Tens of thousands of supporters of Lebanon’s majority ‘March 14’ camp have flocked into downtown Beirut for a rally marking the fifth anniversary of the slaying of former premier Rafiq Hariri.
“Five years ago, you came down to this very square to demand justice and freedom … and we are not turning back,” Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the slain premier, told the cheering crowd.
Rafiq Hariri’s assassination in a massive car bombing on February 14, 2005, that also killed 22 other people, saw the rise of a US- and Saudi-backed alliance that became known as March 14.
It was named after a day of massive anti-Syrian protests dubbed the “Cedar Revolution.”
Combined with international pressure, the protests in the weeks after the killing led to the pullout of Syrian troops from the tiny Mediterranean country in April 2005 following a 29-year presence.
Saad Hariri, whose March 14 alliance has two parliamentary election wins under its belt, now leads a unity government which includes the Syrian-backed former opposition.
But Hariri’s visit to Damascus in December and the softening of his stance against Syria, whom he had openly accused of his father’s murder, have been viewed as signs that the March 14 movement was losing steam.
Damascus has also since last year broken out of its international isolation, enjoying warmer ties with both Washington and Riyadh, the main backers of Lebanon’s prime minister.
In a recent interview, however, Hariri said that “only death” could separate him from his allies.
Addressing the commemoration on Sunday, he said his visit to Damascus was “part of inter-Arab reconciliation” efforts launched by Saudi King Abdullah who preceded him to the Syrian capital.
“My visit to Syria was part of that,” Hariri said. “I am keen on launching a new phase of ties between Lebanon and Syria as two sovereign, independent countries.”
Hariri’s alliance was dealt a major blow when Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, once the most vociferous critic of Syria, defected in 2009 to move closer to the rival Hezbollah-led camp backed by Damascus and Tehran.
Some supporters of Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party were at the rally waving their party’s red flag on Sunday.
“We came here although our party did not announce its participation,” said Bilal Abi Rafeh from the eastern area of Rashaya. “Walid Jumblatt has his opinion, and we respect that. But we have ours too,” he told AFP.
While some demonstrators chanted anti-Jumblatt slogans, most stuck to traditional pro-Hariri lines, carrying Lebanese flags and banners which read, “For those we have lost.”
“We are here for Rafiq Hariri and all the other Lebanese who were assassinated,” said Souraya Saleh, a mother of two from Naameh, south of the capital.
“Hariri was our father, the father of all the Lebanese. We owe this city to him,” she told AFP.
Former MP Elias Atallah, a leader of the March 14 movement, told AFP: “We certainly made mistakes, but we owe it to the people who are here today to keep going.
“There are still a number of aims we have not fulfilled, namely limiting arms in Lebanon to the army, creating stable, sovereign state institutions and seeing the (Hariri) tribunal through.”
March 14 has repeatedly locked horns with Hezbollah over its arms, calling for the Shiite party to hand them in, in accordance with a UN Security Council resolution.
An international tribunal was set up by a Security Council resolution in 2007 to try suspects in the Hariri murder, as well as the killings of seven other prominent anti-Syrian figures in a chain of subsequent assassinations.
A UN commission of inquiry initially said it had found evidence to implicate Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services but there are no suspects in custody. Damascus has denied any involvement.