Wheelchair-bound, they had neither guns nor influence. They lined up last week along the airport road as convoys of tinted-windowed SUVs carrying politicians headed to Qatar to try to break a political deadlock that was dragging Lebanon toward civil war.
They were mostly ignored, except by bodyguards who swung their weapons menacingly toward them.
But the striking image and powerful words of the activists, many hurt in the country’s 1975-90 civil war, sent an unmistakable message to leaders of both the pro-West coalition and the Iranian- and Syrian-backed camp led by the Shiite militia Hezbollah.
“If you don’t agree, don’t come back,” said their signs.
So what happened next?
On Wednesday, Lebanese politicians began trickling home with a compromise that will finally allow the election of a president but also appears to solidify Hezbollah’s status as an armed force overshadowing the power of the state.
The deal, signed after nearly a week of talks in the Qatari capital of Doha, cleared the way for army Chief of Staff Gen. Michel Suleiman to ascend to the presidency in a parliamentary vote Sunday.
The (mostly, unless you’re a US diplomat, or a staunch March 14th partisan) welcome developments come nearly 18 months after the advent of an electoral crisis that threatened to once again push Lebanon past the brink of civil war.
Some suspected the agreement came about because of a secret deal between foreign capitals that hold sway over the country’s various political camps.
But politicians and analysts say that rising public disgust over the shenanigans of Lebanon’s political class may also have been key.
In particular, many noted the powerful image of the activists in wheelchairs, whose protest was organized by the 1,200-member Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union.
“I want finally to reassure the people of Lebanon,” Sheik Hamad ibn Khalifa al Thani, the Qatari emir who guided the negotiations, said Wednesday. “A group of them went out to address their leaders who came here, telling them not to come back if they didn’t agree. They have agreed, and they are now on their way back to start together with their people a new day that we hope will be clear and peaceful.”
As he spoke at the televised signing ceremony in Doha, the employees and volunteers at the nonprofit union’s second-floor office in Beirut roared with applause.
“It felt like a thank-you,” said Sylvana Lakkis, head of the disability group. “It felt great.”
The shock of this month’s violence prompted members to hold the roadside protest. The simple imperative of their action illustrated the frustration and growing anger of many Lebanese. They became the talk of the town.
“It touched the right chord with the vast majority of people in this country,” said Karim Makdisi, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “It really embodies what everyone is feeling deep down.”
And the politicians got the message. “None of the Lebanese wanted their leaders to come back with these problems to Beirut,” said Nawar Sahili, a pro-Hezbollah member of parliament.
“We did not expect this reaction,” said Imaddedine Raef, spokesman for the disability group, which receives support from the European Union and the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute. “We’re used to being ignored.”
Huh — maybe we should all pay attention more often.
(Ok, look, I promise I’ll get back to hard-hitting, cynical policy analysis soon. Today, I just want to shut my eyes and enjoy even an ephemeral hint of something that resembles goodness in the world. So–just this one time–I’m playing the sap.
Fucking sue me. :P )