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Two faces of protest

After days of demonstrations by a young urban crowd, a pro-Syrian throng answers in force.

By Frances Z. Brown / March 9, 2005



Four layers of Lebanese troops surround Beirut's Martyrs' Square. Inside their shield are the urbane young Lebanese whose nine days of passionate anti-Syria protest have galvanized world attention.

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But Tuesday, on the other side of those troops, the protesters were answered. At least half a million demonstrators heeded the call of militant Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and demonstrated in support of Syria's influence, if not its troops.

The throng - bused in en masse from southern Lebanon, Baalbek, the Bekaa Valley, and reportedly Syria - waved Lebanon's cedar. Like their Martyrs Square counterparts, they carried signs proclaiming "We want the truth" (about former prime minister Rafik Hariri's death).

But beyond these trappings of solidarity, the cultural gap is immense.

The Martyrs Square protesters might feel at home in Greenwich Village. In Riad el Sol Square the hijab of the women speaks to the crowd's conservative roots. While the young protesters in Martyrs Square articulate - in fluent English or French - the revolutionary influences of Ukraine, the crowds outside speak exclusively Arabic, out of pride and necessity.

To an American observer, well-versed in the language of red state and blue state, the four police barriers around Martyr's Square highlight the immense divide between two Lebanons.

Outside the barricades, Nasser Hussein carries a sign in Arabic: "Thanks Syria and Assad." A weak economy is his concern. "Syria gives stability," he says. Thousands traveled from Baalbek, he says, because the sheikh gave the word, and "we love that man."

Just a short distance away, inside the barricades, Rony Chidiac, a Christian student organizer, insists dialogue is possible. Still, he says, "[Those other protests are] stupid. They're busing people in from Syria. It will blow over."

For the past few days, life inside Martyrs Square has been business as usual. The tent city still stands. Guitars strum and coffee sellers call. Protesters chat over newspapers and agree one thing: No one is satisfied with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's promises.

The protesters are skeptical that Saturday's speech vowing to withdraw from Lebanon signified real news. They have no more faith in the vague pledges their own president, Emile Lahoud. And so each day there are new immigrants, more blue tarp riggings for shelter, more kak stalls for crunchy bread, and more tents distributing "independence" stickers.

Today, I dodge a remote-controlled toy car carrying a small Lebanese flag, whose driver could be any one of the hordes of children with families, walking by Hariri's grave site, or borrowing pens from me to write patriotic grafitti on the walls of the square.

Each evening, a dance party erupts. People of all ages, carrying Lebanese flags of all sizes, stream into the square. Convertibles swarm by, honking horns, as I chat with new acquaintances. After two years in Lebanon, I analyze the family name and hometown of new friends to determine whether they are Maronite, Orthodox, Sunni, or Druze. Nearly everyone _ except Shiites - seems to be represented. The Lebanese national Anthem comes on - kulohnah lil-wataan - "the country belongs to all of us"-and for once, I believe it.

By daybreak, the crowd shrinks to its core, young people who wear dreadlocks, nose rings, and tattoos. They quote Pink Floyd. These students have, improbably, become the country's most stalwart activists and patriots. They vow to continue sleeping in the square until all Syrian troops withdraw. But the Hizbullah demonstration makes them wary; there's anxiety that Lebanon's famous tinderbox could again ignite.

Just before the demonstration, four trucks filled with Lebanese soldiers drive by. In this country that is tired of soldiers, the Bohemian-looking students put down their guitars and cheer.

Outside, however, the country currently belongs to Nasrallah: The crowd roars as he begins to speak and seethes as he shouts anti-Israeli slogans. For the crowd outside, Syria isn't the problem.

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