BEIRUT: Under rain and amid tight security, hundreds of demonstrators both in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad and of the country’s anti-government protesters faced off in downtown Beirut Sunday.
Separated by barbed wire and a heavy military presence, around 1,000 people chanted slogans for and against the Syrian government, with a slightly higher proportion showing up for the anti-Assad rally.
Demonstrators from both sides came from areas throughout Lebanon to take part.
This included a convoy of 53 buses of anti-Assad supporters that departed the southern coastal city of Sidon in the morning.
The anti-Assad rally was organized by Sheikh Ahmad Assir of Sidon. Most of the attendees were Salafists with the genders segregated. Participants raised the pre-Baath Syrian flag and chanted, "The people want the fall of the regime."
Chants rippled through the crowd throughout the demonstration.
“The people want to declare jihad,” the crowd chanted.
Saadallah Shebaro, 25, said it was an important statement to have the protest in Beirut where there is strong support for the Syrian regime.
“Whoever wants to stand by Syria will come to this protest,” he added.
“We are giving our voice against what's happening in Syria,” said Adham Bitar, a 25-year-old from Sidon.
“With our blood and our souls we sacrifice for you Assir,” the crowd chanted to the Sidon sheikh before he took the podium.
The pro-Assad rally was organized by the Lebanese branch of the Baath party.
Yasser Qawwas, a Syrian student at the Lebanese University, said he joined the rally to prove that only the Syrian people have the right to decide their fate.
“I came here to prove to the entire world that the Syrian people decide their own fate, they have the first and final say in their country,” he said, as he carried a Syrian flag.
He explained that those who do not have freedom in their countries do not have the right to call for freedom in Syria, in apparent reference to Arab Gulf states.
Speaking about protesters on the other side of Martyrs' Square, Qawwas, who hails from Idlib, said: “I respect their opinion, but they have nothing to do with our country, let them demand freedom from their rulers in their country.”
The leadership of Lebanon's main parties, including Future, Hezbollah and Amal declared they would not be taking part in Sunday's demonstrations.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Najib Mikati, on Twitter, urged the that the demonstrators show restraint and remain peaceful.
The anti-Assad demonstrators gathered in the heart of Martyrs' Square in a section cordoned off by security forces. Assir delivered a speech in which he said that Assad, though a liar, had spoken the truth twice.
The first occasion was when he said that events in Syria were not like those of other Arab countries. According to Assir, this was correct, because the situation in Syria is worse.
Assir added that the second time Assad spoke the truth was when he alleged the existence of an international conspiracy targeting Syria. Assir seconded Assad's claim, but said that the conspiracy was against the people of Syria. Assir also urged Muslim-Christian unity in the face of Zionism.
The pro-Assad rally, which took place on the edge of Martyrs' Square in the direction of Saifi, was less organized. There was no podium for speakers, but head of the Baath party in Lebanon Fayez Shukr delivered several remarks criticizing Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt and comparing him to late Israeli military leader and politician Moshe Dayan.
Shukr was articulating a view given pictorial representation by certain demonstrators, who hoisted a banner depicting Jumblatt's face with an eye-patch -- something which made Dayan instantly recognizable.
Participants in the pro-Assad demonstration also held up Syrian flags with Assad's visage superimposed on them. Another banner depicted Assad along with writing that read: "The God of the skies will protect you."
Speaking while the demonstrations, which lasted from approximately 1pm until 2pm, were still under way, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel addressed security concerns in the country. Standing in Martyrs' Square, he said, “Fear exists because the security situation around [Lebanon] is not stable.”
He said he hoped that the Lebanese “could speak with one voice… we have only this country, and the security forces deal with everyone as brothers.”