Lebanon News

Serail sit-in resolute but lacks numbers on eve of Eid al-Adha

March 14 supporters sit in front of the Grand Serail in Beirut.

BEIRUT: On a blustery Thursday morning in the capital a collection of 14 tents stands resolute in Riad al-Solh Square beside a barbed-wire perimeter blocking access to the Grand Serail.

The site of Sunday’s altercations between security forces and supporters of the opposition March 14 coalition following the funeral of slain security chief Wissam al-Hasan appears somewhat void of activity amid the wind and the rain.

Despite a scarcity of numbers on the eve of Eid al-Adha, sit-in participants from the Future Movement, Kataeb party, Lebanese Forces and National Liberal Party, declare they will remain encamped in Riad al-Solh Square until the resignation of Prime Minister, Najib Mikati.

The group, united by common opposition to the government and perceived Syrian involvement in the Hasan assassination despite differing political and religious allegiances, denounce the outbreak of clashes following the funeral Sunday.

Outside one of four tents set up in the square by the Future Movement an image of the aftermath of the Ashrafieh car bomb is accompanied by a simple caption that reads: “That’s what Bashar wants.”

Inside, a group of seven Future Movement supporters play cards and leaf through the daily newspapers. Their jovial mood appears to somewhat belie both the elements and the seeming scarcity of numbers in the camp.

“Around 15 of us are sleeping here,” says Abdullah Mikati, a 24-year-old architecture student from Mar Elias.

Abdullah and others in the tent claim inspiration for their current sit-in from the 2005 demonstrations in Martyrs Square following the assassination of former Prime Minister and Future Movement leader Rafik Hariri – events, often referred to as the Cedar Revolution, that contributed to the withdrawal of the Syrian military presence in Lebanon.

“We take inspiration from 2005,” says Khalid al-Hajj, 23, a student at the Arts, Sciences and Technology University in Lebanon (AUL). “We feel that Wissam al-Hasan’s death has much in common with that of Rafik Hariri,” continues Hajj, hinting at Syrian involvement in the assassination of the brigadier general.

“They are equal. With Hariri they assassinated the top political figure in the country; with Hasan, the top security figure. ”

Echoing the accusation leveled by leader Samir Geagea, Lebanese Forces members of the sit-in state that Mikati must leave due to his position as a figurehead in a government they say is controlled by Hezbollah in league with the Syrian and Iranian regimes.

“Mikati is providing cover for crimes in Lebanon,” says Melissa Challita, 21, a resident of Ashrafieh and student at Saint Joseph University. “He needs to leave because he is controlled by Hezbollah.”

Michel Chamii, 22, a business student at the CNAM University in Beirut, states simply that he is participating in the sit-in because he doesn’t want his son to grow up in an environment marked by political assassinations that also put the general public at risk.

Sitting on the tarpaulin floor of a tent within the encampment, Challita and Chamii, along with fellow Lebanese Forces supporter Fadi Fares, 22, say that the sit-in has provided an opportunity to meet not only like-minded party supporters, but members of other parties within the March 14 coalition.

“Last night we were speaking with supporters of the Future Movement until four in the morning. We spoke about our various religious beliefs and common aims and aspirations,” says Fares. “When you listen to someone, about how they live and their beliefs, you can understand them better.”

Various figures in the March 14 coalition including Jean Ogassapian, Nadim Gemayel, Nohad Mashnouq, and Jamal Jarrah have passed by to express support. However, political and religious debate is not the only means to foment a stronger sense of camaraderie.

“Today I bought knefeh for everyone in the camp,” interjects Chamii, “although I’m still waiting for a thank you from the Future guys,” he says sarcastically with a hearty laugh.

Raji Saad Daher, 50, a supporter of the National Liberation Party and former member of the Lebanese Forces during the Civil War, holds a number of leaflet biographies of former Lebanese President and NLP founder Camille Chamoun under one arm. In the other he holds coffee to distribute around the camp.

“I wish there were more people here,” expresses the sit-in’s old-timer, “but people have work commitments and university. After work there are around 200, 300 people here.”

Members of the sit-in say that the violent scenes Sunday were not in the best interests of the March 14 coalition.

“We were right here on the front line telling people to fall back,” says Abdullah, pointing to the barbed wire partition separating the sit-in from the Grand Serail.

“What happened was regrettable. It was not the right way for people to express their grievances,” says the Future Movement supporter, pointing out that Rafik Hariri played a central role in the postwar reconstruction of the government complex.

“Everyone who was on the roads, laying burning tires should instead come here and demonstrate peacefully.”

Many among the small group say they have received concerned phone calls from parents who understand their cause but fear for their safety. A number voice apprehension regarding the Internal Security Forces members stationed in the area, who they claim owe allegiance to the Amal party, who form part of the March 8 government.

“They rattle cans on the barbed wire partition during the night,” says Challita. “At other times guys on scooters come past playing Nasrallah and Berri speeches. There are moves to antagonize us.”

On the eve of Eid al-Adha, sit-in members are accepting of the fact that they are in it for the long haul. The prime minister’s departure from office is a pre-requisite for their leaving the area. Regarding plans to celebrate the Eid, Future supporters state resolutely that they will not be going anywhere.

“We will stay, but we won’t be celebrating until the prime minister resigns,” says Abdullah.

“We lost one of our brothers last week. This is not a time for celebration,” he concludes solemnly.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 26, 2012, on page 3.




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