Two Beirut rallies. Two visions for Lebanon.
Supporters of both pro-Western factions and Hezbollah militants honored their respective slain leaders.
Rival visions for Lebanon were on stark display here Thursday as partisans from competing political camps gathered to honor their respective slain leaders.
In downtown Beirut, tens of thousands of Lebanese braved the icy rain to gather in Martyrs' Square to remember Rafik Hariri, the billionaire former prime minister who died three years ago to the day in a massive truck bomb blast, an assassination that his supporters blame on Syria.
A slew of top anti-Syrian legislators delivered fiery speeches demanding the election of a new president and charged Syria with meddling in Lebanese affairs.
Across town, in the Shiite-dominated southern suburbs, Hizbullah chieftains led a funeral ceremony for Imad Mughnieh, the group's senior military commander who was killed Tuesday in a Damascus bombing.
The rival events came amid heightening tensions, with Lebanon mired in a steadily worsening crisis pitting the anti-Syrian, pro-Western March 14 political coalition, named for the day of a huge rally three years ago, against the Hezbollah-led opposition, driven perhaps even more now to end American influence here. The country has been without a president since November.
Traveling to both parts of this city and both rallies was more like visiting different countries than different neighborhoods.
Lebanon's 'silent majority'
Downtown Beirut's Martyrs' Square was filled with a sea of rain-soaked flag – some were Lebanese, but many belonged to the various political parties that compose the March 14 coalition.
After days of rallying their supporters, the March 14 leadership was hoping for a big turnout to rekindle the spirit of the Beirut Spring three years ago when a series of mass demonstrations helped hasten the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon.
"The silent majority has to come down to the streets [to] say 'no way are we going to have Syria back here and no way are we going to live in a Hezbollah state'," says Elie Khoury, an advertising executive-turned-political activist. "We have to keep reminding the silent majority that it's about whether they want to live in a democratic state or live in Hanoi fighting endless wars."
But the crowd that gathered to mark Mr. Hariri's murder was mainly composed of partisans of various political groups who heeded the call of their respective leaders to attend the rally.
Many Lebanese didn't participate Thursday because of the weather, the threat of violence and, for some, disillusion with their leaders.
Abdullah Chehab, a pharmacist, says he attended the Beirut Spring rallies three years ago, believing it would change Lebanon for the better. "But now I think the politicians have shown themselves to be the same. They don't care about the country."
After unveiling a monument to his murdered father, Saad Hariri, a top March 14 leader addressed the crowd from behind a bulletproof screen. "Today, you have come again to say we want a president. And we say you will have a president."
Urging dialogue and cooperation between all factions, Mr. Hariri added, "This is the goal of the citizens gathered here in Martyrs' Square as well as the southern suburbs for the funeral service of resistance commander [Imad Mughnieh]."
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, an outspoken March 14 leader, said that the people behind the spate of assassinations of Lebanese officials, many of them critics of Syria, would be brought to justice, "be they in their palaces, squares, or caves."
Hezbollah's war cry
In Hezbollah's southern Beirut stronghold, the mood was vastly different. Thousands of party supporters, dressed mainly in black, gathered at a vast auditorium for the funeral of Mr. Mughnieh.
It was an occasion typical of Hezbollah's sense of pomp and ceremony. Banners and flags flew, a brass band played. There were politicians in dark suits and open-neck shirts, clerics in brown or black robes with white or black turbans. Black-suited officials clutching walkie-talkies and ear microphones marshaled the mourners through metal detectors at the entrance of the auditorium and guided them to the rows of thousands of plastic chairs.
Sitting in a line below a stage at the front of the hall and facing the crowd were some of Hezbollah's top leaders, there to receive the steady flow of delegations and individuals coming to pay condolences.
Mughnieh's coffin lay in state on the stage, draped in a yellow Hezbollah flag, four black-uniformed and bereted fighters standing at attention alongside it.
Mughnieh's assassination was a "shame" for Israel, Mr. Mottaki said, reading the letter. "[Israel's] smile will not last long and they will fall to the hand of justice."
Seen on a giant TV screen suspended over the stage, Hizbullah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah eulogized Mughnieh and threatened to expand the confrontation with Israel. "You have killed Hajj Imad [Mughnieh] outside the natural battlefield," he said referring to the borders of Lebanon. "With this murder – its timing, location, and method – Zionists, if you want this kind of open war, let the whole world listen: Let this war be open."
Mr. Nasrallah recalled that past Israeli assassinations of Hezbollah leaders, including his direct predecessor, Sheikh Abbas Mussawi, had only made the party stronger.
"Hajj Imad's blood will mark the beginning of the downfall of the state of Israel," he said. "He has left behind tens of thousands of well-trained and equipped combatants who are ready for martyrdom."
The crowd roared with approval as thousands of hands punched the air amid chants of "Yes to Nasrallah."