13/03/2012 09:11 GMT | Updated 12/05/2012 06:12 BST

The First Arab Spring

While their brothers and sisters in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere mark the first anniversary of the Arab Spring, the people of Lebanon are commemorating the progenitor of these momentous events.

While their brothers and sisters in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere mark the first anniversary of the Arab Spring, the people of Lebanon are commemorating the progenitor of these momentous events. For it was here, back in the Spring of 2005, that people power first expressed itself in the Arab world, in a way that provided the template for what would follow in Cairo and Manama.

On 14 February that year, the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed by a massive car bomb as his motorcade drove through downtown Beirut. The atrocity triggered massive protests, in which thousands of people marched on Martyrs Square and set up a tent city there. Foreshadowing the occupation of Cairo's Tahrir Square in 2011, the Freedom Camp in Beirut was a brilliant example of nonviolent resistance. The civil society tent set up by a previously apolitical events organizer, Asma Andraos, and her friends acted as a neutral broker between the tents of rival interest groups, and organized the distribution of hundreds of blankets, tent covers, and mattresses to the protesters.

Soon, the protest became known as the Cedar Revolution, a term coined by a US official, Paula Dobriansky, in reference to the Color Revolutions that had recently swept Georgia and Ukraine, and which also involved creative non-violent resistance. The protesters themselves, however, called it the Independence Intifada, because the main aim was not to change their own government, but to liberate the country from the control of a foreign power.

That power was Syria, whose troops had occupied Lebanon since 1976, and which had run the country like a fiefdom ever since. Everyone knew that Hariri's murder was the work of the Syrian regime, probably operating through their proxy Hezbollah. As Michael Young recall in his memoir of the Cedar Revolution, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, the protesters chanted that Bashar al-Assad was a "pimp," because the word pimp in Arabic rhymes with the word Beirut, and they wanted the pimp to get out of their city. The only reason they were not cut down like the thousands who have been killed by Assad in Syria since February 2011 was because the commander of the Lebanese army and current President of Lebanon, Michel Suleiman, would not order his troops to fire on their fellow countrymen.

The anti-Syrian feeling was by no means universal. There was, and still is, a sizeable amount of Lebanese people who support the Assad regime and its proxy Hezbollah. Indeed, the culminating event of the Cedar Revolution, when more people flooded in to Martyrs Square on 14 March than ever before, was itself a reaction to a demonstration organized by Hezbollah the previous week. To this day, Lebanese politics continues to be organized around these two rival poles, which even take their names after the dates of these two opposing protests.

In April 2005, barely two months after Hariri's death, Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon, and the protesters celebrated their first day of freedom in 29 years. Commentators wondered whether the Cedar Revolution would trigger a wave of similar protests around the Arab world, but the sort of people power on display in Lebanon in 2005 would not express itself on a similar scale until the second Arab Spring exploded six years later. Despite the delayed reaction, though, the Independence Intifada did provide a model for the protests that emerged in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in 2011. It was the first sign of a home-grown democratic idealism in the Arab world.

As we celebrate the anniversary of the second Arab Spring, however, it may also be worth pondering a darker lesson suggested by the first. The day after the Assad regime notified the UN that it had withdrawn its troops from Lebanon, the Washington Post reported that "Syria has not withdrawn a significant part of its intelligence presence in Lebanon, undermining its claim yesterday to have ended its 29-year intervention in its western neighbor." Over the coming years it became clear that Syria continued to exercise control of Lebanese domestic and foreign affairs, sometimes through subtle persuasion, and, when that did not work, through a campaign of assassinations targeting anti-Syrian journalists and politicians. Observers began to argue that the rush to celebrate a supposed "revolution" was premature. Today, others are wondering whether the same may be true of the revolutions in Egypt and Libya.

Yet this may be too pessimistic. Asma Andraos, for one, believes that the protesters who camped out in Martyr Square back in 2005 achieved their objective. "We were careful to keep our one, limited goal in mind," she recalls. "We didn't want to change the world; we just wanted to end the Syrian occupation. And we achieved that." Syrian spies remained in Lebanon, but the soldiers were gone, and with them the dozens of checkpoints in Beirut that made it very clear who was in charge. The sense of freedom, of being able to move around the city without being stopped by foreign troops, still feels good to Asma seven years later.

But the protesters scored another victory too. In March 2006, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to establish an international tribunal to bring those responsible for assassinating Rafik Hariri to justice. Not only were the Syrian troops gone, but it also looked as if the culture of impunity which had flourished under Syrian rule, might finally come to an end. The first indictments were submitted in January 2011 and five months later the Special Tribunal issued arrest warrants against four senior Hezbollah members. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has rejected the indictment and denounced the tribunal as a foreign plot, but even this is, in its own way, a sign that impunity can no longer be taken for granted in Lebanon.