|Hariri steals the show at Martyrs Square
|March 14 supporters brave steady rain to hear slain premier's son
Between the Mediterranean and the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque and portraits of Gebran Tueni and Pierre Gemayel, they gathered on Thursday - the devotees of the ruling March 14 Forces coalition.
They flooded Martyrs Square in Downtown Beirut under dark clouds and a persistent rain, descending from Tripoli and Sidon, Jounieh and Zghorta, Mukhtara and Beiteddine.
Former Premier Rafik Hariri was assassinated on February 14, 2005 and hundreds of thousands gathered in his name to mark the third anniversary of his death. But the rally was about more than the inimitable Hariri. It was about his son Saad and the political alliance he has forged since his father's death.
March 14 has been fighting a war of political attrition with the March 8 opposition for many months, leaving Lebanon without a president.
"[The demonstration] is to show the opposition, the minority, that March 14 is still in a good position, that the way they deal with the situation will not take us to a good resolution, that we can follow up our target, that we are adamant about having a new president," Lebanese Forces (LF) MP Antoine Zahra told The Daily Star a day before the rally.
Indeed. Thursday's demonstration, though touted as a national referendum, was as much a message as it was a memorial. There were thousands of national flags, but there were also party flags, partisan flags - and none were from the opposition.
Following a spree of political assassinations and intermittent bouts of factional violence, security was tight. There were three distinct layers: a private security firm, the Internal Security Forces (ISF), and the Lebanese Army. The first was unarmed, the second carried assault rifles, the third had heavy weapons and armored vehicles.
Hassan al-Amouri, one of Secure Plus' guards, smiled as he spoke. "Today, this is a good day," he said as people poured into the square in the early morning. The ISF were less forthcoming and many members of the armed forces refused to take questions at all.
By 10 a.m., the square was a sea of flags. The national flag was predominant; but there were others - the Masonic triangle of the Phalange, the LF's red-ringed cedar, the Progressive Socialist Party's (PSP) iconic hammer and pen blazoned over a blue globe, and the baby-blue and yellow design of the Mustaqbal (Future) Movement founded by Rafik Hariri and now led by Saad.
The turnout may not have been as large as some predicted - it did not match the size of the original in 2005 - but given the rain, the political deadlock and a separate memorial service for a Hizbullah commander just a few kilometers away, it was an impressive showing.
The square was packed, and the crowd spilled into adjacent streets. A number of young men climbed the Martyrs Statue in the center of the plaza, placing a Lebanese flag in one of its bronze fists. A brave soul briefly climbed a 10-meter lamppost for a better view.
The rain remained constant through the morning and into the afternoon, and plastic slickers were handed out by the hundreds. Dirt and grass turned to mud, and at one point the canvas awning over the speakers' podium dumped several liters of water just beside the master of ceremonies.
At times the rain was so heavy that the sea of flags was replaced by thousands of umbrellas. Viewed from above, the umbrellas formed a patchwork carpet; from below, they gave the sensation of being in an overcrowded cave.
But the crowd never lost its enthusiasm. Circles of Hariri supporters danced and chanted, "Allah, Hariri, Tareq al-Jdeideh [a Sunni section of Beirut]." Others sang, "Ouweit [the LF], Mustaqbal [Future], Ishtiraki [PSP]." Many simply screamed, "Saad. Saad. Saad, Saad, Saad!"
Some carried signs which read: "The truth," referring to the investigation into Rafik Hariri's assassination. One large placard read, "Open our Parliament, Free our Government, Elect a President ... Now." On another, "al-Salam" [Peace] was written by hand.
One young PSP supporter called the rally a sign of Lebanese unity and March 14's popularity, but offered a warning to the opposition: "They may come but we are ready for them."
When this reporter asked a man carrying his son on his shoulders why he was attending, the man looked at his young boy who simply said: "Hariri."
The rally remained peaceful throughout, though at several times emotion surged and anger at the opposition became clear. At one point, a group of young supporters pushed toward the front barrier forcefully, but they were placated by a security guard who began chanting "Saad, Saad," as another waved an LF flag.
In a more aggressive gesture, a crew from Iran's Press TV, considered to be pro-opposition, was pelted with small stones and water bottles on the media platform they were filming from.
In the end, most had come to hear Saad HaririSaad-Hariri-Profile Sep-07 , the leader of the movement and the political heir of his father, speak. The other March 14 leaders who spoke before him (including the PSP's Walid Jumblatt, the Phalange's Amin Gemayel, and the LF's Samir Geagea) seemed as if they were warming up the crowd for its keynote speaker. When he emerged, the square - shrouded in a flutter of red, white and green - erupted.
Many chanted as Hariri spoke. Everyone cheered - even when he coughed.
Hariri called for the election of the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, General Michel Suleiman, as president without delay. He also asked the people to pursue coexistence.
He even offered an olive branch to the members of the opposition, many of whom were attending a funeral rally for the fabled Hizbullah commander Imad Mughniyeh. "Our hand is extended and will remain extended, no matter what the difficulties," he told the crowd.
It was a noble gesture on a sorrowful occasion; but the truth remained clear. On a day when all Lebanese were mourning one martyr or another, the nation remained divided.
The Daily Star