Parents marched hand in hand with their children, alongside crowds of old men and busloads of teenagers, as hundreds of thousands of Lebanese streamed into the heart of Beirut Thursday morning. ‘We want the truth!’ chanted the little boy next to me who was leading his family procession, ‘We won’t forget!’.
Once again, the Lebanese were taking to the streets to demand an end to the political violence that has become pitifully routine in this small, multi-religious country. The latest Lebanese martyr was the young Industry Minister and leader of the Christian Phalange Party, Pierre Gemayel the fifth anti-Syrian politician to be murdered here within two years.
Shot in broad daylight in East Beirut, the brazen assassination of the junior minister was seen as a warning to the anti-Syrian Government majority after they approved a UN investigation into the death of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who it is widely believed was also killed by Syrian forces (or their allies) in February of last year.
But hundreds of thousands of Lebanese refused to be intimidated. On Thursday, they stood in Beirut’s Martyrs Square in defiant protest a sea of red, white and green: the colours of the Lebanese flag. ‘Out, out Syria!’ roared the angry crowd, as many held signs reading ‘Shove your civil war’ next to a portrait of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad. ‘I’m here to fight for Lebanon,’ one young man explained to me, ‘I want these Syrian killings to stop.’
Outside the Cathedral where Gemayel’s funeral was taking place, the crowd heaved and shoved as Lebanon’s most powerful (and corrupt) political players turned out to pay their respects. The Lebanese are good at funerals. Each important mourner was grandly marched through a break in the crowd, surrounded by at least five bodyguards in black, who were in turn surrounded by around eight crowd controllers in red, and then a third circle by a fighting, shoving press pack which invariably fought the police (and each other) for the best shots.
‘Freedom! Truth! National Unity!’ was the chant as the procession passed.
Photos care of the author
National unity is certainly what leaders have been pledging in the last few days since Gemayel’s death. But the people who came here to mourn and protest do not represent a unified country. They are, for the most part, Christian and Sunni Muslims who have been working together in an-anti Syrian coalition ever since their massive public protests last year forced Syrian troops to leave the country after 29 years of military presence.
This is the crowd that believes Syria’s Lebanese ally, the Shi’ite Hezbollah, was involved in Gemayel’s assassination. And one could clearly sense an underlying feeling of anti-Shi’ite sentiment. The crowd hissed and booed when the Shi’ite Parliamentary Speaker and Hezbollah ally Nabih Berri entered the Cathedral.
‘Have you seen any Shi’ite in the crowd?’ I asked my friend. ‘A few,’ he answered. ‘How many?’ ‘Ah, well, maybe three.’
‘I know one who’s coming,’ volunteered another friend. I’m sure there were probably a few more Shiite attendees than the four we knew but the fact is that in this demonstration to ‘unite Lebanon’ nearly one third of the population was not present.
When the service was over, the politicians took to the stage which featured a specially designed podium sensitively arrayed with a bullet-proof shield for those speakers not yet successfully assassinated. Six of the speakers’ relatives had already been murdered, while another alive and on stage was still suffering the effects of a bomb attack on him two years ago.
The son of murdered former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Saad, received a rock star welcome as the crowd roared with delight and chanted, ‘With our blood, with our souls, we will sacrifice ourselves for you!’ Clearly moved, Hariri held his hands upwards to the heavens: ‘With you, Pierre [Gemayel], I send kisses and love to my father.’
Hariri then came out from behind the bullet-proof shield and walked to the edge of the stage. He stood, looking out to the crowd, as if daring the bullets to hit him. Joined by Pierre Gemayel’s tear-stricken father Amin, himself a former president, the two members of these tragic dynasties leant on each other for physical support, in a powerful moment that captured the lamentable history of this tiny country,
Once again, there was an appeal for ‘unity’ but that was soon upstaged by calls to respond to Hezbollah’s threats to bring down the US-backed Government. ‘They want a confrontation so be it!’ cried the former militia commander and Christian leader Samir Geagea. ‘We will not accept that this government will be changed for a government of murderers and criminals!’
Prompted by a call from Amin Gemayel about the need to ‘change Lebnon’s head’ the protestors channelled their anger toward the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud, as a chant to march on the presidential palace in the mountain suburb of Baabda echoed around the square.
It didn’t happen, of course, and perhaps the rally was more about matching Hezbollah’s rhetoric than actually fighting Syria’s proxies. But the level of anger and bitterness on display here in Martyrs Square ensures the Lebanese Army will continue to have to protect the presidential palace at Baabda and Lebanon itself.
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