Beirut – The funeral today for Wissam al-Hassan, the intelligence official killed in a car bombing on Friday, was supposed to allow Lebanon's March 14 coalition of political parties a chance to show its strength after nearly two years out of power.
The movement had hoped to reprise its 2005 surge, when hundreds of thousands of people packed into downtown Beirut to mourn slain Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, whose assassination forced the end of Syria's presence in Lebanon. A show of force would have helped the alliance press for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati and reassert itself in Lebanese politics.
But the crowd barely numbered 10,000, many of them young men brought by bus into Beirut from other cities, and contradictory messages from the movement's leaders drew a portrait of disorganisation.
There was a sizeable contingent from the Islamic Group, a Salafi political party which holds just a single seat in parliament, and Sheikh Ahmed Assir, a reactionary Sunni cleric, arrived at the funeral to rapturous applause.
The language in the crowd was vulgar and often sectarian. March 14 is Sunni-led, while the March 8 coalition, currently in power, is led by Christian and Shia parties and includes Hezbollah.
One Sunni man in the crowd denounced Shias for following their clerics and threatened to “wipe the floor with [Hassan] Nasrallah’s beard,” referring to the leader of Hezbollah, a powerful Shia armed movement and political party.
As the funeral ended, dozens of protesters clashed violently with security forces at the prime minister’s office, a scene that alienated even March 14's supporters, who left the area in disgust.
“This isn’t my crowd,” said Joanne, who like some here did not want to give a family name. “And what happens is, all the people who are slightly civilized, they are repulsed by this.”
March 14 has few options to pressure Mikati, and there is no credible alternative as prime minister waiting in the wings. The coalition's nominal leader, former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, a son of Rafiq, lost his coalition in January 2011 and is currently in Saudi Arabia.
There were reports of violence on Sunday night: an explosion in Tripoli, gunfire in Beirut's Tariq al-Jdeideh neighbourhood, gunmen operating checkpoints in the south.
Still, the reaction to the violence – everyone from religious leaders to Hariri urged protesters to get off the streets – suggested that the coalition wanted to avoid widespread unrest in the wake of Hassan’s death. Judging from the small turnout, many of their supporters agree.
‘A period of chaos’
As the funeral ended, a few dozen people marched to the nearby prime minister’s office, where they planned to demand Mikati’s resignation. The hill leading up to the building was blocked by soldiers and members of Lebanon’s internal security forces.
Protesters attacked them with sticks and rocks, and the security forces responded by firing rubber bullets and several volleys of tear gas. At least four of the protesters were wounded. They threatened similar unrest in the coming days, promising to block streets and hold protests throughout Lebanon.
“The whole country will be closed until he resigns,” said Ahmad Balaa, a student protester from the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. He added that he believed Hariri, who has been out of the country for more than a year, would return to Lebanon “very soon”.
The scene quieted down after about thirty minutes, when soldiers came down the hill and negotiated an end to the fighting.
Demonstrators cheered and began erecting a few tents at the scene, saying they planned to stay indefinitely. A young man named Omar, one of the protesters involved in the clash, said he was confident Mikati would step down soon and dismissed fears that his resignation would lead to prolonged political unrest.
“That’s the biggest lie ever,” he said. “For a while there is a period of chaos, like any fall of government, but we’re willing to go through that for the change.”
But by nightfall, the crowd had thinned to perhaps two dozen people, and they took down at least one of the tents. An elderly man watching nearby offered perhaps the most succinct explanation for the clash.
“This is stupid, it isn’t politics,” said Ali Hassan. “All these people just have nothing else to do. It’s a little bit of freedom. They’ll protest, and after an hour or two they will leave.”
The violence was quickly condemned by a range of prominent Lebanese figures, including Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, the country’s top Sunni cleric, who said in a statement that “pressure on the prime minister in the streets is forbidden".
Leaders of March 14 had initially encouraged the protest, but quickly backtracked when it turned violent.
Hariri issued a statement urging his supporters to end the sit-in, partly for political reasons, and perhaps partly because many of the upscale shops and restaurants near the prime minister’s office are owned by prominent March 14 supporters.
‘A low-profile response’
Hassan was killed on Friday in an apparent assassination when a car bomb ripped through a predominantly Christian district in Ashrafieh, in east Beirut. Two other people were killed – Hassan’s bodyguard and a civilian – and nearly 100 others were injured.
The bombing quickly invited concern over a return to Lebanon’s decades-long civil war, which killed thousands of people and decimated the economy. But many analysts and politicians here say that neither March 14 nor March 8 has an interest in escalating the violence.
For March 14 there are few viable options. The meager turnout at the funeral suggested that the coalition is simply not strong enough to confront the government. And the confusion over the subsequent protest – first encouraging it, then condemning it – underscores the divisions within the coalition.
“I think March 14 is more than strong enough, but what they lack is unified command and unified decision-making,” said Nadim Yazbeck, the head of the students union of the Lebanese Forces party, which is a member of March 14. “Our leaders do not have a unified view on what happens next.”
The group tried to persuade Walid Jumblatt, a prominent Druze politician, to withdraw from March 8's cabinet. Jumblatt, perhaps Lebanon’s wiliest politician, is considered a member of March 14, but his Progressive Socialist Party holds seats in the cabinet.
“He betrayed us,” said Omar, the young protester. “I used to believe in him. He was one of the spearheads in the freedom movement in Lebanon. But he betrayed us.”
March 14’s backers in the West – fearful about the deteriorating situation in neighbouring Syria – have offered little support for the anti-government protests. French President Francois Hollande urged Lebanese politicians to “stay united”, and the US State Department has said little beyond its concern about “increasing tensions".
For March 8, meanwhile, broader unrest in Lebanon would threaten their grip on power. The coalition has done little so far beyond condemning the bombing and the subsequent protests.
Michel Aoun, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, a member of March 8, said in a statement this morning that the opposition should not hold disruptive protests. “It will backfire on them,” he said.
Ibrahim Mousawi, a representative of Hezbollah, said that the response from March 8 would continue to be limited.
“They are displaying a kind of low-profile response, and they consider this a loss for the whole country,” Mousawi said in a telephone interview. “Nobody wants the situation to deteriorate more and more … so they will just wait and see what happens.”