Security forces fired tear gas and bullets into the air to hold back the crowd as what had been intended as a peaceful demonstration turned into a display of long-suppressed Sunni rage against the Shiite Hezbollah movement.
Sunni and Christian politicians have blamed Syria for the assassination, accusing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of targeting Hassan because he exposed a plot allegedly ordered by the Syrian leadership to destabilize Lebanon by planting bombs.
But increasingly their anger is being directed at Hezbollah, as the most powerful force in the alliance running the government and as Syria’s chief Lebanese ally.
“There is no God but God, and Nasrallah is the enemy of God,” chanted some of the thousands of mourners who gathered in downtown Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square for the funeral ceremonies, referring to the Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah in an echo of the Islamic declaration of faith often associated with Sunnis.
By nightfall, most of the demonstrators had dispersed and an uneasy calm settled over the capital as Lebanon braced for what is likely to turn into a prolonged political crisis, echoing the upheaval that consumed the country in the three years after the assassination of Hariri’s father, former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, in 2005.
The potential for the crisis to turn violent was evident in the dark sentiments expressed by some of the Sunnis attending the demonstration.
“Because Shiites are dogs,” said Khaled Hawa, 19, when asked why he had traveled from the northern port of Tripoli for the event. “There will be war in all Lebanon, God willing, because we cannot live like this anymore,” he added.
“Only Sunnis should live in this country. The Shiites should not be here,” said Faisal Abu Azzam, 25, who came from the southern town of Sidon and who vowed to bring the country to a standstill by blocking major roads and burning tires.
“If a Shiite is passing by, we are going to kill them,” added one of his friends, who identified himself as Abu Lahab, 23. “I was born to kill Shiites,” he said proudly.
Anger, but less unity
The mood was in stark contrast to the vast outpouring of nationalistic fervor that erupted following the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, in a bombing also blamed on Syria. Then, hundreds of thousands of people forced the departure of Syrian troops after 30 years of occupation in a popular uprising dubbed the “Cedar Revolution” because of the emblem on the Lebanese flag that became its symbol.