For those who lived though it, May 7th was more than just blocked roads, burning tires and protests. The events of that day were not simply a reaction to a government decision or a demonstration by a labor union. Rather, May 7 was a willful rejection, through arms, of the Lebanese state, human rights, coexistence and, finally, peace.
Some prefer to ignore the legacy of the events, with elections right around the corner, in favor of reconciliation. And while that sentiment is understandable, it is nonetheless imperative to shed light on the events lest they be repeated.
In exactly a month’s time, the Lebanese will get the chance to answer the most pressing questions facing the country: Do they want a democratic state or a failed one?
Do they want a working parliament or perpetual protests? Do they want coexistence or conflict? It is in the shadow of these questions that remembering May 7 is so important.
A show of force
The events of May 7 were driven by a show of force. For eighteen years before that date, the Lebanese had been seeking to heal the wounds of the fifteen year civil war. And while the post-war period was not free of aggression, occupation, or even assassinations, the Lebanese by and large did resist the urge to take up arms against their fellow citizens.
“May 7 was not a mistake,” says al Mustaqbal columnist Youssef Bazzi. “It is a threat that still exists to this very day, and one that we have to be ready to face in the future. It is a political choice taken up by March 8 forces under the guise of resistance and they will not refrain from using those weapons again. Therefore, I think May 7 is not over yet.”
The show of force displayed last May cannot be allowed to become an acceptable means of advancing one’s position, yet it seems that is just what has happened.
“Key political figures to this day don’t hesitate to bring up May 7 events as a means of pressure, highlighting that if things don’t go as they like, then they would turn to similar conduct if needed,” says Diana Moukalled, a program and production manager at Future News.
The ostensible catalyst for the events on May 7 2008 was a general strike called by opposition-aligned Lebanese labor unions, who were protesting the government's economic policies and demanding that minimum wage be raised. With those protests came a series of skirmishes between supporters of March 8 and March 14 over the government’s decision to move against a private telephone network operated by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and the southern suburbs of Beirut. For the eighteen months preceding May 2008, Lebanon had been gridlocked in a crisis between the Syrian-backed opposition and the Western-backed government over the establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a crisis that began when opposition ministers resigned from the government en masse, leaving the country effectively president-less.
The absence of the Lebanese Army and ISF
But events began to spiral out of control in January 2008, with a shootout between the Lebanese Army and opposition forces at Mar-Mikhail near Ain el Remmaneh, in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
The violence at mar-Mikhail was one of the prime reasons why the army found itself paralyzed and unable to intervene five months later, in May. Whether intentional or not, the army’s inability to intervene left citizens at the mercy of those who chose to resort to violence.
“On the day of the riots, on my way back home, I saw a group of armed men breaking down the entrance of a building,” says Moukalled. “I was naïve enough to approach them and ask them to stop or else I would report them to the Lebanese Army. One guy looked at me and said sarcastically, go ahead, they’re right there.”
Civil State and Laws
One of the most debilitating consequences of May 7 has to do with the way it set back the establishment of a civil state, one in which law and order are paramount, and basic human rights are assured.
The ultimate national aim of most Lebanese is to be a member of a state that makes no distinction between its citizens, whether religious or otherwise.
“It was clear that the civil man was the victim,” says Yehia Jaber. “The one yearning for a civil state that would protect him and not discriminate... Sectarianism was solidified. Rights were undermined. I still don’t know whether when I want to proceed with a lawsuit for the May 7 attacks, who it would be against, the political parties, the Lebanese army, the ISF, and who would I be applying to, where my evidence is, and whether it would go through at all.”
Violation of Freedoms
On May 7 the state was totally absent and freedom of the press was gravely undermined.
During the era of Syrian occupation, Murr TV was a victim; on May 7 the victim was Future News.
“I’ve been working with Future TV since it first started, and the sight of the building burning down with all its archives left me feeling abused in my very own home…the memories that I’ve acquired over the years ruined,” Moukalled recalls.
May 7 destroyed the idea of coexistence. If one lives among people of different sects and beliefs, he or she now must be prepared to be physically abused, harassed or even killed. Beirut has been re-divided along party and sectarian lines,
“We passed through a war that lasted 15 years,” says Omar Harqous, a columnist for al Mustaqbal. “During the Lebanese civil war, we lost many. Those, whether from East or West Beirut, Muslims or Christians, were essential to build a state and coexist, but all died for petty reasons. We Lebanese failed to remember our civil war and to refrain from using arms. No party has the right to end the others’ existence, just because they differ.”
No reconciliation just yet
As for May 7, reconciliation among leaders is not enough. Scores were killed, and many more injured, all at the hands of their fellow Lebanese.
No reconciliation was reached among the people, no statement issued admitting wrongs and seeking forgiveness.
“Beirut and its people were abused, and there’s no turning the page till the abuser asks for forgiveness,” says Jaber.