SIDON/ TRIPOLI: Anti-sectarian demonstrations hit Tripoli and Sidon over the weekend, with violence breaking out in the southern port city.
Several journalists were targeted in Sidon’s Sunday rally after Liberation and Development bloc member, MP Qassem Hashem was rushed by angry protesters, chanting slogans including “MP of the Baath, you are not welcome” and “Go away and resign.”
The Daily Star correspondent Mohammed Zaatari was punched while protecting an Al-Manar cameraman, with other press members reporting having their equipment smashed.
The crowd of fewer than 1,000 anti-secular activists turned violent shortly after protesters left Sidon’s Lebanese University campus, where leftist supporters started hurling verbal insults at Hashem.
“It appears that some mob, interested in distorting the real goal of these rallies, infiltrated the rally and rejected my participation in the demonstration for reasons that are not innocent,” said Hashem. “[However], they were thwarted by a large number of the participants who were in favor of my participation and upon their demand I joined in the march until [near the end].
“I refute any defamation and slander and reject the banners raised by some that had no connection to the aims of the rally,” he added.
Another major incident developed after a group of protesters carrying anti-Hezbollah signs and chanting against non-state arms clashed with the Popular Nasserite Organizations.
Tension mounted until the march concluded at Nijmeh Square, with some eight fights thought to have broken out within 20 minutes. Hundreds tried to disperse early to avoid being caught up in the skirmishes.
“We condemn the aggression against our brothers, our family, the media and the attempt to prevent them from pursuing their duty and covering the events and the news,” said former Sidon mayor Abdul Rahman. “[We do this] despite our extreme rejection of political sectarianism and our realization that it is the main problem that prevents building a state of institutions that holds its officials accountable, and despite our support of all these movements calling for the end of political sectarianism.”
Leading media figures in Sidon held an emergency meeting following the event, and have asked for an official apology over the misconduct.
“We have been forced to take a unified decision to withdraw in protest,” said Nazih Nakkouzi, representing media outlets. “[Those that were attacked] hold the organizers completely responsible for the aggressions and demand an official and public apology.”
The organizers have also been widely blamed for not monitoring the events or trying to ensure unity between the various factions.
The violence marked a clear contrast to the peaceful demonstration in Tripoli Saturday which attracted between 300 and 500 protesters. It was the first anti-sectarian protest in the northern city and was held to demonstrate wide national support for the movement.
The latest wave of anti-sectarian marches started in Beirut in early March when thousands turned out to demand the abolition of the sectarian political system. Marches have since grown in size and frequency, not just in the capital but across the country.
In Tripoli, protesters chanted slogans such as “Oh Lebanese, repeat that sectarianism is the biggest monster” and “Oh Lebanese, be aware your debt is now 60 billion,” as they weaved toward Abdel-Hamid Karami Square, where many local residents converged.
Upon reaching Tripoli’s Serail, activist Fertu Karawnian read out the group’s demands, emphasizing that the movement was peaceful and sought the removal of sectarian regime.
Demands included the strengthening of state institutions and citizenship as well as the transformation of the country into a civil, secular, state.
Activists also called for a modern electoral law, not based on sectarian appointments, an independent judiciary and the implementation of anti-corruption legislation.
The statement also called for supporting and developing the Lebanese University and public education in general, while improving various other socio-economic rights.
“The message today is addressed to all sectarian figures, we tell them they must fall,” said activist Samer Anous. “These figures incite the people against one another in order to cause sectarian strife, and they distribute weapons to rival groups.”
“It is time for these politicians to hear that the people in Tripoli do not support their actions and emphasize that they are not sheep,” added Anous.