Is Lebanon Forgetting its Cedar Revolution?

As thousands gathered Sunday in downtown Beirut to mark the fifth anniversary of the death of Lebanon's five-time Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, rally organizers gradually began to change their stance.

Officials from Lebanon's majority 'March 14' parliamentary bloc had called for supporters of current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) Leader Samir Geagea and other partisans to congregate in their hundreds of thousands in Martyr's Square, partly to mourn the assassinated premier, partly to reiterate Lebanese independence.

Problem was, not many bothered to show up.

"We've stopped counting, there's no point anymore," a member of the LF party said with tangible disappointment, as it became apparent fewer than hoped had turned up on a day of perfect weather.

Rafik Hariri was killed along with 21 others when his motorcade was hit by a massive truck bomb on 14 February 2005, an act many pin on Syria. Damascus has repeatedly denied involvement in the assassination.

Five years ago, Hariri's death sparked widespread protests against three decades of Syrian tutelage, culminating in "the largest rally ever seen in Lebanon." This, in turn, brought about Lebanon's Independence Intifada - or Cedar Revolution - which saw the removal of Syrian military presence to the east of the Anti-Lebanon.

Every year since, supporters of Lebanon's ruling coalition, Muslim and Christian alike, have descended on Beirut in a show of support for Lebanese sovereignty. Previous February 14 gatherings attracted vastly greater numbers - even accounting for the exaggeration of organizers. Sunday saw a comparatively tiny assembly.

Those who did turn out in Martyr's Square on Sunday largely responded that February 14 was a day for transcending Lebanese sectarianism.

"This is a day for all of Lebanon. Politicians did not make ['March 14'], the people did," said a supporter of Saad Hariri's Future Movement. "This movement is unique in Lebanon, it is made up of people who want to be free and that is the most important thing."

In reality, people assembled solely from the Western-leaning ruling coalition did not come close to representing all viewpoints in Lebanon.

On March 8 this year, supporters of the opposition bloc, dominated by Hezbollah, the Shiite Amal and Christian Free Patriotic Movements, will gather in their thousands in the same place. Their agendas will not be the same as those who attended Sunday.

"As long as Hezbollah has weapons of its own, we cannot govern. They hide behind their weapons," said a LF supporter on Sunday.

Even partisans of different political organisations within the 'March 14' seemed to have diverging priorities. Following Geagea's address to LF supporters, swaths of his followers immediately cleared the square, even as the Prime Minister took to the lectern.

Sunday's pitiful turnout demonstrated the faltering unity of Lebanon's ruling political bloc, weakened by differing interpretations of what it means to govern independently. To some, such as Phalange and Lebanese Forces' Christian leaders, it means the right to demand concessions from arms-bearing groups, such as Hezbollah.

To others, such as Progressive Socialist Party Leader Walid Jumblatt, it means the liberty to choose whichever coalition - or none - with which to sympathize. (Druze head Jumblatt defected from 'March 14' following the June elections.)

To still more, such as Prime Minister Saad Hariri, it means the diplomatic maneuverability to mend ties with Damascus - a regime against which his father and others may well have been killed for speaking against.

Granted, politicians' speeches extrapolated a few common concerns, such as "solidarity against Israeli threats," as Hariri told the crowd. But the numbers could not lie. Even with several roads blocked by poor weather conditions, 2008 brought vastly larger numbers to Beirut, as did 2009.

It could be that people are simply losing interest in a cause they feel to have been achieved - freedom from overt regional influence. As one rally-goer pointed out: "Every year it is a little less exciting. It is also a sign the situation in Lebanon is getting better. I hope it stays that way."

However, at a gathering to commemorate a slain leader and the events following - which themselves relied on and were effective entirely because of critical mass - it was hard to escape the sense of anticlimax.