Even for a country where the capital, Beirut, is synonymous with chaos, recent events have been tumultuous. After former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in a car bombing Feb. 14, Muslims and Christians united in massive street protests against neighboring Syria, seen by many as having ordered the slaying. The protests have become known as the "Cedar Revolution," a reference to the biblical tree featured on Lebanon's flag.
Totten, blogging for Spirit of America-a nonprofit founded after 9/11 that's now working on pro-democracy projects in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon-answered WW's questions via email shortly before he returned to the United States.
WW: What does it mean that the Lebanese government just set up parliamentary elections for May 29?
Michael Totten: The Cedar Revolution is now basically over. Their demands have been met. The occupying Syrian military-which was inside Lebanon for the past 30 years-is now back on its own side of the border. Syria might even open an embassy in Lebanon soon, but knowing Syria, it also could take a long time.
Do you think most Americans really understand the significance of what's going on?
No.... The majority of news junkies probably have an idea, though. I didn't fully understand the significance myself until after I got here. I had no idea anyone in the Cedar Revolution thought the Lebanese are currently working on the resolution to the Clash of Civilizations. But that's what they tell me. Only a country that is more or less balanced between its Christian and Muslim population could even think of acting like a bridge between Western and Islamic civilizations. Lebanon is the only country in the world that is able to do it. (The demographics are 40 percent Christian and 60 percent Muslim.)
What's the perception of Iraq in the Beirut street?
It depends on whom you talk to. I met a Lebanese guy at a party who hinted that he supported what the U.S. is doing in Iraq. So
I asked him point-blank if he did. He said, "Of course." Of course? That's not the answer I expected to hear in an Arab country. I asked him how many other Lebanese felt the same way, and he said, "More than you can possibly imagine." But I also met plenty of people who didn't feel the same way.
Would removing Syrian influence from Lebanon be an even larger "democracy in the Middle East" domino than the recent elections in Iraq?
Lebanese democracy is completely homegrown. On the one hand, that makes it more "genuine." On the other hand, it makes it more potentially stable. It also effectively disproves the racist canard that Arabs can't handle democracy.
Is the Christian-Muslim alliance a direct result of Hariri's assassination, or was the religious division diminishing even before that?
I'm not really sure.... Clearly the religious division was less before Hariri's assassination than it was during the civil war [1975-1990]. Christians and Muslims have been living together peacefully in Lebanon for the past 15 years. But several people told me the peace was the peace of denial. No one ever talked about the war. They just pretended like it never happened. Maybe that was a good idea for a while, but at some point it had to be faced. Hariri's assassination has been described to me as Lebanon's Sept. 11. Partly this is because the Lebanese realized that if Hariri wasn't safe, absolutely no one was safe. It's also because his assassination was so incredibly violent.
What's the most important thing you'll take away from your experiences there?
The emotional appeal of the genuine yearning for friendship between Christians and Muslims. After watching what happened on Sept. 11, and after growing up with Beirut as the poster child for urban disaster zones, it was amazing to see this movement begin in Lebanon. The media have completely missed this story, and that's really too bad. It's a big deal.
Read Totten's weblogs at http://michael totten.com and www.spiritofamerica.net
Syria has exerted influence in Lebanon since the dawn of Lebanon's civil war. In 1976, Syria sent 40,000 troops to help prevent the predominantly Christian Phalangist Party from being overrun by Palestinian forces. Syrian forces remained-effectively dominating its government-until April 26.