Fears Mount as Lebanon’s Debate on Syria Takes Serious Turn
Sporadic pro- and anti-Syrian rallies and sit-ins were held in Beirut Wednesday, but fears of clashes between demonstrators failed to materialize, but a more violent incident took place when a booby-trapped parcel exploded, injuring three Druze women, relatives of an anti-Syrian MP.
In its report, Al Jazeera satellite channel cited political analysts as saying the developments, in addition to an arson attack this week on the office of an anti-Syrian former MP, Najah Wakim, toll the bell of alarm in a country which has had enough of a 15-year civil war.
The Lebanese Daily Star reported on Thursday that pro-Syrian demonstrators staged short rallies despite heavy patrols by the army and Internal Security Forces and a government ban on demonstrations.
The Association of Islamic Philanthropic Projects, more commonly known as Al-Ahbash, staged a series of anti-Aounist and Lebanese Forces rallies in three different locations around Beirut's Barbir area, said the paper.
Baath Party supporters were photographed waving sticks and portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad after the party said it had cancelled plans for a demonstration.
But instead of taking to the streets, supporters of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement held sit-ins on university campuses, bypassing Interior Ministry requirements for rally permits and avoiding potential confrontations with rival parties, the report added.
Christian parties, supported by the Maronite church, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt demand that Syria’s 35,000 troops withdraw from the country, while pro-government Lebanese, Shiite movements Hizbollah and Amal in addition to the Sunni clerics say that the role of Syria in defending Lebanon against expected Israeli threats is still vital.
Dressed in black and wearing face paint and masks, the pro-Syrian demonstrators waved nail-encrusted broomsticks wrapped in masking tape, kitchen knives, brass knuckles, chains, axes, old rusted swords and the odd hammer. Around 200 demonstrators at each location were rushed out of mosques upon the arrival of journalists, reported the Star.
The demonstrating men and boys waved their weapons and posed briefly before cameras while chanting slogans like "no to the Aounists, no to the Lebanese Forces. We are Lebanese," and "(President) Emile Lahoud is the symbol of national unity, (President) Bashar (Assad) is the symbol of Arab unity.”
In front of the movement's headquarters at the Bourj Abi Haidar Mosque, an ISF officer helped organizers block off the streets seconds after an army patrol drove by, according to the daily, which said that a man on a loudspeaker then instructed the group to return to the mosque. Another man gathered up the journalists, directing them to another location where a second "demonstration" was about to start, even providing transportation.
After the last rally, the throng was simply told to disband and go home, which they did.
The paper cited a statement issued later in the day by former Beirut MP and association member Adnan Traboulsi, the demonstrators had wished to decry "Zionist" plans to divide the country. Traboulsi said recent "suspicious" anti-Syrian protests intended to "topple the state and institutions, including Lebanon's deepening Arab identity and its advanced and exceptional relationship to sister Syria.”
The Association of Islamic Philanthropic Projects is one of the country's largest Islamist movements. The movement enjoys good ties with both the Lebanese and Syrian governments because it opposes Islamic fundamentalist groups inspired by the writings of Ibn Taymiyya and Sayyid Qutb, like the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Jamaa al-Islamiyya. It also opposes revolutionary action against authority.
Asked why a group that supposedly espouses a doctrine of complete opposition to violence would take to the streets with clubs and kitchen knives, association spokesman Abdel-Qader Fakhani responded by asking: "If someone goes into your house, you defend it don't you?”
A similar show was put on by Baath Party supporters, said the report.
The party had called an emergency news conference at its headquarters in Ras al-Nabaa to announce that it had canceled a 3 p.m. protest. At 3.15, however, an Agence France Presse photographer saw dozens of protesters hoisting sticks and pictures of Assad and shouting pro-Damascus slogans in front of the party's offices in Cola.
Party spokesman Boulos Butros denied any knowledge of the rally but reiterated his stance that the Baath Party did not need state permission.
Ghazi Saifeddine, the secretary-general of the party's Lebanon branch, told the news conference that it decided to call off its demonstration in compliance with the ban. Referring to supporters of former army commander Michel Aoun and the outlawed Lebanese Forces, Saifeddine said: "Those conspiracy theorists are the minority." He claimed that 95 percent of Lebanese support Syria's role.
He also contended that the pro-Aoun FPM, the LF and those "who are behind them" mostly benefited Zionism and "terrorist Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.”
