BEIRUT: Free Patriotic Movement supporters heeded party leader Michel Aoun’s call and took to the streets Wednesday to express their discontent with the Lebanese government, warning street protests would follow if their demands were not met.
“It’s like a warning,” said Antoun Souaid, the president of the FPM Youth Sector, at the site of the demonstration in Sin al-Fil facing the headquarters of the party. “It is the beginning of us heeding the call of the general [Aoun].”
The FPM’s signature orange flag fluttered as supporters chanted their demands and speakers blasted the party’s anthem. Other cars joined, honking in solidarity.
Despite the fanfare, Souaid said the demonstration was not the mass protest Aoun had promised, but merely a taste of what might come.
Backed by his allies in Hezbollah, the Marada Movement and the Tashnag Party, Aoun had called for public demonstrations following the Cabinet’s refusal to discuss the appointment of senior military and security personnel.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam had previously canceled three ministerial sessions in June after Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and Education Minister Elias Bou Saab, both FPM-aligned, stated that Cabinet should not discuss pertinent agenda issues until the matter of security appointments had been resolved.
The Cabinet is divided on finding a replacement for incumbent Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi, whose term expires in September. Aoun is lobbying for Gen. Shamel Rokouz, his son-in-law, to become the new Army commander.
In a fiery speech Tuesday ahead of the protests planned by his supporters, Aoun lashed out at Salam, accusing him of acting as though he were president. The sentiment was echoed by his supporters Wednesday.
By evening, the once vacant FPM headquarters was full of supporters. The atmosphere was festive as young and old alike danced and sang.
Cars departed from the party headquarters in Sin al-Fil and merged on the Burj Hammoud highway, blocking vital arteries in the process.
Plainclothes police were on site, casting a vigilant eye over the convoy.
“We were moved by feelings of threat toward Christians as there have been several attempts [in the region] to eliminate our presence,” said Pauline, a protester. “Daesh [ISIS] is threatening to eliminate us and this threat can’t be exposed unless someone like Gen. Michel Aoun alerts us to its presence.”
“The reason we are here is because Christian rights toward this country are being transgressed. Today they [the government] do not consider [the opinions of] Christians in the country, they are marginalizing them through whatever means they have at their disposal,” she added.
Several protesters told The Daily Star they felt Christians in particular were being excluded from the decision-making process by the government. They also expressed fears that, in light of the current vacuum, the prime minister was increasingly encroaching on the powers of the president.
Most protesters said they felt they were a marginalized group voicing their beliefs through peaceful means.
“The movement today is peaceful, as you can see. It is being organized by disciplined individuals, we have no guns or vehicles that are capable of causing violence,” another protester said.
FPM supporters also said they were preserving their interests by holding the protest, something any sect in the country would do.
Meanwhile, ISF personnel organizing traffic in Sassine, a mere five minutes away from the convoy of supporters, appeared to have no knowledge of where the throng of cars was headed.
Other FPM convoy movements were observed across Lebanon. FPM supporters swarmed the streets of Jounieh, Batroun and Zouk Mosbeh toward Bawar and Oukayba in north Lebanon. Another convoy departed from Kfar Aqqa toward Koura. Other FPM supporters convened around villages in Marjayoun, in south Lebanon and the city of Zahle, in the Bekaa Valley.
But not all Christians were on Aoun’s side.
Jean Aziz a wedding photographer residing in the southern city of Sidon voiced his discontent with the Aoun’s fiery rhetoric.
“People are not giving much thought to the actions of the FPM because this is not the way the Christian rights will be preserved. People want a president whose honesty and integrity is proven. ... Lebanon demands personal sacrifice and should not be sacrificed itself for the sake of one person,” he added, referring to Aoun.
Another FPM meeting will convene Thursday morning at the party’s youth headquarters in Sin al-Fil. The gathering is slated to take place in anticipation of the results of the Cabinet session.
“We are gathering so that we can be in a state of readiness should orders come [to demonstrate],” Souaid said.