BEIRUT: Splitting his wooden flagstaff in half on the way out of Martyrs Square Sunday afternoon, at least one young man seemed to anticipate the violent clashes that would soon break out a few hundred meters down the road. Heeding a passionate call by Future TV presenter Nadim Koteich to head for Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s offices, many of the thousands who had gathered in central Beirut for the funeral of slain intelligence official Wissam al-Hasan turned toward the Grand Serail.
“We will not bury our martyrs and go home,” Koteich promised over a loudspeaker from the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque, urging March 14 supporters to prepare for a “long struggle.”
As they set off for the Grand Serail, many marchers chanted for Mikati to resign, or repeated “Saad, Saad,” referring to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri who has been outside Lebanon for more than a year.
Mourners from the rally poured into the street, until those in the front were met with what appeared to be smoke or tear gas, rising in gray above Riad al-Solh Square.
The group scattered swiftly, leaving a core contingent of several hundred mostly young men. Egging each other on, they took multiple cracks at rushing the Serail, converting more flags into makeshift batons and face covers.
Grand Serail security forces – a branch of the Internal Security Forces that the slain Hasan belonged to – attempted to keep demonstrators at bay with tear gas and smoke bombs that floated down under tiny parachutes.
It wasn’t long until Riad al-Solh had descended into a gray mess with red-eyed young men coughing, handing around bottles of water and carrying those out of breath into tents March 14 youth had set up there two nights before.
Gasping for air, one young man who called himself George asserted that violence had not been his intention but in his bid to approach the Grand Serail security forces had beat him.
“They hit my head because I crossed the fence they had placed over there. Is this how they make sure we are safe? I will fight back and not stop even if they put the Army on me,” he said.
“We didn’t want to be violent, we just came here to continue our protest and they started shooting at us and throwing tear gas on us,” he continued.
Police shot rounds of live automatic fire into the air, and two people were hit with rubber bullets. Little deterred the red-eyed youth, seemingly angered more by each canister. They hurled sticks at security forces, and some frantically broke rocks found in the square.
At least six protesters were injured, some hit by gas canisters. A motorcycle’s tire caught fire as its driver attempted to leave the area but drove over a flare.
The security forces reported 10 of their own wounded, perhaps from the sticks and rocks that protesters were hurling in their direction.
Amid the disorder, Parliament police seemed relaxed during the clashes, quiet at barricades blocking the road to Nejmeh Square.
Equally unruffled was protester Lily Frangieh of Zghorta, who looked slightly out of place in her flowered dress and low heels. Explaining that she had come to “preserve and protect the Lebanese society and identity,” Frangieh said that if Mikati were “a decent man, he would have left power already.”
Watching protesters hurl sticks at the Army while covering her mouth with a tissue, Frangieh thought the clashes would give the prime minister “a taste of what the people think of him.”
Eventually, the fighting abated and rows of police faced rows of demonstrators. Future Movement MP Mouein Merhebi arrived with a small entourage, striding into the fray to wild cheers. After his intervention, along with that of former MP Elias Atallah and a Grand Serail security official, protesters agreed to a 10-meter buffer between themselves and security forces, reinforced by metal barricades.
After an hour or so, most demonstrators had dispersed. Eyes had dried and faces were visible again. But one man sat on top of a traffic light, surveying the scene. His mouth and nose were still covered, just in case.