A protest in 2009, in Beirut. The slogan reads "Syria pulled out, but left behind their devils
The Arab capital that forced an end to Israeli occupation in 1982, now fears thugs loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Over the past few weeks, Lebanese activists have tried to organize rallies in support of Syrians rising up against their regime, but Assad's Lebanese protégés threatened, and at times physically assaulted, their anti-Assad compatriots signaling that freedom of expression, once a characteristic of Beirut, is now history.
"Twenty-eight hotels in Beirut and across the country refused to allow us to rent a hall to hold a private gathering in support of the Syria protests," Saleh Mashnouk, member of the group Lebanese in Solidarity with the Dignity and Freedom of the Syrian People, told The Majalla.
Last week, Mashnouk and his group reserved a hall at Bristol Hotel for their activity, but militants from pro-Assad Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and Lebanon's Ba’ath Socialist Party—both armed militias—showed up at the hotel and threatened its administration that it should cancel the event.
In a statement, the hotel said it had declined to host the group to "ensure the safety of its guests and staff." This forced Mashnouk to look elsewhere and his group was obliged to hold their gathering at a private basement in Sin El-Feel, a suburb to the east of Beirut. "This was the only space we could find," Mashnouk said. "Today's conference shows that threats and intimidation will not scare us," he added.
Elias Khoury, Lebanon's most prominent novelist, wrote in his column: "I haven't seen Beirut as sad as she is today." He added: "I have never seen Beirut unable to speak and as shy as she is today. Even when she was under [1982 Israeli] bombardment, Beirut was not as scared."
"This city does not look like Beirut, for Beirut knows that silence makes her a partner in the crime.
"In Damascus a people are being shot dead and their faces are being stepped on with shoes... Damascus is not far from Beirut, but Beirut is far from itself."
He wrote that Beirut's squares have been uncharacteristically empty because "whenever men and women dare to light candles to remember Syria's martyrs, thugs of the Syrian-Lebanese security apparatus show up, step on the candles, and shout pro-dictator slogans." Khoury, however, concluded: "The era of fear will end and become a memory that we will not want to remember."
Meanwhile, during the gathering in Sin El-Feel, Syrian activist Razan Zaytouneh—whose husband Wael Hamada and his brother Abdulrahman were detained on 12 May and 30 April respectively, provoking calls from world organizations such as Amnesty International—addressed the crowd.
"My country is beautiful and strong against tyranny and tyrants," she said. Zaytouneh, who has been hiding since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising on 15 March, added: "From Damascus to Beirut I send you all a bouquet of Jasmine and love until we meet in freedom."
Beirut, traditionally the capital of Arab freedom, has been cowered into silence. Perhaps decades of Syrian dominance over Lebanon has turned it into a city like any other fearful Syrian city. But in Syria, cities are standing up for their freedom. Whether Beirut will follow suit and rise up against its tyranny is yet to be seen.