March 21, 2011

Tens of Thousands in Beirut rally against sectarianism

By Simona Sikimic
Daily Star staff
Monday, March 21, 2011

BEIRUT: Thousands of protesters congregated in Beirut Sunday calling for the end of “the sectarian regime.”

The march was the third of its kind in less than a month and attracted more than double the numbers seen at the last event on March 6, when some 10,000 were estimated to have hit the streets, organizers said.

Beginning at Sassine Square at noon, the crowd weaved its way to the Interior Ministry in Sanayeh, waving Lebanese flags and shouting slogans including “Game over sectarianism” and “Yes to equality, yes to a citizenry whole and complete,” before singing the national anthem outside the ministry.

“We were surprised at the turnout but, of course, we are extremely happy,” said Omar Deeb, a march organizer. “This shows how important the cause is and we are only going to keep pushing forward.”

While the protest was largely peaceful, a skirmish broke out at one point between security forces and several protesters who became aggressive following the reading of the movement’s manifesto, which demands widespread democratic reform and the passage of a new election law.

It also incorporates a call for greater economic justice and the small group of “no more than 10 to 20 people,” thought to belong to an independent leftist organization, objected to the clause not having more prominence in the statement, Deeb said.

The growing turnout has been attributed to wider national participation. People from various regions across the country chartered buses to ferry supporters to the event. Similar protests are planned next week in Jbeil, Sidon and Aley, with another Beirut march expected to take place next month.

“The Lebanese people need change,” said protester Rabab Hakim, who travelled from the Chouf to attend the last two marches. “We have tried this regime but we know that the sectarian regime has given us nothing but violence, war and death.”

Lebanon operates on a power-sharing system based on its various officially recognized sects. A certain number of parliamentary seats are allotted for each sect and the presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian, the post of Prime Minister for a Sunni and the role of Parliament speaker for a Shiite.

“We are here to call for the end of the sectarian regime,” said Ali Mustafa a university student who attended the protest with friends. “People are excited, you can feel it in the atmosphere.”

In addition to demanding the abolition of sectarianism, the movement is reaching out to various pro-secular groups, such as those seeking the introduction of civil marriages. It has also won the support of many anti-corruption activists who say sectarianism fuels the problem.

“You cannot divide the religious and sectarian system from corruption,” said protester Ghassan Nasser, who attended the last two marches. “The division of power and the division of the cake breeds all aspects of corruption, morally, materially and politically.

“I’m from the older generation and I fought my whole life to see this country have another system where people can express their dreams and have a state without any religious interference. [But] it is becoming more and more obvious that the young generation is even more religious.”

Although predominantly a youth-based movement that largely recruited supporters through social media, all ages and walks of life were present at the march Sunday.

Around 200 activists have thus far become involved in organizing the protests, but although many belong to civil society groups or political parties, they are required to participate as individuals to prevent any faction hijacking the cause.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement caused controversy last week for publicly urging its supporters via television broadcasts aired on the Amal-affiliated NBN to join the demonstrations. Berri has been a long-time critic of political sectarianism, but his proposed plan of abolishing sectarianism through a national committee as stipulated by the 1989 Taif Accords is in contradiction with the demands of the anti-sectarian campaign that is targeting both the sectarian system and its leading figures.

The move has only further exasperated skepticism about the movement.

“I don’t know what reality these people are living in, but Lebanon is simply not ready to give up sectarianism,” said Beirut-based engineer Joe Baaklini, who lives near the protest route. “Many [of] these people are clever enough to vote for the right politician but they represent a tiny fraction, and the majority of Lebanese are only loyal to their different religious leaders.

“This is merely a ploy to increase the influence of certain political factions.”

Other protesters, however, were more optimistic.

“Nothing is unrealistic if you believe in change and there is civil power and [popular support]. The recent revolutions [in the Arab world] have shown us that,” said Sanaa Hassan, an activist from the Chouf and member of Lebanese NGO Bilad (House of non-violence and non-sectarianism). “But we have to speak up and act if we want our children to grow up in peace.

“I already had to live through a war and I do not want the same thing to happen to my children and grandchildren.” – Additional reporting by Van Meguerditchian

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