BEIRUT: Nearly a thousand people turned out in Beirut Sunday for a fiery day of protests over the unrest in Syria, underscoring deep cleavages that are spilling across Lebanon’s borders.On one end of Martyrs Square, people waved banners reading “there is no god but God” and called for an end to the reign of President Bashar Assad. On the other end, protesters waved Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah flags in support of Syria’s embattled president.
Hundreds of people were bussed in from Sidon in the south and Tripoli in the north to take part in a rare, large daytime protest in the country against the Assad’s regime’s brutal crackdown on the nearly year-old uprising in Syria.
Previous rallies against the regime in the capital have been broken up by pro-Assad groups, which have strong support in Beirut.
For Saadallah Shebaro, 25, the rally in support of the Syrian uprising was long overdue. Shebaro and his friends from Ras Beirut said they had been waiting for a chance to voice their support for the opposition to the Damascus regime in Lebanon’s capital, and affirmed that they were not extremists.
“Whoever wants to stand by Syria will come to this protest,” he added.
Organized by Sheikh Ahmad Assir’s mosque in Sidon, the protest bore the hallmarks of a religious event. Mosque volunteers organized demonstrators into lines and veiled women had their own protesting section and were escorted to their buses by volunteers.
Chants rippled through the mostly male crowd throughout the afternoon, professing faith in God, and calls to fulfil their Islamic duties.
The protesters called for jihad to overthrow Assad and avenge those who have been killed in the uprising. “With our blood and our souls we sacrifice for you martyrs,” they chanted.
Singer Fadel Shaker took part in the protest and slammed president Assad for the brutal crackdown.
Imam Abu Hudhaifa Beizeh called the day’s protest a statement of brotherhood with Muslims in Syria.
“Today’s demonstration expresses solidarity with the Syrian children, women and elderly in addition to the detainees and injured men,” said Beizeh, the imam at the Aisha Mosque in Tripoli.
Most of the demands from the anti-Assad demonstrators, who included Syrian nationals, were the same: to stop the violence against the opposition in Syria.
“People cannot tolerate injustice and oppression,” said Mohammad Shaar, 28, from Beirut.
A quarter mile away, across rows of concertina wire, groups of riot police and armored personnel carriers, the sentiment was just about the opposite.
The banner of choice was the red and black Syrian flag, many bearing the face of President Assad. Russian and Chinese flags were waved as well, an acknowledgment of the countries’ support for the Syrian regime at the United Nations.
On this side of Martyrs Square, Assad was promoted as a figure of protection, not oppression.
Ahmad Shaikhoun, from the Baath Party, drove from Nabatieh in the south to come to the rally.
“I came here for the sake of a president who represents defiance. This is the least I can do for his sake,” he said, with a Syrian flag wrapped around his neck.
Protesters voiced anger at what they saw as foreign influence and other interests behind the uprising in Syria. People chanted slogans against King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
For 16-year-old Tareq, a Syrian from Sweida, the protest was an opportunity to make a little money.
Tareq came to sell kaak, but added that he was a staunch defender of Assad, whose poster he fixed to his bike’s handlebars, which also displayed kaak. “I am with Assad because he is making us live the best life ever,” he said.
Protesters danced the dabkeh as music echoed from speakers fixed on a Chevrolet. The tune of the slogans mimicked that of now-famous chants by anti-regime protesters in Syria.
“Grab your guns, Bashar is a holy leader,” they chanted.
Protesters also carried a poster for Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt with an eye patch similar to one late Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan used to wear. They chanted against Jumblatt, who recently broke ties with the Syrian regime.
The bulk of the pro-Assad protesters were Syrians working in Lebanon and some were Lebanese supporters of the Baath Party.
A Syrian from Aleppo said that he supported Assad because the president had given them a decent life.
“He has given us security and free electricity and phone services,” he said, carrying a Syrian flag. “Those [protesting on the other side] claim to be Muslims, but in reality they are terrorists.”