No one in Lebanon expected the Syrians to challenge President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. No one thought for a second that the Syrian revolution would go on for this long, elevating the country to its right place at the heart of what is today called the “Arab Spring.” Our stereotypes and misconceptions of the Syrian people blinded us. Our arrogance plagued our understanding of the simple reality that the Syrians have been suffering under a dictator too. We refused to differentiate between the regime and the people, and chose, as usual, the easier way to deal with our fears: isolating and victimizing our fate and political fabric.
Sadly, many Lebanese still refuse to accept the fact that they are not an exception and that the Syrians, whom they have humiliated for so many years, are actually fighting for democracy and freedom in the most courageous of ways. Meanwhile, the Lebanese sit by idly in the shadows, secretly hoping they can win our battles. We failed to fulfill our uprising, the Cedar Revolution, in 2005 and failed to create bonds or channels with the Syrians in the years after. Instead, we alienated ourselves.
Today, we see Syrians dying daily from the comfort of our living room TV. We hide our shame behind self-involved concerns of sectarian civil war spreading to Lebanon or Islamists seizing power and threatening minorities. Those concerns, of course, cannot be denied, but it’s important to note that these will only materialize if the minorities - both in Lebanon and Syria - stay silent.
If Christians, Druze and Allawites join the Sunnis in their fight for freedom, the regime will not be able to turn the struggle into a sectarian war. But many Lebanese, with their sick sectarian mentalities, refuse to see the possibility of a genuine call for freedom and dignity in Syria.
The Lebanese tend to think of Syrians as either construction workers or soldiers in the Syrian army, which occupied the country in 1976 during the civil war. Now we refuse to see beyond our fears caused by the Syrian regime's atrocities. When the army pulled out in April of 2005, many of us humiliated the men who stayed behind by relegating them to build our houses and work only menial jobs.
I don't blame the Syrian people if they hate us, or if they have lost all faith in us. The Syrians today can look us straight in the face and shake our stubborn, exceptional belief in Lebanese superiority. Every day they send us the message that freedom, political awareness and democracy are not exclusive to the Lebanese people. They have demonstrated, with meaningfulness, the necessary components of a true revolution.
They have regained public space. The Syrians were deprived of public space for 40 years. They could not have their own “Tahrir Square,” so they occupied the streets, nearly everywhere. No Arab revolution witnessed the same sweeping scope in demonstrations. Cities, towns and villages all over Syria have taken to the streets in one call for freedom.
They have regained their citizenship. Demonstrators in Syria, from urban intellectuals to rural tribes and farmers, all realized that the only way to achieve their dream is to adhere to civil means of activism: non-violent protests, calls for basic human rights and democracy. To get their message out, activists resorted to citizen journalism and social media. In spite of the regime’s severe crackdown, the level of coordination and professionalism among activists has been impeccable.
They know that any armed group, including the Syrian National Army, must be an entity whose only mission is to protect and defend peaceful protesters.
They also understand that political power is for the people. The Lebanese, who for years have had relative access to democratic means, have instead preferred to submit to sectarian leaders who prefer the state remain paralyzed and unaccountable. Unlike us, and despite inevitable disagreements among opposition figures, the Syrians decided from the beginning that there is no such thing as a leader, but a representative whose only goal is to work on behalf of the people. For example, the Syrian National Council will likely face internal restructuring and change in leadership in the very near future.
The Council did not have credibility until the people on the ground supported it with their slogans, and now it is losing legitimacy because the same people disapprove of it. Today, the people on the streets will decide who represents them.
The Syrians, whom we have disrespected and ridiculed, told the world that they too deserve freedom and dignity. Without diplomatic manoeuvres or corrupt compromises, they saw their moment and took advantage of it. They have put us all to shame. We Lebanese should apologize to the Syrians for not only what we have done, but what we have failed to do. We need their courage today more than ever. We need to cling to their dreams and power. Maybe we could learn something from them, maybe we could start by sacrificing a bit of our arrogance.
Hanin Ghaddar is managing editor of NOW Lebanon.