Tuesday, February 22, 2005

BEIRUT — Tens of thousands of protesters — Muslims, Christians and Druze — flooded Beirut yesterday in an anti-government demonstration unprecedented in the Middle East but reminiscent of the human waves that toppled governments throughout Eastern Europe.

“Syria out. Syria out,” they shouted as Arabic pop music blared, amid calls for a “peaceful intifada” or “uprising” against a government that was put into place and remains controlled by neighboring Syria.

“We are with the Muslims, the Druze, together for a free Lebanon,” said one member of a Christian militia. “Tell America we are waiting for them to invade, all of us.”

In a display of Christian-Muslim unity and outrage over the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri a week ago, some protesters held up a Koran in one hand and a cross in the other.

Just as the protesters who forced out the government of Ukraine in December adopted the color orange as their symbol, yesterday’s marchers wore scarves of red and white ” the colors of Lebanon’s flag.

Mr. Hariri’s killing has brought together a Lebanese opposition that had been splintered along the same sectarian lines that defined the country during its long civil war.

“Our demands are simple. A secular, democratic Lebanon with Syria as a neighbor and not in control of our country,” one demonstrator said. “Nothing less will be accepted.”

Syria, which has long harbored historical claims to Lebanon, sent troops into its neighbor during its civil war in 1976 and kept them there, ostensibly as peacekeepers, when the war ended in 1990.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said Syrian President Bashar Assad affirmed during a meeting yesterday in Damascus that his country “soon” will redeploy its troops as required by the 1989 agreement that ended the war.

That agreement, brokered in Taif, Saudi Arabia, called for Syria to move its forces to the eastern Bekaa Valley near its border and to negotiate a timetable with Lebanon for their total withdrawal.

The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution late last year calling for all foreign troops to leave Lebanon. President Bush renewed that call yesterday in Brussels, saying Syria “must end its occupation of Lebanon.”

EU foreign ministers yesterday joined the United States and France in calling for an international investigation into the Hariri assassination ” a demand the Lebanese government so far has rejected.

Many of yesterday’s protesters were students from the American University Beirut (AUB) ” a bastion of Western-style clothing and American slang ” who braved the risk of police violence and the censure of parents to take part in the unheard-of demonstration.

“My brother would so kill me if he saw me there,” said one young woman when urged to take part. “I don’t want to get shot at; he’d be so mad.”

“We’ll protect you, now come on,” an organizer cajoled her. Minutes later, she and several girlfriends were making up the front line of the AUB marchers, each carrying a single flower and chanting.

By the time the marchers reached the site where Mr. Hariri died, about a mile from the campus, it was clear that the protest would be one of the largest ever seen in the Middle East.

Tens of thousands of Lebanese representing every opposition group controlled the streets, defying official warnings that the demonstration would not be tolerated.

George Haddad of the Free Patriotic Movement ” a mainly Christian organization that advocates a free, secular Lebanon ” said the protest organizers hoped to mimic the bloodless uprisings that ended despotic regimes in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004.

But hesitant opposition leaders ordered their followers not to attempt to storm Lebanon’s parliament building ” a feat they might have pulled off because the Lebanese army and police, while fitted out in full battle gear, clearly were unwilling to fire on their countrymen to protect Syrian interests.

The opposition’s greatest weakness is its inability to draw support from the two key Shi’ite Muslim organizations. Shi’ites are a majority in Lebanon, and their largest political groups ” Hezbollah and Amal ” have close ties to Syria.

“Look, the Shi’ites in the south receive far more humanitarian aid and support from Hezbollah than they do from the Lebanese government,” said student organizer Anthony Letayf.

“Hezbollah relies on Syria for money and support in its fight against Israel. We just cannot reach those people to convince them to help us remove Syria.”

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