UNTIL a week ago, the courtyard of the Muhammad Ali-Amin Mosque in central Beirut was a quiet place where elderly citizens took time off to feed the pigeons. Yesterday, however, it held the largest gathering Lebanon has ever seen.
This was the culmination of a week in which an endless flow of people from all walks of life and different faiths had continued in and out of the mosque united by a single purpose: to call for a restoration of Lebanon's freedom and independence as a nation.
The event that triggered this unprecedented demonstration of national resolve was the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister who had led Lebanon after a generation of civil war.
Ask almost anyone in Beirut who killed Hariri, and the answer comes like a dart: Syria. With 40,000 troops and secret agents in Lebanon and a long history of organizing political killings, it is the natural suspect.
Did Damascus see Hariri as the only politician capable of uniting the Lebanese opposition against Syria's continued domination of virtually all aspects of Lebanon's life?
If so, it was correct — but only in the context of Lebanon's elite-dominated politics. Yet Hariri's murder has ended elite politics by bringing into the picture a new element.
That element is people power, the same force that swept away the totalitarian regimes of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s and, more recently, led Ukraine into a second liberation.
Hariri's murder, however, has triggered the law of unintended consequences. It has put the people center stage and forced the political aristocrats to abandon their tradition of double-talk and petty calculations.
The genie of people power has come out of the bottle and no amount of political chicanery will send it back in. Nor can Syria dispatch its tanks to crush the demonstrators on the streets of Beirut as the Soviet Union did in Prague in 1968.
"This is the start of Lebanon's second war of independence," says parliamentarian Marwan Hamade. "We are determined that Hariri's tragic death be transformed into the rebirth of our nation."
Those who have wondered where next the flame of freedom may rise in the Middle East have their answer. After free and fair elections in Iraq, it is now the turn of Lebanon to break the shackles of tyranny and take the path of democracy.
The next Lebanese election is scheduled to take place at the end of April. This fixes the timeframe within which Syria must end its military occupation of Lebanon, disband its secret services there, close the illegal prisons it maintains in at least six localities in and around Beirut and formally recognize Lebanon as an independent and sovereign nation-state.
Free elections in Lebanon, after free elections in the Palestinian Authority and Iraq, will speed up the dismantling of other despotic regimes in the Middle East, thus bringing this vital region into the mainstream of post-Cold War global politics. Whether anyone likes it or not, regime-change must remain the name of the game in the region until people-based governments are established wherever this is not already the case.
Regime-change, however, need not be pursued solely through military means (although this must not be discarded). In countries where internal mechanisms for peaceful change exist, the task facing the major democracies is to help trigger them into action.
Today, Lebanon is one such case. Any failure to seize the moment would amount to a betrayal of the democratic aspirations of the Lebanese people.