Beirut Protester Killed in Brawl Is Hailed as Hezbollah 'Martyr'
Tuesday, December 5, 2006
BEIRUT, Dec. 4 -- The posters went up Monday morning, followed by slogans and chants. And within a day of his death in a street brawl along Beirut's increasingly tense fault lines of sect and politics, Ahmed Mahmoud became the first symbol of the mass demonstrations by Hezbollah and its allies meant to bring down the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
"Lift the Lebanese flag," an announcer intoned over loudspeakers, as tens of thousands at the protest in downtown Beirut surged toward an ambulance carrying Mahmoud's coffin, draped in a Lebanese flag. "Let us give respect to the martyr."
The bells of St. George Cathedral rang, and protesters recited Koranic verses as his body was carried through the streets. At times, the crowd shouted, "Down with the government!" His posters were hung over the crowd and plastered on car windshields. "Martyr of Lebanese national unity," one read. "Martyred at the hands of the authority's militias," said another.
Mahmoud was shot Sunday in clashes that erupted on the edge of Tariq Jdideh, a tense Sunni neighborhood, between its residents and Shiite protesters returning from downtown. The exact circumstances of his death remained unclear, but the conflicts there and elsewhere in the city sent a chill through Beirut, bracing for more trouble between the tens of thousands going back and forth to the protest and other residents who say they see the banners, flags and chants as a provocation.
Soon after the clashes, the Lebanese army deployed more soldiers in the capital, particularly along protesters' routes. Downtown, dozens of soldiers and riot police stood behind barbed wire and barricades guarding the government headquarters known as the Serail, where Siniora and other ministers have taken up residence. Even the arrival of Mahmoud's body at the protest went unannounced; organizers, sensing that tempers were running high, said they were trying to act responsibly.
Hours after nightfall Monday, Lebanese television aired footage of more fights in the same neighborhood, which is near the largely Shiite Muslim southern suburbs. Car windows were shattered, and groups of youths surged down the streets.
"We're not scared of sectarian strife, but we're ready for it," said Wael Ali, a 27-year-old protester. "We don't want to aggress against anyone, but if someone aggresses against us, we'll never give in."
He stood with a friend, Hassan Qassem, both of whom have come each day to the demonstrations.
"We're ready for everything," said Qassem, also 27. "We had martyrs in the war with Israel, and we won. We're not ready for just one martyr. We're ready for 1,000 martyrs, but in the end, the government will be brought down."
As they spoke, the Lebanese national anthem played as the body was driven through the streets, with crowds rushing toward the ambulance. Some threw red and white rose petals on top of the hood. As it made its way toward the edge of downtown, the crowd shouted, "There is no god but God; the martyr is beloved by God."
Hezbollah and its allies called the protest Friday after the government rejected their demands for a greater share of power in the cabinet. The government and its supporters, allied with the United States and France, have described the demonstrations as a coup attempt. Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, has insisted the protesters will remain in the streets until the government resigns.
The arrival of Mahmoud's body was a dramatic moment in the otherwise carnival-like atmosphere of the demonstrations, which entered their fourth day. Boys played cards in the street or smoked Arabic water pipes outside dozens of tents that have gone up in parking lots and parks.
Families posed for pictures, and youths tried to outdo each other with chants. Most were directed at Siniora and his government allies, particularly Ahmed Fatfat, who as acting interior minister during the recent war had authority over a police commander who served tea to Israeli troops who had entered his headquarters as they occupied the southern town of Marjayoun.
"Oh Fatfat, you tough guy, we'll take three coffees and a tea!" they shouted.
As protesters passed police checkpoints, some motioned their hands downward, a gesture made to order tea.