BEIRUT: Student activists who rallied at Martyrs’ Square eight years ago to demand the exit of Syrian troops remember the site as the home of broad-based social activism, as well as a symbol of the infighting and disappointments that followed.
“As individuals and groups, we felt that we mattered and that we had finally come out of a dark room,” said activist Rana Khoury.
Rana was a 22-year-old student at the American University of Beirut at the time and was one of the young activists who took part in the monthlong rallies in Downtown Beirut in protest against the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
She, along with many others, believes that protesters broke the chains of fear and self-censorship without paying heed to political affiliations.
“Putting aside the short-term political victory, the protests in 2005 created a new status quo in Lebanon,” said Khoury. “Today, we see people speaking out against racism, people are advocating for women’s rights and a range of other issues,” she added.
Fifteen years after the Civil War, causes that many thought were lost resurfaced and gained momentum with mass protests that astonished Lebanese politicians and world leaders alike.
“It was a passionate scene. It was an opportunity to say that we can be something and we can show the world that we have a message to carry there,” said Karim Hassanieh, who was a high-school student in March 2005.
“Those days, when I went down to Martyrs’ Square after finishing my classes were filled with emotion and I felt that something better was coming,” Hassanieh said.
For Khoury, the legacy of the March 14 movement is one of empowering people at the grassroots level: “Those protests gave us confidence that we are capable of changing the status quo.”
In the days following the assassination of Hariri and 22 others in Beirut’s Ain al-Mreisseh, protest organizers were surprised by the sheer number of people eager to participate in demonstrations, despite the widespread fears of random arrests by security bodies under the sway of Damascus.
Khoury said the creativity of protesters exceeded the expectations of the political parties that had joined the calls for justice and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.
“I sensed that there was a lot of potential and creativity when we [students] held sit-ins and talked to each other,” said Khoury, recalling the day when hundreds of people stood next to each other and held up red, white and green cartons to make a Lebanese flag.
Mark Daou, another activist who participated in the anti-Syrian rallies of 2005, still believes that young people should be credited for changing the country’s political landscape with their emphatic calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops.
“The protests created something called public opinion, everything made more sense all of a sudden,” Daou, a part-time lecturer at AUB, told The Daily Star. “Today there are fewer taboos and more people engaged in activism.”
According to Daou, the March 2005 sit-ins set an example because people were able to coalesce quickly around common national goals.
“Everyone was furthering a national discussion 15 years after the Civil War,” said Daou, adding that the politicians’ aspirations at the time might have been different to those of the people.
“It was great to meet a Lebanese from north Lebanon in a tent and talk to another Lebanese from the Bekaa over lunch just minutes later,” Daou added.
But despite its legacy of uniting the country, many activists said the movement suffered because of the narrow interests of the political parties that aligned themselves with the protests.
Although many March 14 politicians and activists continue to claim that the movement – which has since morphed into a political coalition – is “united and strong,” it has faced major setbacks in the past few years.
The Free Patriotic Movement left the coalition in 2006. Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt later took the decision to distance his party from the coalition as well. Recently, supporters of the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb abandoned their tents in Riad al-Solh Square.
The tents were erected after student activists and March 14 supporters clashed with Grand Serail police after the funeral of senior security chief Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan in October.
But sources told The Daily Star that after LF and Future Movement supporters quarreled on social networking sites, officials from Samir Geagea’s party pulled their supporters out of Riad al-Solh to avoid confrontations between students.
Samer Bashaalani, head of the FPM’s student movement in 2005, said the country had regressed since those heady days. “There have been a lot of sectarian conflicts in the past 10 years that have harmed the goals proclaimed in 2005,” said Bashaalani, a key figure in the protests.
Despite the setbacks, Bashaalani argued that honesty between activists in meetings “allowed for the start of a new history in Lebanon.”
“Our motive was to push people to break the chains of fear, but if we work hard today and spread awareness among each other, it is possible to build a successful state of Lebanon.”