This March 14 will be the fifth anniversary of the massive gathering that took place one month after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. And while the politics of the event continue to divide the Lebanese, there is a less-publicized aspect of the popular demonstrations of 2005 that merits retrospective consideration: their branding by advertisers and activists.
The visual success of the independence intifada was its most enduring feature. It highlighted an instinctive understanding by the organizers of how politics and imagery could be combined to advance a political agenda, and how this required capturing the imagination of markets in Lebanon and worldwide. Above all was the international media market – which permitted demonstrators to access foreign audiences – but also the market of association, since the imagery pushed people inside Lebanon and out to mentally associate what was happening with similar efforts that had taken place abroad – such as the color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia.
Perhaps the surest sign of success was the fact that the Lebanese upheaval was given a catchy name, the “Cedar Revolution.” The importance of the media attractiveness of the Independence Intifada/Cedar Revolution and its association with other popular undertakings, was that it pushed the same buttons a successful advertisement campaign would; it allowed those participating in the event, or watching it, to interpret what was happening in both pluralistic and individual ways. Lebanon’s emancipation effort became whatever one wanted it to be.
In retrospect, there was no “revolution” in Lebanon in 2005, just as there were no revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. The word itself was a remarkable jump over the far less ambitious, but more accurate, “intifada,” by which the Lebanese opposition first labeled their endeavors. Yet “revolution” had a far better echo in the marketplace; it allowed one to dream, and everyone likes a dream.
The branding of the demonstrations inside Lebanon was built around a simple sentence and specific color pattern: the phrase “Independence ’05” and the red and white of the Lebanese flag. This was the brainchild of advertiser Eli Khoury of Quantum Communications, collaborating with the late Samir Kassir. Their plan was initially to unfurl their campaign during the parliamentary elections of 2005, but Hariri’s assassination created a far more dramatic context for it.
Other advertisers entered the fray after February 14, and the activists and political figures who had begun planning the demonstrations in the first days after Hariri’s killing also addressed the matter of imagery. There was an immediate sense that the protest movement against Syrian influence in Lebanon could only survive by being given an identity – one that was both elastic and conciliatory, able to embrace the many very different identities of those descending on Martyrs’ Square.
In subsequent years the two sides in Lebanon’s political divide poured enormous sums of money into advertisement campaigns. But there was a difference between those efforts and the events of February-March 2005; the emancipation movement’s branding compensated for the fact that the state was controlled by the political foes of the demonstrators, with the weapon of ideas serving as a potent leveling mechanism.
What were these ideas? Not least that the demonstrators were behaving heroically and serving a higher purpose. The demonstrators saw themselves as fulfilling an ideal, against difficult odds, and that only increased their impetus to mobilize. They created a narrative for their actions, placing themselves at its forefront. That was a clever, inherently liberal way of dealing with their predicament. It also showed a grasp of what modern politics is about.
The branding of the 2005 movement set up a context for this narrative — or rather the infinite number of narratives brought down to Martyrs’ Square. But it also led to dissension when the narratives momentarily diverged. For a while the red and the white rapidly became the colors of those whose priority was a Syrian military withdrawal, then Hariri’s Future Movement adopted sky blue as the color of their campaign, focused on uncovering the “Truth” about who had killed their leader. This difference was papered over by the time March 14 came, but the recrimination would last for some time.
In an odd way, the friction confirmed how important the branding was.