In Lebanon's battle of dueling demonstrations, the score has just been tied. An estimated 500,000 people jammed downtown Beirut yesterday...
BEIRUT, Lebanon — In Lebanon’s battle of dueling demonstrations, the score has just been tied.
An estimated 500,000 people jammed downtown Beirut yesterday in the largest anti-Syria protest since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri plunged Lebanon into a crisis. The show of strength by the Lebanese opposition came less than a week after Syria’s supporters, led by the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, brought a half-million protesters into the streets.
The dueling rallies did little to resolve the standoff over the 14,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon and Syria’s political dominance over its smaller neighbor.
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At both rallies, protesters waved the same banner: the red-and-white Lebanese flag with its green cedar tree. And both camps claim to seek national unity.
But the two sides disagree sharply over Syria’s role in Lebanon, and the opposition has aligned itself with the United States and Europe in trying to oust Syria. For its part, the pro-Syria camp denounced all foreign interference in Lebanon — except for Syria’s.
“There is a dangerous division in Lebanon right now,” said Wael Ghattar, 36, an engineer who traveled two hours from northern Lebanon to attend yesterday’s rally. “But once Syria leaves, we can resolve our differences peacefully and democratically. The biggest danger is if Syria does not leave.”
By mid-afternoon, the swelling throng spilled out from Martyr’s Square and onto surrounding streets, highway overpasses and tunnels. At one point, organizers released thousands of red and white balloons, unleashing a deafening roar from the crowd.
Before yesterday’s rally, the largest opposition gathering had drawn about 70,000 people. But faced with the huge turnout by Hezbollah supporters last week, the opposition poured its resources into bringing people from all over Lebanon to downtown Beirut.
Hezbollah’s rally — which drew an eighth of the country’s population — highlighted that there is no Lebanese consensus against Syria’s role, as the Bush administration has argued. Without support from Shiites, the anti-Syria opposition has been hard pressed to claim it represents most Lebanese. The Shiites are a plurality in Lebanon, making up 40 percent of the population of 4 million.
For years, the anti-Syria opposition has been led by Lebanese Christians, especially the Maronite Christian community, which lost the most political power when Syria took control at the end of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war. Last year, leaders of the Druze community and some Sunni Muslims joined the opposition. After the assassination of Hariri, a Sunni, many Sunnis gravitated to the anti-Syria camp.
It is unclear whether yesterday’s turnout will change the political dynamic in the opposition’s favor. The opposition scored its biggest victory Feb. 28, when popular protests forced the Syria-backed Lebanese prime minister and his cabinet to resign. But 10 days later, Omar Karami was reappointed as premier and charged with forming a new cabinet.