|Lebanese popular movement reacts with anger and contempt (Daily Star)
|Emotions ran high at Martyrs' Square on Saturday evening, where thousands of demonstrators listened to Syrian President Bashar Assad's much anticipated speech in the Syrian Parliament.
Broadcast on two large screens flanking the stage used by organizers of the ongoing sit-in at the square, Assad's speech was interrupted by several bouts of booing and chants of "Syria Out!"
Amid the sea of Lebanese flags were banners calling for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and national unity, as well as pictures of slain former Premier Rafik Hariri.
Skepticism was in the air from the outset.
"Alright, let's hear what [Assad] has to say now. If anything, it will provide us with a good laugh," a young demonstrator commented as he walked down the street, past army barrages.
Security had been significantly stepped up around the square, where the sit-in led by demonstrators demanding full Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and an investigation into Hariri's assassination entered its 18th day.
Army barrages blocked the roads leading to the square, forcing protesters to park their cars and walk. Busloads of camouflaged men were parked around the Downtown area and soldiers were stationed on the roofs of the square's surrounding buildings.
As a result, some demonstrators argued, less people had been able to join the event.
If any hopes were held among the predominantly young crowd which did make it to protest that Assad would announce a full and immediate Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, they were quickly dashed.
The president's promise of a two-tiered redeployment of troops, first to the Bekaa Valley, then to the Lebanese-Syrian border - although without specifying which side - was met with anger.
"He said he was going to withdraw the troops to the Bekaa - since when is the Bekaa Syrian territory?" asked Edouard Ghanem, a demonstrator with the Free Patriotic Movement.
A live interview from Paris with former army commander General Michel Aoun was broadcast following Assad's speech, to calls of "General! General!" from a few, before
a representative of the organizers of the sit-in took to the microphone.
To cheers from the crowd, the announcer vowed that the popular movement would persist and would be seen demonstrating again Monday.
Responding to Assad's claim that the media had been exaggerating the number of protesters in Beirut, calls were made for people to come out and join the movement.
As the national anthem erupted from loudspeakers, the crowd joined in, singing at the top of their lungs.
Yet many were left seething.
"I am too angry to comment on the speech, I would just be insulting," snarled Hassan Yaoub from the Free Patriotic Movement as he walked away.
Walid Fakhreddine, a member of the sit-in, was equally agitated: "He didn't say anything, he just said he was going to take his time. In Syrian politics, that means he is not going to withdraw from Lebanon. He is just lying to the international community, as he keeps doing again, and again and again."
Standing behind the stage with fellow activists, Sami Gemayel, son of former President Amine Gemayel, whose foiled peace accord with the Israelis was mentioned several times during Assad's speech as a warning to the Lebanese people, remained calm.
"It was worthless," the 24-year-old student said. "It was all lies. His portrayal of the current situation and Syria's role in Lebanon was completely deceitful. He made it sound as though the Syrians came here to help the Lebanese reconcile themselves and to reunify the country, whereas the truth is that they did everything they could to divide the Lebanese and impose their rule on the entire population.
"And that is precisely why he mentioned the May 17, 1983 accord - to create even more divisions."
Others were more concerned, seeing in Assad's statement a thinly veiled threat to the Lebanese people.
"The speech contained lots of threats," said Ziad Majed, vice-president of the Democratic Left movement. "His reminding of the 1980s, which were the worst years of the Lebanese civil war, was him indirectly saying that any Syrian withdrawal would lead to chaos and that this will create instability in Lebanon, as well as in the region."
He added: "Evoking the May 17 accord, which created lots of trouble in Lebanon, is not an innocent reminder. He was trying to say the Syrian presence in Lebanon is necessary to keep stability. This is a vote of no-confidence in the Lebanese Army and in Lebanese unity, which they themselves claim to have established through their presence in this country for the last 30 years."
Echoing the recurring complaint of several demonstrators at the square, Nabil Abu Charaf, one of the organizers of the sit-in, noted that the Syrian president had said nothing new.
"He went round in circles, only to announce a partial withdrawal of the Syrian troops," the 24-year-old lawyer said.
"For us, a redeployment to the Bekaa is not a withdrawal. We have asked for a full withdrawal, not a partial withdrawal from Lebanese territory. Last time I checked, the Bekaa Valley was Lebanese."
The Daily Star