BEIRUT — They came by the thousands, by the hundreds of thousands, to central Beirut, just as they had done 20 months ago, to mark the killing of another politician opposed to Syria’s yoke on Lebanon.
Today it was for Pierre Gemayel, the young Christian minister of industry in Lebanon’s besieged anti-Syrian government. On Tuesday, three gunmen ambushed him and sprayed his car with bullets mid-afternoon in a Christian neighborhood, killing him and further plunging the country into political crisis.
But in Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut, today was a day of defiance for the mostly young, mostly Christian masses who came down to stand up to Syria, they say.
“We come for the sake of Lebanon,” said Khaidon Issa, 55, from the Christian neighborhood of Achrifiye in east Beirut. “Martyr after martyr, where is this going to end?”
Gemayel is the fifth assassination of an anti-Syrian figure in Lebanon since former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed Feb. 14, 2005 in a massive car bomb near downtown Beirut that also killed 22 others. The protests that followed on March 14 were massive — by some accounts, one-fourth of Lebanon came to Beirut that day — and prompted the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after a 29-year occupation. Since then, there have been 15 car bombs and other violence, most of which has been blamed on Damascus in its attempt to destabilize Lebanon and regain control over its smaller neighbor.
“I think March 14 was a historic day for the world,” said Naim Boushahine, 21, a hairdresser from Hammana and a supporter of the Druze party, the Progressive Socialist Party. “Because of that day, God willing, Lebanon will achieve its full independence.”
While hundreds of soldiers and riot police surrounded the square, people pounded drums, waved thousands of Lebanese flags — alongside those of their respective political parties — and giant loudspeakers played former speeches of Gemayel, who once said he was prepared to die for Lebanon’s freedom.
His voice boomed forth: “There are people who are planning every moment to overthrow the government.” It was a poignant statement; many believe Gemayel was killed to reduce the anti-Syrian cabinet to fewer than 16 members. If that happens, and there are only two ministers standing against that fate, the government will fall.
But among the crowd, rather than letting Syria and its Lebanese allies — Hezbollah, Michel Aoun and President Emile Lahoud — topple the elected government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, some were planning their own revolution.
“Tomorrow, God willing, we’re going to Baabda,” said Boushahine, referring to the presidential palace and home to the staunchly pro-Syrian Lahoud. “We’re going to liberate the palace from the cockroach that lives there.”
Others were less direct, but in agreement.
“We hope that Lahoud resigns today,” said Tariq Najjar, 22, from a town called Abadieh. “We hope that today that Lahoud hears our voices and (Hezbollah, Iran and Syria) know that we are the majority of Lebanese people.”
As the square began to fill up, the red and white Lebanese flags contrasted sharply with the deep, azure blue of the sky. Young men and women held up signs of Bashar Assad, the president of Syria, emblazoned with the words, “Shove Your Civil War,” a rejection of the assumed plot by Damascus to foment civil war in Lebanon in order to take control of it again. Some burned posters of Lahoud and Assad.
At 1 p.m., Gemayel’s body was brought to the Maronite St. George Cathedral in downtown Beirut, while thousands of Lebanese stood outside. Osman Hamze, 20, a student of computer science in the heavily Sunni town of Tripoli, said he had come down to stand for “the truth” about all the killings done in Lebanon since that fiery February day, 20 months ago.
And after that?
“Tomorrow is a normal day,” he said. “But we won’t forget our killers.”