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Lebanon: Protest Against Syrian Regime Attacked by Loyalists

This post is part of our special coverage Syria Protests 2011.

A small protest in the front of the Syrian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, ended in violence on Tuesday, 2 August 2011, when pro-regime loyalists stormed the gathering.

Protesters were demonstrating in solidarity with victims of the Syrian regime's brutal crackdown on protesters, when supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in a counter-demonstration.

Pro-regime loyalists from the Lebanese Ba'ath Party and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) allegedly confronted the protesters chanting pro-Assad slogans, and violently attempted to disperse the anti-Assad crowd.

An anonymous eyewitness account published at Jadaliyya, and independent ezine affiliated with the Arab Studies Institute of Georgetown University, describes the initial scenes of confrontation:

We stood about three rows deep and faced the embassy as well as the Lebanese security detail. Suddenly, a group of men began running towards us from the side of the bank, led by a tall thin man in his fifties with white hair, whom I later learned is a member of the Ba`th Party in Lebanon. Almost as if in a drill, the man with the white hair lined up the group of what appeared to be migrant Syrian workers facing us. He lifted his hands, as if he was the conductor of a grand symphony, and an almost surreal chanting war unfolded. We began chanting, “from Beirut to Hama, we are one people,” and they countered, “with our blood and our souls, we support you Asad.”

The eye-witness account continues to describe how the pro-regime loyalists tried to threaten and intimidate protesters to leave. This story is mirrored in a YouTube video from the protest by lebansyria that shows a group of menacing pro-Assad loyalists hastily moving to meet the anti-Assad protesters:

And then, the attack began:

When they attacked us, they all came together and they came at all of us indiscriminately. We were easily overwhelmed, and at first, they came after anyone with a camera. Men picked up chairs and threw them at us, others took off belts and began whipping us with them, and others pushed, punched, and kicked at us. I saw a friend, one of the political activists I respect most in Lebanon, being punched in the face. He reeled backwards, and both he and I began to (me) walk and (him) stumble backwards into a parking lot where I, for some reason, thought I would be safer. As he stumbled backwards, his attacker pushed him, and my friend fell silently like a heap of bones and meat onto the concrete floor.

I walked towards him, as the attacker–still not satisfied–kicked him while he was on the ground. As I bent down over my friend, I saw the attacker move on to another friend, grabbing her by the neck and swinging her around the street in a bizarre semi-circle. He then turned around towards me and my friend who was still on the floor. The man, who was shouting in a Lebanese accent, was heavily muscled in a white T-shirt, tanned and had short black hair. He approached me, shouting and swearing and accusing me of having a camera and taking pictures. I am ashamed to say this now, but I stood up, looked at him and pleaded with him to not hurt me or hurt my friend any further. I opened my hands, looked into his eyes, and said “I don’t have a camera or a phone. I don’t have anything. Please don’t hurt me.” At that moment, even as the words were leaving my mouth, I hated myself for feeling so vulnerable, and so afraid. He had won. Furiously, the attacker turned away and towards others.

The attack was also filmed and uploaded onto YouTube:

What was intended to be a peaceful protest ended with broken bones, with local police admitting they were helpless to stop the pro-regime loyalists:

Three people went to the police station on Bliss Street (Maghfar Hubaysh) to file a complaint against those that had physically harmed us. They were turned away by the police, who told them that the attackers had political backing and that there was nothing the police could do. Thus a broken hip, a cracked skull, and countless black eyes and swollen body parts were all meted out by a group of shabab [guys] confident in the knowledge that they are not accountable to anyone.

Syria has always had a polarising effect on its smaller neighbour Lebanon.

Lebanese politics is defined by one's relationship with the Syrian government, and is thus divided between pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian camps.

Lebanon's own identity has struggled to find unity between those who perceive the country as an entirely separate entity from Syria, and those that wish to emphasise the special ties between the two neighbours. Certain sections of Lebanon, such as the Ba'ath Party and SSNP, contend that the two states should unite as a Greater Syria, rejecting the current political map as a colonialist project.

Consequently, Syria has constantly been an emotive subject in Lebanese affairs, as evident by the violent outcome of Tuesday's protests.

The attacks sparked outrage as Lebanese questioned the absence of security personnel during the attack.

Nadine Moawad:

Some protestors suffered heavy injuries from the beatings and are still in the hospital, while many others suffered beatings, cuts, and bruises. Activists headed to the Hobeich police station to report the attacks and found zero cooperation from the police. The perpetrators must and will be prosecuted for their illegal attacks and all Ministries are held accountable for failing to protect their citizens to express themselves freely and peacefully. This is an atrocity and we must not be silent about it.

Elias Muhanna at Qifa Nabki condemned the exclusive fiefdoms political factions have established throughout Beirut and Lebanon as a whole:

Every six months or so, when I visit my family in Beirut (who live in this neighborhood), there are more and more SSNP banners hanging from walls and lampposts. Lately, it seems, they’ve been getting out their frustration with the situation in Syria by intimidating peaceful protesters.

I think it’s worth highlighting something the author of the Jadaliyya post insisted upon: these protesters were brought together by their condemnation of the atrocities in Syria as well as their disgust with “the March 14-March 8 political schism that has polarized Lebanon for six years now.” They deliberately chose to demonstrate in this neighborhood [Hamra] so as to avoid being labeled as supporters of any particular political party. I encourage any like-minded readers of this blog who are living in Lebanon to find a way to get involved, join these protests, speak out, and help to end the rule of amped-up Baathist goons on the streets of Hamra.

The Angry Arab initially doubted that SSNP members were involved in the violence, but later conceded that the SSNP along with Ba'ath Party members took part in the attack:

I posted yesterday about the thuggish treatment of independent leftists (some of them I know) in Hamra when they protested against the criminal Syrian regime. I heard about the involvement of SSNP (which has been transformed by its leader, As`ad Hardan, into a tool of the Syrian regime). I asked SSNP folks who are among my Facebook friends to explain and I was sent assurances that they were not involved. I now know otherwise. In fact, I heard that SSNP members in Hamra have been harassing those who have been protesting against the Syrian regime.

Lebanon has regularly been an exception to the rest of the Arab world when it comes to the right to protest. In fact, Beirut has witnessed an inundation of public protests in recent years regarding a plethora of issues.

However, an uneasy silence is being imposed on the country in a climate where Lebanon's major political players are keeping the country out of Syria's internal chaos for fear of retribution from the Assad regime.

This does not sit in accordance with Lebanon's longstanding tradition for the right to protest. That regime loyalists, with political backing, are allowed to violently stifle public opposition against the killings in Syria is certain to rile many in the country who consider their democratic right to protest sacrosanct.

This post is part of our special coverage Syria Protests 2011.

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