Thursday, February 15, 2007

Crowds use commemoration to display wide variety of mottos

Crowds use commemoration to display wide variety of mottos
Demonstrators chant for unity while waving party flags

By Lysandra Ohrstrom
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: The latest installment of Lebanese political theater staged in Beirut Wednesday was perhaps better produced than other demonstrations held over the past two years. But despite a big budget and more than two months of pre-protest buzz, the rally to commemorate the second anniversary of former Premier Rafik Hariri's assassination seemed comparatively staid. All the stock conventions of a "peaceful, democratic" Beirut protest were in evidence. Lebanese flags, as well as those of the various March 14 factions, waved dramatically above hundreds of thousands of government supporters whose cheers competed with the political anthems thumping from speakers in the background.

Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Druze of all ages carried billboards emblazoned with images of the late Hariri, and familiar slogans demanding truth and accountability and denouncing foreign intervention in Lebanon. "We miss you" was scrawled below an iconic Hariri image printed on clusters of white and blue balloons, floating above the chain link fence near the edge of Saifi Village. A group of old men drank coffee underneath a huge tarp slung between the disused tennis courts and a cement barrier, depicting what looked like the spirit of the late Hariri emerging from his son Saad's head. In an incongruous marriage of consumer culture and sectarian politics, some attendees carried heart-shaped and rose-bordered banners of both father and son to commemorate Valentine's Day. Residents from Ersal near Baalbek waved a poster with pictures of Hariri under the name of their village from the window of the mini-bus that took them to Beirut.

If there were an award for the most creative political statement, the winner would surely be a mobile-like picket with five, 1-meter-long wooden cut-outs of blindfolded figures, hanging from a stake. Each anonymous effigy was inscribed with a word - "Hostage," "Injustice," "Occupation," "Division," or "Totalitarianism" - on its torso. Alongside Wednesday's display of rhetorical unity, constituents also communicated their individual political affiliations on their sleeves - or pickets so to speak - through both subtle and overt means. Some March 14th supporters from rural regions donned traditional red or black keffiyeh, while other attendees wore the iconic scarf around their neck as a fashion statement. An American expatriate - who was accidentally diverted to the protests behind a band of FutureMovement youths while en route to a nail salon - caught sight of a man sporting a pale yellow tie-died Keffiyeh, carrying a little girl - wearing green butterfly wings - in his arms. "Look at that bohemian demonstrator family," she said, pointing to the father-daughter duo. "Are they a throwback to the sixties or what?" Other demonstrators paid homage to "martyrs" from their respective parties. A couple of young boys - presumably Progressive Socialist Party sympathizers - shimmied up lampposts with flags picturing Kamal Jumblatt, killed in 1977. The teenagee at the top of the heap of kids clinging to the statue in the center of Martyrs' Square sported aviator sunglasses, a black leather jacket, and a poster of Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammad Qabbani.

The opposition protesters remained isolated from any potentially inflamatory gestures Wednesday by a security buffer zone demarcated by coils of razor wire and rows of soldiers. Some of the semi-permanent tents that had occupied the other side of Martyrs' Square for the past three months were dismantled Wednesday. A smattering of the remaining opposition protesters sat on plastic chairs, smoking nargileh or idly drinking coffee. Under the bridge a group of men watched the demonstrations taking place next to them on television.

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