Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese paid tribute to Rafik Hariri on the first anniversary of the former premier’s assassination today, waving flags and shouting anti-Syrian slogans in a show of strength aimed at reviving the “people power” spirit that helped break Damascus’ domination.
Anti-Syrian groups – buoyed by a turnout that police put at about 800,000 and organisers said was more than a million – stepped up demands for the resignation of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian president.
But it remained unclear if they will be able to consolidate control of the government.
So far, the anti-Syrian politicians who are a majority in government and Parliament have been unable to force out President Emile Lahoud or catch culprits in Hariri’s killing or a series of bombings that have killed 11 people, including three prominent anti-Syrian figures.
But the demonstration certainly boosted the sagging morale of anti-Syrian groups, buffeted by the killings and bombings and Syria’s verbal attacks.
The massive crowds filled Beirut’s downtown Martyrs’ Square and mobbed around Hariri’s nearby grave, waving thousands of red-and-white Lebanese flags with the green Cedar symbol.
Women wearing Islamic headscarves joined young women in tight jeans and families, pushing trolleys with babies. Many carried national flag and signs calling for “The Truth,” often shouting the name of Hariri’s son and political heir, Saad Hariri.
Others carried placards denouncing Syria and its president, Bashar Assad.
“Isn’t it enough, Bashar?” said one, listing the names of anti-Syrian Lebanese who have been slain in other bombings in the last year.
The crowds fell into silence at 12:55pm – the time when a huge truck bomb exploded on a downtown street as Hariri’s motorcade drove by a year ago, killing him and 20 others. A horn blew three times to symbolise the instant the bomb exploded. Then the crowd roared with shouts of “Syria out.”
“I came for the sake of national unity,” said Tarek Haj, a nine-year-old Muslim from the northern city of Tripoli.
“Those who killed Hariri meant to kill Lebanon, but they failed. A new united Lebanon was born,” Samia Baroudy, a 52-year-old Christian housewife from a northern suburb, said as she clutched a Lebanese flag.
“We tell them (the Syrians) ... remove the symbol of your suppression of Lebanon and its people because the people of Lebanon will not compromise,” Saad Hariri said, referring to Lahoud, drawing chants of “with souls, with blood we redeem you, Saad” from the crowd.
Saad Hariri, who heads the largest parliamentary bloc, returned to Beirut on Sunday – after months ofself-exile in Saudi Arabia and France for fear of assassination – to rally the divided anti-Syrian groups for the demonstration. He prayed at his father’s grave before addressing the crowds.
“There can be no stability and no freedom while the symbol of subservience to the Syrian regime remains in Baabda,” Walid Jumblatt, a major anti-Syrian Druse politician said, referring to the Baabda presidential palace, before he addressed Lahoud. “The terrorist Bashar installed you and the valiant Lebanese people will remove you.”
Buses carried people from the country’s remote north, south and east, mainly Sunni uslims, Christians and Druse. Thousands of troops and policemen, backed by armoured vehicles, provided security and the government gave schools the day off apparently to maximise participation. Businesses also closed, heeding calls from their associations.
Shiite Muslims, the country’s largest single sect who are dominated by pro-Syrian parties Amal and Hezbollah, largely stayed away. So did supporters of Michel Aoun, an anti-Syrian Christian leader who broke with the anti-Syrian coalition.
Neither Lahoud nor Syria had any immediate reaction. Syria has denied any role in Hariri’s killing or the subsequent bombings and has stalled on cooperation in the UN probe into the former prime minister’s death.
Syria’s official media did not broadcast any live footage of the demonstration. “We want all the truth,” headlined one front-page editorial in Al-Thawra newspaper, a reference to Syria’s claim it was being unfairly accused in Hariri’s murder.
Anti-Syrian groups were looking for – and got – a repetition of a March 14 protest in which about 1 million flag-waving Lebanese converged on Martyrs’ Square.
Syria’s troops withdrew in April under international pressure, and a UN probe into the murder has already implicated top Syrian and allied Lebanese security officials in Hariri’s death.
Three of the four top Lebanese generals close to Lahoud have been arrested in connection to the slaying.
But Lahoud has remained, since anti-Syrian groups in Parliament are short of the two-thirds needed to force him out.
Bishara Charbel, editor-in-chief of the independent Al-Balad daily, said the revival of anti-Syrian people power is significant.
“But it will not affect the political strategies of the parties,” he told LBC television. “The differences are big and basic and I don’t think demonstrating will provide a speedy solution.”