"We trust President Emile Lahoud's assessment and government and all its security authorities," Saifeddine said. "We don't believe that these minority groups ... should disturb the community and authorities under the veil of liberty and democracy.”
Anti-Syrian parties opted for quieter means to express themselves. Students at the Lebanese University Faculty of Sciences held a one-hour sit-in in support of the FPM's commitment to resolve internal conflicts by non-violent means. The sit-in, one of several held at predominantly Christian universities, marked the FPM's resolve not to fully back down from their original plan to stage a demonstration in downtown Beirut, said the paper. ach other."
Not all students were equally enthusiastic of the action.
Anthony Rahayel was "not sure the time is right for such sit-ins. I'm worried that having Christian versus Muslim sit-ins will take us back to the war.”
Other students felt the sit-ins were useless.
"We've held sit-ins in the past," said one, "and nothing came out of them. If the government doesn't care about us Christians, what can sit-ins do?”
The FPM was also joined by supporters of the Phalange Party and the LF, who distributed flyers saying that "26 years of violence, annihilation, exile and resorting to foreign powers have resulted in dialogue as the only option.”
The flyer accused Syria of threatening "the Progressive Socialist Party, burning the People's Movement's headquarters and depicting the Aounists and Lebanese Forces as traitors.”
A series of moves are expected Thursday in an effort to calm prevailing political tension, with Walid Jumblatt's visit to Baabda Palace for talks with President Emile Lahoud leading the list, according to the Daily Star.
Lahoud received Speaker Nabih Berri on Wednesday for their customary weekly meeting, where they discussed the general situation in the country in light of recent developments and political stands adopted by various factions.
Sources close to the speaker said that despite the tension, he was pleased with the progress of behind-the-scenes efforts to promote calm.
Meanwhile, ministers Suleiman Franjieh and Talal Arslan will make separate trips to Bkirki, where the Maronite church is located, on Thursday for discussions with the Maronite patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, who has maintained his calls for the need for national sovereignty.
But informed sources told The Daily Star that the Papul Nuncio in Lebanon had been recalled to the Vatican for consultations over the highly charged sectarian atmosphere that has come to the fore in recent weeks.
In Damascus, Melchite Patriarch Gregorius III Lahham announced that Sfeir was officially invited to accompany Pope John Paul II on his trip to Syria next month.
"We have invited the heads of all churches in Palestine, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon for this visit," Lahham said.
Lahham said he had yet to receive a response from Sfeir, commenting that "acceptance depends on the person invited."
Sfeir will address a congregation on Friday on the occasion of Easter, according to a political analyst interviewed by Al Jazeera, who expected to speech “to adopt a moderate tone.”
Meanwhile, a parcel bomb left on a doorstep badly injured three Druze women, including the sister and niece of a member of parliament, when it blew up at Aley, east of Beirut, Wednesday.
A police source denied there was a political motive but Jumblatt called the blast "a terrorist act," suggesting it was linked to his criticism of Syria's military presence in Lebanon.
Information Minister Ghazi Aridi, a member of Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), also saw political motives behind the attack, calling it "a letter bomb addressed to the whole of Lebanon."
"The three women, among them the sister of the Druze deputy Akram Chehayeb, were badly hurt when they opened a gift-wrapped packet," a relative who would not be named told AFP on Wednesday.
Questioned by AFP, Chehayeb said: "We fear that this incident is a deliberate act, perpetrated with the goal of terrorizing people and blocking political dialogue, in the prevailing atmosphere of sectarian tension."
The MP called on authorities "to act quickly to find the authors" of the attack and said he was "shocked" that some members of the security services had classified the incident as a "private dispute."
"We are not anticipating the results of the investigation and we call on the security services not to either," Chehayeb said.
The package, containing a booby-trapped alarm clock, was addressed in English to businessman Daoud Jamal Eddine, whose wife Samira opened it in the presence of Chehayeb's sister, Sana Chehayeb, and the latter's daughter Jihan.
The three women were rushed to hospitals in Beirut, where medical sources said Jihan Chehayeb, the fiancée of Jamal Eddine's son, was seriously wounded in the eyes, the neck and the stomach.
The other two women were less badly hurt but were admitted to the operating block of Beirut's American University Hospital, said AFP.
Chehayeb is a close associate of Jumblatt, and Aley is a stronghold of the PSP – Albawaba.com
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