Monday, March 12, 2007

March 11 rally uses food to attract hundreds

March 11 rally uses food to attract hundreds
Organizers bill movement as unaffiliated third way
By Nour Samaha
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Hundreds of people flocked to Downtown Beirut on Sunday for a free lunch offered by the newly formed March 11 movement, which aims to give voice to what it says is a silent majority of Lebanese opposed to the current political deadlock. "We are all here as Lebanese for Lebanon," March 11 founder Merhi Abu Merhi told those gathered over loudspeakers in Nijmeh Square. "Lebanon is for liberty; it is for the love of the people, and we are gathered here today in an effort to reunite Lebanon," he said. As the crowd chanted "Abu Merhi," he continued. "Lebanon will revive and tourism will return to the country ... This is not a political movement; we are here in Downtown because it is for all the Lebanese. Lebanon is here to stay."

The central square was packed with hundreds of Lebanese who had arrived from across the country, on provided buses and by their own means. Much of the crowd was outfitted in white hats and t-shirts emblazoned with the March 11 logo. Abu Merhi called on those in the square to "dance the debkeh" as patriotic songs blared over the speakers. March 11 security guards stood protectively at every entrance to the square to ensure the peaceful nature of the event. The movement insists that it is with neither national political camp, and that it threw the event on Sunday to give voice to the "silent majority" opposed to continuing political bickering, as well in a sign of support for the countless businesses that continue to suffer economically due to the deadlock.

Downtown Beirut has long been the main economic hub in Lebanon and one of its busiest tourist destinations. But since an opposition sit-in was launched in the neighboring Riad al-Solh Square last December many businesses and restaurants in the city center have closed due to a lack of business. "We came here today because we love life, and this is good for Lebanon," said Zahar, 24, who traveled from Sidon for the day. Zahar was confident that the head of March 11 had altruistic intentions. "Abu Merhi is not with any political party. He loves Lebanon and wants life to return to Downtown, which is what we want," she said. Many of those who came out on Sunday said that messages issued prior to the event insinuated that all those who showed up would be given a sample of the delights offered at the upscale restaurants ringing Nijmeh Square.

However, each restaurant that opened on Sunday reserved its tables for those who were lucky enough to have been given coupons for a free meal. For everyone else, dozens of shawarma stands were erected. "To be honest, we only came down to eat and to see what it is all about," said Wajid. "But we're not allowed to eat in the restaurants because we don't have coupons ... Many of the people here only turned up for the free food." The manager of the Mi-Chaud restaurant hoped that Sunday's success would prove to be more than a one-day miracle. "The March 11 made the decision to open Downtown, and we wanted to cooperate with them," the manager, who preferred that his name not be used, said. "Today has been a very good day for us, but it all depends on whether the people come back again soon. One thing is certain: Owners will open again if there is proof of hope and success," he said.

Another manager of a large restaurant chain Downtown, who also agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, was more skeptical. "Honestly, they claim to be a non-political group but this is purely politics. You can tell it has the backing of one of the two parties; otherwise it would not have been allowed to happen," he said. "Abu Merhi and the March 11 spent $3 million to open the restaurants, pay for the food and provide hats, t-shirts and billboards. No one would do that if they didn't want to generate some kind of support base." Abu Merhi said that the movement's entire budget was $2 million, with "between $300,000 and $400,000 spent on today's event."

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