TENS OF thousands of Lebanese poured into Beirut’s iconic Martyrs’ Square yesterday in a demonstration to honour slain former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri that was also a political show of strength.
A flag-waving, chanting crowd turned out to support Hariri’s son Saad, who heads an unwieldy coalition government that includes his former rivals – Syrian-backed Hizbullah and its allies.
The young Hariri has long accused Syria of the assassination of his father by car bomb on Beirut’s seafront five years ago. Damascus denies involvement in the killing, which stunned and polarised Lebanon.
But the shrill anti-Syrian rhetoric of previous anniversaries was absent at Martyrs’ Square yesterday, with Mr Hariri’s speech focusing on national unity and reflecting a new status quo.
“Five years ago, you came down to this very square to demand justice and freedom . . . and we are not turning back,” he told the crowd.
Many demonstrators said they were surprised by the turnout, lower than five years ago but still a boost to an anti-Syrian movement that had steadily lost steam.
A carnival atmosphere prevailed, with patriotic songs and chants of “freedom, sovereignty and independence”, the slogan of the “March 14th” movement named after a vast rally on that date in 2005.
“We’re here to show that freedom is in our hands, it’s through the people, not through weapons,” said Siham Dinnawi, a housewife from the north.
Much has changed since the heady months following the assassination, when a mounting chain of protests called on Syria to withdraw the troops it kept in Lebanon after the civil war ended in 1990.
Following the so-called “Cedar Revolution”, and under western pressure, Syria withdrew in mid-2005.
Now Lebanon and Syria have established diplomatic ties for the first time, and Mr Hariri visited Damascus in December. He no longer publicly accuses Syria of killing his father, instead pledges support for a Hague-based UN tribunal to try suspects in the killing.
“I am keen on keeping this window open, and on building a new era in Lebanese-Syrian relations, from one sovereign, free and independent state to another,” Mr Hariri said.
The prime minister’s alliance renewed its parliamentary majority in elections last June. But since a government crackdown on Hizbullah sparked sectarian clashes in May 2008, the Shia party and its allies have wielded a cabinet veto. In effect, any strategic decision requires Syria’s green light.
March 14th was further weakened last year when hawkish Druze leader Walid Jumblatt defected and later made peace with Hizbullah. And after a period of international isolation, Damascus enjoys warmer ties with Washington and Riyadh, Mr Hariri’s main backers.
“Now Lebanon”, a pro-Hariri website, ran a piece entitled “The magic has gone” this week predicting that die-hard “Cedar Revolutionaries” would not attend yesterday’s event. Adonis Sharafaddeen, a young student waving a Lebanese flag, concurred. “The crowds aren’t as big as usual, I think everyone’s a bit sick of all this,” he said. “Most people who came along just did so to tell Hizbullah ‘we’re still here’.”