BEIRUT: Downtown Beirut was locked down Sunday as Army and police installed a buffer zone between pro- and anti-President Bashar Assad demonstrators staged by Salafists and the Baath Party respectively.The rallies, over the uprising in Syria, raised concerns about security in the capital, but took place peacefully, thanks to a robust security presence and modest turnout.
Neither rally had received official authorization, but top government officials backed them as important exercises of peaceful expression.
The Lebanese Army prepared for the worst, installing a nearly quarter-mile buffer zone of barbed wire, manned by riot police, to separate the two protests. Checkpoints were set up in Downtown Beirut and the Army lined the streets with armored personnel carriers and columns of troops.
Local officials initially wavered as to whether to allow the protests to continue, but Prime Minister Najib Mikati endorsed the rallies as a guaranteed right that is in the national interest.
“The expression of opinion is a legitimate right which the Cabinet is committed to protecting ... and it hopes that everybody will work so that the higher Lebanese interest will prevail and unite to protect our country,” Mikati said in a statement Sunday.
In all, around 500 people showed up for each rally, waving banners and chanting slogans.
The mostly male anti-Assad rally was covered in a sea of flags bearing the Islamic profession of faith, “There is no god but God,” and the demonstrators chanted against Assad’s nearly year-long crackdown on his people.
“The people want to declare jihad,” the crowd chanted. “The people want to bring down the regime.”
Just in sight on the other side of Martyrs Square, opposing chants rang out from a largely pro-Baath party crowd.
“We are your soldiers, Assad!” chanted protesters. “With our souls and blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you Bashar,” said others.
They chanted against Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and trampled on a poster where he appeared alongside King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
Controversial Sidon-based Sheikh Ahmad Assir called for the demonstration against Assad last week, saying only death could stop him from holding the rally in Martyrs’ Square.
Rallies against the Assad regime are frequent occurrences in the north, particularly in Tripoli.
Until Sunday, outcries against the regime’s bloody crackdown have usually been limited in Beirut to small-scale sit-ins, and often in the evenings – the Salafist sheikh’s call for a Sunday, daytime protest stirred the anger of Damascus’ supporters.
Rumors of violence between pro- and anti-regime supporters spread throughout the city after Assir’s announcement and rhetoric between the two sides reached a fevered pitch in the run-up to the demonstrations.
Fayez Shukr, the head of the Baath Party, called Assir a “freak who desecrated this square.”
“People in Syria and Lebanon are true brothers despite the will of all who hate them,” he said.
Speaking under a banner reading “we obey Homs” and picturing a boot on a bearded man’s face, Assir called for the people to obey the will of the Islamic community to remove the “murderer Bashar.”
But government officials called for restraint during the rallies and neither demonstration escalated to physical violence.
Interior Minister Marwan Charbel made an appearance at both rallies, endorsing the peaceful demonstrations.
He said such rallies are important for democracies.
“I hope that you preserve this [friendly] competitive spirit ... security personnel can protect you,” he said.
The minister added that he wished the barbed wire was removed so the groups could greet each other in a demonstration of national unity.