Battle of the street protests

The scale of the anti- and pro-Syria demonstrations in Lebanon raises fears about how long they will stay peaceful.

By Brian Whitaker
Published March 15, 2005 2:50PM (EST)

The battle for the streets of Lebanon reached new heights Monday when hundreds of thousands of anti-Syria protesters, some with Lebanese flags painted on their faces, swamped the center of Beirut. Few had any doubt that it was the biggest demonstration the city had ever seen, or was likely ever to see, easily outstripping last week's pro-Syria rally, which drew a crowd of about half a million.

The Lebanese opposition had been stunned by the size of Hezbollah's rally last week and spared no effort to outdo it Monday. Buses were chartered to bring demonstrators to the capital from around the country, and many arrived in convoys of cars from the Bekaa Valley and the south. Some schools closed for the day, and groups of schoolchildren and students were in evidence on the streets.

Two hours before the official start of the protest -- called to mark the moment a month earlier when former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri was assassinated -- Martyrs Square was packed with people and Lebanese flags.

Many of the flags were attached to broom handles, others rose above the crowds on the ends of fishing rods, and one demonstrator flew a kite with a flag attached. Among the placards were many that read: "100 Percent Lebanese" or "United Colors of Lebanon."

Before long, the crowds spilled over from Martyrs Square and began filling the nearby Riad al-Solh Square, where Hezbollah's demonstration was held last week. As the rally began, half a mile from its center motorists in cars decorated with flags and pictures of Hariri were still edging through crowded streets looking for a place to park. Across town, the normally bustling Hamra district was ghostly, with almost all the shops closed and a few straggling demonstrators with flags.

For a country with a population of only 3.5 million, the scale of the recent protests has been unprecedented, raising fears about how long they will remain peaceful.

In a sermon on Sunday, the Maronite (Christian) patriarch warned: "If shows of force continue in the streets, no one knows where this will lead us to, and this is what spiteful people are looking for."

Syrian-backed President Emile Lahoud has also been trying to dampen the fervor of street protests.

In Sidon, 25 miles south of the capital, Hezbollah and the opposition agreed to call off rival demonstrations after meetings over the weekend, the Beirut-based Daily Star reported Monday.

Syria's military withdrawal continued Monday, with intelligence agents closing offices in the northern towns of Amyoun and Deir Ammar, on the coastal road between the port city of Tripoli and the Syrian border. Intelligence agents also dismantled two checkpoints in the Akkar area. More than 70 agents are believed to have left.

The number of Syrian troops in Lebanon is now 10,000, after the departure of 4,000 over the past week. A Lebanese security source told Reuters the Syrian forces were expected to complete the first phase of a two-stage pullout in the next two or three days.

The presence of Syrian intelligence agents, who have wielded influence over many aspects of life in Lebanon, is generally of more concern to the Lebanese than the troops, whose role has been largely symbolic. The agents' complete withdrawal may prove more difficult to confirm, however.

Controversial former Lebanese Prime Minister Michel Aoun announced Monday that he would return from exile "in the next weeks." Speaking at a news conference in Paris, Gen. Aoun, a Christian who has organized anti-Syrian agitation from France, said he would set his return date after a timetable for a complete Syrian withdrawal was announced. He said he would go back to Lebanon with Edgar Maalouf and Issam Abu Jamra, who were part of a military government he formed in 1988.

Brian Whitaker

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