Monday, February 27, 2012

In downtown Beirut, Assad supporters drown out anti-regime protest

Last Friday, on a particularly agreeable, sunny but cool evening, downtown Beirut was awash with fascism. I and a couple of colleagues were attending a vigil at Samir Kassir Square for Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, the two journalists slain in Homs on Wednesday. Alongside us were around fifty men and women; many of them journalists too, but also a dozen or so activists, including some Syrian dissidents and refugees. The mood was decent, in the proper sense of the word: sober; respectable; but affable too. There were no ululations, no beatings of chests, no burnings of flags, and certainly not the slightest suggestion of violence. A Kurdish refugee, hounded by the regime since the uprising of 2004, held a sign for the cameras with his mouth symbolically taped shut. Women and children held pieces of paper with ‘Baba Amr’, the besieged Homs suburb, printed on them in Arabic. A handful of young Syrians started a chant among themselves, but abandoned it after a minute or two. In summary, had we been alone in the Square, it would have been entirely unnecessary for the army to have sealed off the block with what looked like over a hundred soldiers anxiously clutching their M-16s.
Demonstrators at Samir Kassir Square, downtown Beirut

Syrian Kurdish refugees hold Kurdish flags

An-Nahar columnist Ali Hamadeh being interviewed

But alone we most certainly were not. From the moment we stepped out the taxi at Martyrs’ Square, a hideous cacophony of whistles, megaphone-enhanced shouting and distinctly militaristic music fouled the air. The source of this turned out to be a pro-regime counter-protest: a mob, essentially, waving posters of Bashar al-Assad as well as SSNP, Amal and other party flags. The shabiha, or ‘ghosts’, as they are known – indeed, one of their party proclaimed down the megaphone, “They say that we are shabiha – we say, we are proud to be your shabiha, Bashar al-Assad!” It was for these people, then, that the army had been dispatched – a fact made evident by the line of troops standing shoulder to shoulder facing them along a barricade set up for the very purpose of containing them (I was later told there have been cases in previous such situations of them breaking through the barriers and assaulting those on the other side). Apparently, no such precaution was felt necessary with us, whom the army left alone – except, that is, to escort away a woman among us identified by the Kurdish refugee as a Baathist spy (I don’t like to dwell too long on who else I may have shaken hands with that evening).
Pro-Assad counter-protesters waving Baathist Syrian flags
Such was the pattern for about forty-five minutes – interviews, introductions and polite chat on our side; exulted fascist cheering and sloganeering on theirs. And then, for no immediately identifiable reason, the army ordered us to leave. Us, mind you; the bespectacled scribblers, the middle-aged women, the refugee children – not the excited gang of hooligans. That was something of a palm to the cheeks. But what was perhaps most dispiriting of all was the realization that Assad’s fans outnumbered us by at least two to one. In other words, in the city centre of the most enlightened and emancipated capital of the Middle East, for every person willing to oppose a totalitarian murderer, there are two more prepared to support him. What a sentence to have to put down, well over one year into the ‘Arab Spring’.

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