Lebanon News

Grand Serail protesters settle in for the long haul

March 14 supporters walk to the sit-in near the Grand Serail. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: A group of young March 14 protesters strode toward the Grand Serail Monday night waving flags and calling for the fall of the government.

Instead of charging to battle with security forces protecting the complex, as protesters did Sunday, they walked peacefully and with a police escort. The student group was the more moderate face of the response to the assassination of intelligence chief Wissam al-Hasan.

They were timely support for a sit-in at the Riad al-Solh Square, where protesters, largely young people, say they will stay in tents until the government collapses and the hand of Syrian influence in Lebanon is expelled.

Fewer than a dozen people held the camp together Monday, and reinforcements at the square were the first sign that the sit-in could be more than a fleeting and disorganized political response from March 14 supporters angry over of the killing of Hasan in a massive car bombing in the Beirut neighborhood of Ashrafieh that killed three and wounded more than 100.

“If they want to achieve something, this is the way to do it,” said a 23-year-old student at the rally.

“It’s a good idea, but it needs more support,” she said.

“Maybe there is fear because of what happened yesterday [Sunday],” she added.

Plumes of tear gas and stampeding crowds trampled the camp Sunday after a crowd left the funeral for Hasan and hundreds of people charged toward the Grand Serail gates.

In the ensuing chaos, Syrians and Free Syrian Army supporters took over some areas. Until Monday afternoon a Syrian opposition flag flew above all others at the sit-in. By Monday afternoon, things were sorted out again. More radical protesters who wanted to close roads had left and the roundabout was reopened.

As student March 14 supporters hung Lebanese flags on newly strung concertina wire in front of the Serail road, they said they were back on track to making a meaningful statement about what they wanted without stooping to violence.

Political leaders and March 14 supporters have struggled to find the appropriate response to the return of political assassination in the country, last seen in 2008. Violence has seized Tripoli and parts of Beirut in the aftermath of the explosion, while it’s uncertain if there are resources or support to carry on the peaceful downtown protest long term.

Demonstratorsinsisted peaceful protest was the only way forward.

“We are going to do everything and we want to make it in a democratic way and in a peaceful way,” said Jad, a Future Movement supporter.

“No violence ever,” said George Bitar, carrying a Future Movement flag.

“Never,” he reaffirmed.

Hasan was a strong anti-Syrian figure. His killing infuriated many March 14 supporters who blame the Syrian government and feel it has manipulated the direction of the country for years with assassinations and behind-the-scenes interference.

Demonstrators said they were tired of feeling disregarded by the political system and resolved to not be ignored this time.

“The first step is [removing] Najib Mikati,” 21-year-old Nuhad Khadaj said. “I’m staying the whole night.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 23, 2012, on page 3.




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