BEIRUT: The mass funeral of slain Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan in downtown Beirut was marked Sunday by strong calls from the opposition March 14 coalition for the government’s resignation and followed by clashes between security forces and hundreds of anti-government protesters attempting to storm the Grand Serail.
Clashes erupted after midnight in the Beirut neighborhood of Tariq al-Jdeideh. The fighting was ongoing as The Daily Star went to press.
“The martyrdom of Hasan will not pass easily. Our demand is to bring down the government not for the sake of power but for the sake of security ... The toppling of the government peacefully is the only way to reach a real dialogue in the country,” former Prime Minister Saad Hariri said in an interview with Future TV Sunday night. “Lebanon’s interest [is served] in bringing down the government and forming a new government.”
“We want to bring down the government in a democratic and peaceful manner. We are not advocates of violence. We want stability in the country,” he said. Hariri warned that Lebanon was passing through “a very delicate stage that carried evil with it.”
“We must protect the country,” he added. Hariri, who has been living out of Lebanon for a year and a half mainly for security reasons, promised to return to Beirut at the time of his choice. He did not say when.
Hariri spoke a few hours after Hasan and his driver were laid to rest near the tomb of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri at the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque on Martyrs’ Square in Downtown Beirut following a rally in Downtown Beirut attended by leading March 14 politicians, MPs and thousands of supporters.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora demanded the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s Cabinet and the formation of a “neutral salvation Cabinet.” He said there can be no dialogue between rival political parties before the government’s resignation.
Addressing the rally, Siniora said, “No to a government that covers crimes, yes to a neutral salvation government ... A government that protects all Lebanese and shifts them to a new phase.”
He also accused the government of being responsible for the killing of Hasan, who headed the police’s Information Branch since its inception in 2006 and was killed in a car bomb in the Beirut district of Ashrafieh.
“We will say it frankly, no dialogue over the blood of martyrs and no dialogue over the blood of the Lebanese. This government is responsible for the assassination of martyr Wissam al-Hasan and his martyr colleagues. Therefore, let this government go,” Siniora said, drawing cheers from the crowd.
Addressing Mikati, Siniora, head of the Future parliamentary bloc, added: “Also, we say it clearly that your excellency Prime Minister Najib Mikati can no longer stay in your position to cover up this crime. They have killed one of the most important protectors of the state ... Leave because the Lebanese people will not accept an assassination government. Now you are responsible.”
Future MP Nuhad Mashnouq told Al-Jadeed TV that Future lawmakers will boycott Parliament sessions until the government has resigned.
In what appeared to be a response to March 14 calls for the government’s resignation, Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani said using street pressure to bring down the government is rejected.
Qabbani, who did not attend Hasan’s funeral, also denounced attempts by March 14 protesters to storm the Grand Serail.
“Bringing down governments in the street is outright rejected. The one who is seeking to bring down the government in the street is under illusion,” Qabbani said a televised speech. “The premiership is not a scapegoat.” He added that granting or withholding confidence to governments can be done only through Parliament.
Hasan, 47, who opposed Syrian President Bashar Assad, was assassinated in a car bomb that rattled the Beirut neighborhood of Ashrafieh Friday. His driver and a woman identified as Georgette Sarkissian were also killed in the explosion, the most serious since 2008.
Hasan’s killing has raised fears of a return to the series of political assassinations that rocked Lebanon between 2005 and 2008. Hariri and the opposition March 14 coalition have accused Assad of being behind Hasan’s assassination, holding Mikati personally responsible for his killing.
In a clear sign of international concern over the security situation in Lebanon, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Mikati to reiterate U.S. condemnation of the deadly car bombing in Beirut, and the two agreed that Washington would help investigate the attack. In a phone call with Mikati, Clinton called the attack that killed Hasan and others “heinous” and offered condolences, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said. “The secretary emphasized the United States’ firm commitment to Lebanon’s stability, independence, sovereignty and security,” she said in a statement.
“She noted the importance of political leaders working together at this sensitive time to ensure that calm prevails and that those responsible for the attack are brought to justice.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also called Mikati to condemn the bombing in Beirut.
Clinton, Fabius and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also telephoned Hariri to offer condolences over the assassination of Hasan and his driver.
During the phone conversations, Hariri stressed that the Lebanese people were carrying out “a peaceful, civil and democratic action to bring down the Mikati government,” according to a statement released by Hariri’s media office.
Following Hasan’s funeral, hundreds of angry protesters clashed with security forces when they tried to storm Mikati’s offices at the Grand Serail, a few meters from Martyrs’ Square.
Police fired gunshots in the air and tear gas to disperse the protesters attempting to break through a security cordon outside the Grand Serail as Future Movement officials urged the demonstrators to vacate the streets.
Several protesters were injured. A statement released by Mikati’s office said more than 15 security and military personnel were injured in the clash. The statement indirectly blamed Siniora for the attempt to storm the Grand Serail with his call for the government’s resignation.
Noting that the Grand Serail carried a national symbol for the premiership, the statement said that Mikati would make “more efforts and sacrifices to bring Lebanon out of this major crisis and find the means to restore unity among the people of this country.”
As the battle raged, with protesters and security personnel pelting each other with hunks of concrete, metal bars and tear gas canisters, both Hariri and Siniora appealed for calm. Hariri called on his supporters to end the violence, saying the attempt to break into the Grand Serail was unacceptable.
“We are not seekers of violence ... I urge all my supporters to end the sit-in and leave the streets,” he said in a phone call to Future Television.
Siniora said in a televised address: “We can appreciate the emotions of the protesters, but I think that breaking through the Grand Serail and using violence is unacceptable.”
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea also called on March 14 and LF supporters to back away from the Grand Serail immediately and to hold peaceful protests. Geagea also called for the formation of “a national sovereign government.”
The funeral ceremony for Hasan took place at the Beirut police headquarters, before his coffin was transported to Mohammad al-Amin Mosque downtown.
Thousands of people gathered in Martyrs’ Square carrying party flags as well as Lebanese and “Syrian revolution” flags cheered heavily upon their arrival to the mosque. Supporters carried signs that read: “Leave, leave Najib,” “Remove Bashar [Assad] from Lebanon,” and a picture of Mikati with Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah that read: “The blood of Wissam is on your hands.”
Huge posters of Hasan hung on the buildings surrounding the square where the funeral was held. Family members consoled each other as they watched his coffin wrapped in the Lebanese flag being carried alongside that of his driver, First Sergeant Ahmad Sahyouni.
Mikati along with President Michel Sleiman as well as several Cabinet ministers and police chief Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi attended the service where they offered condolences to Hasan’s parents, his wife and two children.
In a speech commemorating Hasan, Sleiman tied the security chief’s killing with the case of former Minister Michel Samaha, saying the Information Branch had been punished for its achievements.
“This [security] institution is being punished with the assassination of its leader Maj. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan because the Information Branch has achieved so much, including uncovering ... bomb plots where they confiscated explosives and arrested the transporter,” Sleiman said.
The president also asked the judiciary to speed up the investigation process and issue an indictment in the case of Samaha. “I call on politicians and the government not to provide cover for the perpetrator but provide for security agencies and judiciary [to facilitate their duty],” Sleiman said.
Hasan was posthumously awarded the Cedar Medal and promoted to the rank of major general. – With additional reporting by Dana Khraiche