BEIRUT: Supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement came face to face with the Lebanese Army on the streets of Downtown Beirut Thursday, and thrust forward against shields and batons to try to reach the Grand Serail.
Led by agitated men, both young and middle-aged, the crowd of a few hundred advanced in spurts up Riad al-Solh street, gaining a few dozen meters every half hour before calming down and then surging again.
Demonstrators at the front yelled at soldiers and sporadically shoved them, and the soldiers beat them back in moments of heightened tension. When the crowd did break through the Army’s first line, they found themselves in front of another, just meters ahead. The Army withdrew in stages, twice deploying barbed wire.
Demonstrators were unarmed, but at one point threw bottles of water and their wooden flag dowels. By 2 p.m. one demonstrator had been hospitalized, a Red Cross medic told The Daily Star, and others were treated on the street for bleeding and bruising. A soldier was seen rinsing blood off of his hand and shield. The Army reported seven injured personnel while demonstrators reported 17 hurt from among their numbers.
The crowd was fiercely loyal to FPM leader Gen. Michel Aoun, chanting “God, Lebanon, and Aoun, and that’s all!” Nawwal Bitar, 52, from Akkar, said, “We stand with the general because he is a good man, and a man like him should be president of the republic, and Shamel [Roukouz, Aoun’s son-in-law] should be the head of the Army.”
Aoun has demanded that the Cabinet appoint a new Army chief before moving on to any other item. The incumbent chief’s term expires in September. The Cabinet has been deadlocked since June 4 over the matter.
Demonstrators complained that the country has marginalized Christians and said they had come to demand their rights.
“We are here protesting today because we want our Christian rights. We have no president and no strong Army leader. How do the Sunnis and Shiites have their rights? We want the same,” said Joe Latouf from Batroun, referring to the sectarian power sharing system that determines the country’s top political posts.
One demonstrator, who asked to be identified as Walid, told The Daily Star, “The problem is national dignity. We [the Christians] are here. And we are an integral component of this country. Our problem isn’t with the Army. Our problem is that no one respects us. Nobody can push us aside!”
Earlier in the day, FPM Minister Gebran Bassil provoked Prime Minister Tammam Salam into erupting at him in front of cameras at a Cabinet meeting deadlocked over the issue of security appointments. Bassil and Education Minister Elias Bou Saab joined the demonstrators after the Cabinet meeting at the Serail was adjourned.
Aoun has alleged in recent speeches that Salam’s government is leveraging the presidential vacuum to usurp executive powers and exclude Christians from public administration. “Today, the prime minister is exercising his powers as well as the president’s powers. This is unacceptable,” he said Tuesday, calling on Lebanese to engage in a “fateful battle.”
Demonstrators echoed Aoun’s language. “Now, as I understand Lebanon, the Serail is for the people of Lebanon. Not for the prime minister, not for Saudi Arabia and not for any sect. This is our institution. It’s for Christians and Muslims. They can’t force us out of the streets, just like they can’t force us out of Baabda,” said Imad Sayah, a university student from Bikfaya.
He grimaced. “I’m a little hurt. I was hit, but in the end, they have orders,” he said.
FPM MP Ibrahim Kanaan, crossing between the Army and the crowd, said it was the right of the demonstrators to reach the Grand Serail. “It’s their right. They’re demonstrating democratically. Let them demonstrate at the Serail. What’s the problem?” he said.
He added, “This oppression has no place here. [The Army’s] behavior shows that the head of the ruling authority doesn’t listen to anyone, not inside [the halls of government], and not outside.”
The Army said in a statement that it would not accept to be “drawn into any confrontation with any side.”
“The [Army] leadership renews its complete commitment to defending the freedom of peaceful expression for all Lebanese. At the same time, it affirms that it will not permit any constitutional institutions or public or private property to be exposed to harm,” a later statement said.
Several demonstrators came with their families. Rita Husri, from Kesrouan, brought her daughter, Dana, aged 12. “I’m not afraid. The new generation, we’re demanding our rights for their sake. We’ve been cut off for three decades – for their sake we take our rights and freedom,” Husri said.
Aida Constantine, from the southern village of Maghdoushe, accused the Army of trying to distort the image of Aounists. “They want to show that the Aounists are violent,” she said. She had her foreign domestic worker carry a plastic bag of chilled water bottles. Venikesh, who did not give her last name, said she came on behalf of “the Christians.” She wore an immaculately clean, white cap with the image of the Virgin Mary.
The Daily Star spotted another foreign domestic worker who had come with her employer.
As the demonstration wore on, the crowd grew increasingly antagonistic toward the Army. “They didn’t even face Assir like this,” one demonstrator shouted, referring to the firebrand Salafi Sheikh Ahmad Assir. In 2013, a battle broke out in Sidon between Assir’s supporters and the Army, leaving over 57 dead.
But others tried to calm the crowd. At one point, a demonstrator at the front said using a megaphone, “Remember, we said this is one station of many. Today is not the end. Of course, this is just the beginning, and that means we must think long-term. That means today they tried to cut us off. But this is our Army, our dear Army, always.”
Another announced, “We don’t want any more confrontations with the security forces.”