and explicit schedule for the withdrawal of the Syrian army and intelligence from Lebanon is equivalent to a continued attack against Lebanon, its institutions, and citizens."

    Although Syrian officials have not publicly mentioned the issue, Lebanese officials have insisted that the redeployment is unrelated to the intifada. "The Syrian redeployment has nothing to do with these demonstrations," said one Lebanese official. He noted that the decision resulted from "a general feeling in Syria that the Lebanese security forces are strong enough to do their job," quickly adding that Syrian troops are still be in a position to support Lebanese security forces "if necessary."12

  1 Al-Safir (Beirut), 19 April 2000.
  2 Paul Bassil, 6 months for "insulting the court" (he told the judges they deserved to be "tried for treason"); Pierre Basil,10 days; Rabih Maalouli, 4 weeks in prison; Patrick Samaha, 10 days; Ziad Abs10 days; Antoine Orleans, 3 weeks; Tony Atiq, 3 weeks; Naim Aoun, 3 weeks.
  3 AFP, 23 April 2000.
  4 Daily Star (Beirut), 26 April 2000.
  5 Al-Hayat (London), 20 April 2000.
  6 Daily Star (Beirut), 26 April 2000.
  7 Daily Star (Beirut), 25 April 2000.
  8 Amnesty International, Use of Military Court against Student Demonstrators a Violation of Rights, 25 April 2000.
  9 Human Rights Watch, Free Speech Punished in Lebanon, 27 April 2000.
  10 Al-Ba'ath, 20 April 2000.
  11 "Syrians eliminate more road blocks in Lebanon's Bekaa valley," AFP, 23 April 2000.
  12 "Syrian Troops Lower Profile in Lebanon," Reuters, 29 April 2000.

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