Commentary Magazine

The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, by Michael Young

The Ghosts of Martyrs Square:

An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle

By Michael Young

Simon & Schuster, 336 pages

In February 14, 2005, a huge explosion rocked Beirut. Michael Young, a lifelong resident of the city and the opinion editor of the Daily Star, the country’s chief English-language newspaper, felt the blast in his apartment two miles away. Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister, who had become a preeminent champion of Lebanese nationalism, was dead. His was neither the first nor the last assassination to rock Beirut, but it was the most consequential. The subsequent outrage at Syria—the only country with “the motive, the means, and the intention of killing Hariri”—brought together disparate movements and interests, spawning the “independence intifada,” or, as American diplomats branded it, the Cedar Revolution.

Martyrs Square, a plaza commemorating Lebanese nationalists hanged by the Ottoman governor during World War I, the dividing line between Christian and mostly Muslim militias during the civil war, and the site of Hariri’s makeshift mausoleum, became ground zero for protesters united in their desire to see Syria leave Lebanon. Crowds mushroomed and caught the world’s attention. A diplomatic coalition was formed, with the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia at its helm. On April 26, 2005, after less than three months of civil agitation, the last uniformed Syrian troop left Lebanon. That is not, however, where the story ends. The Ghosts of Martyrs Square is Young’s tale of how the heady optimism of the Cedar Revolution came undone.


During most of his first term and arguably the first year of his second, President George W. Bush brought Middle East democratization out of the realm of rhetorical fodder and transformed it into a working national-security strategy. By the time the Cedar Revolution erupted, an insurgency was raging in Iraq, and the administration’s democracy agenda was hemorrhaging public support. Emblematic of that period’s naysayers, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft quipped, “The notion that within every human being beats this primeval instinct for democracy has never been demonstrated to me.”

The protesters in Martyrs Square undercut such smug realism. But while Lebanon played into Washington’s debate, Young cautions, “Lebanon was never about the United States, just as the manner in which the Independence Intifada was represented internationally was not about Lebanon.” Nevertheless, America’s posture mattered. So too did a lucky confluence of personality and policy. While most American diplomats rank smooth relations with regional leaders above the advancement of freedom and human rights, Jeffrey Feltman, a career diplomat who drew Lebanon as his first ambassadorial assignment, was the exception. He approached Syria with moral clarity and accepted the logic of Bush’s democratization drive even if he sometimes disagreed with its mode of implementation. After Hariri’s assassination, Feltman chose sides. He understood Syria’s ruthlessness and the risks the Lebanese were taking. “Had the international community been looking the other way when Rafiq Hariri was murdered, Syria’s proxies in Lebanon would have crushed even mass demonstrations,” Feltman said. He therefore saw it as his job to ensure that Condoleezza Rice’s sometimes feckless State Department would not look the other way.

Nor, thanks to another determined official, would the United Nations: Turtle Bay dispatched Peter Fitzgerald, a deputy police commissioner from Ireland, to report on Hariri’s murder. He did not finger Syria directly, but he came close, declaring that “the Lebanese security services and Syrian Military Intelligence bear the primary responsibility for the lack of security, protection, law and order in Lebanon.” His report paved the way for a full-fledged investigation. The broad condemnation of Damascus made Lebanese independence from Syria the international community’s to lose.


From afar, the Cedar Revolution looked both spontaneous and cohesive. But left unaided, even assuming that Syria’s proxies took a hands-off approach, centrifugal forces could have torn the patchwork of groups and interests apart. Young takes readers inside the revolution, as activists transformed chaos into order: Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s wife provided protesters with sound systems and portable toilets; lawyer and human-rights activist Chibli Mallat suggested headlining a petition with a simple demand for the resignation of the government. Gebran Tueni, who would later fall victim to Syria’s shadow war against Lebanon, made the demand plural, putting members of Lebanon’s security services on notice. Lebanese activist Ely Khoury branded the protests “Independence ’05” and produced the trademark red-and-white placards, scarves, and regalia that the protesters carried.

Ten days into the vigil for Hariri, the Lebanese government or, more likely, its patrons in Damascus ordered the Lebanese army to seal Martyrs Square. The protest took on numbers, however, as soldiers participating in the cordon made it clear that they were not interested in a fight. Taboos against dissent began to disappear, but Syria was not yet ready to surrender.

