THE BLOG
06/02/2010 12:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Book Review: Michael Young, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square

"A new power rises across the Mideast, advocates for democracy begin to taste success after years of fruitless effort," according to the Post's lead headline on April 17, 2005. The front page picture showed Lebanese columnist Samir Kassir in front of Beirut's Martyrs' Statue, the site of the Independence Uprising that forced an end to 30 years of Syrian occupation of Lebanon.

Reporting from Beirut, Scott Wilson and Daniel Williams wrote: "Suddenly [the Lebanese] were at the cutting edge of the Arab world's democratic spring."

But the Beirut Spring was short-lived, despite the Syrian withdrawal that April. On June 2, Kassir was assassinated and became the second victim, after former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri whose murder, in February, proved to be the spark that started an uprising.

"The taboos were beginning to fall, but the Syrians and their sympathizers had not called it a day," wrote Michael Young in his book The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, which captures the rise and fall of the democracy frenzy in Lebanon between 2005 and 2009.

Young is the opinion page editor at Beirut's The Daily Star. He was born in the United States to an American father and a Lebanese mother. The father prematurely died when Young was seven, and the mother took the boy back to Lebanon where Michael was raised.

In The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, Young does not follow any particular chronological order, which adds to the book's allure. He opens with a story about his friendship with Kassir, an outspoken pro-democracy intellectual whose face later became the uprising's poster.

Young then sums up his understanding of Lebanon, until recently the only Arab country with an elected parliament and government. Young reasons -- and rightly so -- that unlike other Arab countries where one group muscled its way to power, Lebanon's diverse population of 18 ethno-religious groups resulted in a zero-sum game.

Lebanon's diversity was its weakness too. Because no group could dominate, the system lingered in paralysis. And while Lebanon's diversity allowed the growth of liberal thought, it also made the country an easy prey for its only neighbor Syria.

"The Syrians played a balancing game. They co-opted the older leaders, promoted new ones entirely dependent on Damascus... and hit out against the incorrigibles," Young argued.

In 2000, Syrian autocrat Hafez Assad died and his son Bashar succeeded him. Unlike his cunning father, who ruled Lebanon through his balancing game, Bashar Assad imposed his will through coercion, which he practiced both directly and through Lebanese army officers loyal to him. It was only a matter of time before the Lebanese establishment, created by the end of the civil war in 1990, revolted in the face of Assad and his Lebanese cronies.

In summer 2004, Assad twisted arms to force the extension of the term of his loyalist Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud, much to the explicit opposition of veteran politician Walid Jumblatt and implicit resistance of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. In February 2005, Hariri was murdered.

Young argues that popular frustration resulted in the biggest rally in Lebanon's history. On March 14, 2005, more than one third of Lebanon's four million population took to Martyrs' Square. Lebanon's liberal intellectuals, and later politicians opposed to Syria, helped put a face and give a voice to that movement, which came to be known as March 14.

While the March 14 Movement proved instrumental for winning back Lebanon's independence from the Syrians, it also demonstrated the shortcomings of the Lebanese system unable to build on the 2005 success, as Lebanon remained fractured, thus allowing a Syrian comeback.

"We must cut a deal with Syria, those who went after Hariri won't leave Lebanon so easily," Jumblatt told Young in 2005.

But it would take Jumblatt and March 14 four years before they conceded to the Syrians, and Young skillfully records the events leading to the March 14 demise. These included a 33-day war that Hezbollah started with Israel in July 2006, followed by Hezbollah pulling out of government and instructing its supporters to rally for more than a year in downtown Beirut, shutting down businesses and obstructing government.

In 2007, Lebanon saw more bombs and assassinations, and in May 2008, Hezbollah fighters invaded Beirut and southern Mount Lebanon in a punitive raid that forced March 14 to concede.
Young informatively reports on the UN Security Council formation of a Special Tribunal on Lebanon, designed to bring to justice the perpetrators of the crime of Hariri, Kassir and a dozen other journalists, politicians and security officers.

In 2009, even though March 14 defeated Hezbollah and its allies in parliamentary elections, the group remained powerful enough to bully its opponents and force the formation of a cabinet to its liking. Thus ended the democracy saga in the Middle East.