BEIRUT: Four-year-old Ali lay on his uncle’s chest holding a photograph of his father, confusion etched on his face. The man in the photo is Abbas Msheik, a policeman captured by Nusra Front militants during their attack on Arsal last month.
“I want my dad back,” was all the boy could say, unable to understand how his father’s absence could be related to national security. Ali was perhaps the youngest among those who took to the streets Thursday morning to protest the government’s apparent inaction over the lives of the hostages.
Some meters away from where the protesters had gathered in Riad al-Solh Square in Downtown Beirut, the Cabinet held a lengthy session to discuss how to deal with the hostages crisis.
Losing patience, the families of the captive troops sent the government an ultimatum: Act within 24 hours, or we will take the matter into our own hands.
A seven-hour sit-in followed, with families and supporters rallying to pressure the government to act. Sitting under the scorching late summer sun was a small price to pay, they reasoned, if it prompted the government to heed their calls.
“We call on Army chief Jean Kahwagi to arrest all ministers, and to swap them for soldiers held by militants, out of respect for the prestige of the state,” they said in a statement.
The call reflected the frustration of the demonstrators with politicians, from both March 14 and March 8, who have failed to secure a swift release of the soldiers and policemen.
At least 23 Army soldiers and policemen are still being held by militants from the Nusra Front and ISIS, who captured them during five-day clashes with the Lebanese Army in the northeastern border town of Arsal last month. The jihadists have demanded the release of Islamist inmates held in Roumieh Prison in exchange for the hostages.
Mothers of the captives told The Daily Star that they feared the fate of their sons would mirror that of First Sgt. Ali al-Sayyed, who was beheaded by ISIS last week.
During his funeral Wednesday, Sayyed’s family called for “revolution” until the captives were released.
“They sit in the air-conditioned Grand Serail and procrastinate on the most vital decisions,” one of the protesters said.
“If one of their sons was among the kidnapped, they would have done everything to bring him back,” said Nawaf, the brother of Msheik. “But they do not care about the normal people like us, because we are poor and we are not backed by any political party.”
“There is a plan to spark a civil war!” one of the protesters shouted, referring to designs by ISIS and the Nusra Front militants. “We will not fall for it, but if they do anything to my brother, I know what to do to theirs.”
The man was hinting to possible retaliatory acts against Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a sentiment echoed by most protesters.
“Their families live among us here,” said Ali Hajj Hasan, a protest coordinator. “If they harm our people, we will expel them from the country.”
A cousin of a kidnapped Army soldier carrying the same name, Ali Hajj Hasan, accused the government of lying to the families for 30 days and of “not respecting the souls of the soldiers.”
Although dismissed by many political leaders as a humiliation to the state, the option of negotiating directly with the militants was widely supported by the demonstrators.
“They [the politicians] only mention the state’s prestige, but what about the dignity of those wearing uniforms to defend the state?” Hajj Hasan asked. “There is no shame in negotiating; the shame lies in letting them kill those heroes while politicians discuss what to do.”
However, the protesters also confirmed their eagerness to safeguard the image of the Lebanese state.
Nawaf told The Daily Star that Msheik was suffering from liver problems and needed urgent treatment, which required his immediate return.
Thursday’s protest marked the first held by the families of the kidnapped soldiers in Beirut, after they had blocked roads in east and north Lebanon to voice their demands.
After the session was over, Information Minister Ramzi Joreige said that the Cabinet refused to directly negotiate with the militants or swap captured soldiers and policemen with Islamist detainees, adding however that Prime Minister Tammam Salam had held secret contacts with countries that could help free the kidnapped. The government also gave the Army a green light to launch a military operation to secure the release of the captives.