On March 5, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave a speech oozing with contempt for the protesters. Three days later Syria-backed Hezbollah flexed its muscles, staging the largest demonstration since Hariri’s murder. The group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called for the continuation of Lebanon’s “historic and special ties with Syria.” Damascus’s enemies rallied. On the one-month anniversary of Hariri’s death, tens of thousands of politically and religiously diverse protesters united to demand Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanese politics. The March 14 movement was born. Still, Lebanese politicians—always a fractious and venal bunch—managed to hijack the proceedings. “There began the denouement of the Independence Intifada, and the carousel of fantasies stopped,” Young notes.

Soon after the Cedar Revolution forced Syria’s retreat, equilibrium began fitfully to re-emerge. On June 2, 2005, a car bomb killed journalist Samir Kassir, one of the sharpest and boldest pens in Lebanon. “The Lebanese had believed that the Syrian withdrawal offered them a new start,” Young writes. “Yet in [Kassir’s] death was a warning that little had changed, that there were those who would fight Lebanon’s liberal instincts.”

Hezbollah unloaded its arsenal to fight change. In 2006, war erupted between the terrorist group and Israel after Hezbollah infiltrated the Jewish state to kidnap two soldiers and murder three others. Inside Lebanon, carnage replaced hope. “What I was witnessing around me had all the makings of a counterrevolution—an effort by Hezbollah to use the conflict with Israel to regain what the party [and Syria] had lost,” Young observes.

After a messy UN-brokered cease-fire, Hezbollah framed its reckless decision to goad Israel into war as a masterstroke that resulted in military victory. Israeli leaders helped validate the claim as they engaged in internecine recriminations about their own strategy. Though, as Young observes, Israel did restore calm on its northern border, Nasrallah sought to parlay his “victory” into political advantage and demanded veto power in Lebanon’s governance. A Hezbollah veto would effectively end the investigation into Hariri’s murder. This the March 14 movement could not countenance—stalemate followed.

While the UN investigation got off to a fast start under German Judge Detlev Mehlis, momentum faltered under Serge Brammertz, his Belgian replacement. Young laments the loss of will among some Lebanese to see the investigation to its conclusion as months turned into years. While the investigation initially shattered Assad’s confidence and placed him on the defensive, by April 2007 Assad had recovered enough nerve to threaten Lebanon while hosting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Syria’s presidential palace. Hezbollah soon made its move. It turned its guns briefly on fellow Lebanese in Beirut. While Maronite leader Michel Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah worked to erode March 14’s influence, Jumblatt’s defection from the March 14 movement dealt perhaps a mortal blow. In 2009 Barack Obama’s decision to reverse Bush’s isolation of Syria mitigated any remaining pressure for Assad to respect Lebanese independence.


Pope John Paul II described Lebanon as “more than a country. It is a message to the whole world.” Eighteen recognized religious communities live side by side, none able to impose its will on the other. Young dismisses the notion, however, that Lebanon represents “an ideal liberal example” for the Middle East. Unstable identities, sectarianism, and other illiberal tendencies plague Lebanese society even as they create a fertile tension in which liberalism can also thrive. Nor does Young embrace the country’s self-description as a “bridge between East and West,” a dated notion given globalization and its defining preponderance of multidirectional connections. He does not, however, accept moral equivalency. Arabs and “progressive” Westerners may indulge Hezbollah, but Young knows the group to be “an autocratic, semisecret, military, political, and religious organization more powerful than the Lebanese state” that “has made violent self-sacrifice and permanent armed struggle a centerpiece of its ideological mind-set, mainly on behalf of an autocratic clerical regime in Iran.”

The Ghosts of Martyrs Square is masterful. Young has written what can easily be called the best book about Lebanon in a generation. His effort combines beautiful prose, encyclopedic knowledge, deep understanding of the personalities, and an editor’s eye for relevance. Young explains the legacy of civil war, reconciliation, mechanisms of Syrian control, the rise of Hezbollah, and how individual Lebanese communities—Sunni, Shiite, Christian, and Druze—evolved. While the author seeks “to defend Lebanon, pluralistic Lebanon, warts and all,” against those who argue that “the country is not worth preserving as an independent entity,” American decision makers should read the book to understand what might have been had the White House remained engaged and not lost focus on what was very nearly a stunning democratic triumph.

About the Author

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His article “Iran: The Case for ‘Regime Change’” appeared in our April issue.

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