[The following is an eye-witness account of the violent dispersion of an anti-regime protest that took place this past Tuesday outside the Syrian Embassy in Beirut. The author of the report-back has chosen to remain anonymous.]
Last Tuesday evening at around 8 o’clock, a group of people gathered at the Syrian Embassy in Beirut in order to protest the ongoing atrocities committed by the Syrian regime against the Syrian people. Earlier that day I had received an email, part of a “secret email chain,” informing me that the protest would take place and that I should only share the email with people I trust. The secrecy with which the protest was planned was in response to previous protests which, when announced, were met with counter-protests which, with their sheer numbers and threats of intimidation, ensured that the anti-regime protests did not reach the embassy. The Syrian Embassy is bordered by two parking lots, a bank, two popular cafes, and an alley filled with bars regularly packed with people drinking the evening away.
Ras Beirut is a stronghold of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP), and since the Syrian people have risen against the Ba‘thist regime, the SSNP’s presence on the streets of Ras Beirut has emerged full force and in ways unseen in nearly two decades. In particular, Makdissi street has been dubbed “the capital of their fiefdom,” the latter of which has been infused with intimidation, machismo, and an aura of defensiveness since the uprising in Syria erupted. Within this fiefdom, there is a café run out of a parked minibus where the “shabab” of the SSNP gather, there are party flags hoisted on electrical poles and off of buildings, and everywhere, there is the arrogant confidence of boy-men who have been told that in order to “defend” their political party, they have full (and politically protected) reign over the streets
At the demonstration in front of the Syrian embassy, I recognized many friends among the male and female protestors, all activists, all veterans working against the March 14 / March 8 political schism that has polarized Lebanon for over six years now. We stood about three rows deep and faced the embassy as well as the Lebanese security detail. Suddenly, a group of men began running towards us from the side of the bank, led by a tall thin man in his fifties with white hair, whom I later learned is a member of the Ba`th Party in Lebanon. Almost as if in a drill, the man with the white hair lined up the group of what appeared to be migrant Syrian workers facing us. He lifted his hands, as if he was the conductor of a grand symphony, and an almost surreal chanting war unfolded. We began chanting, “from Beirut to Hama, we are one people,” and they countered, “with our blood and our souls, we support you Asad.” After they threw that semantic barb at us, we responded, “with our blood and our souls, we support you Syria.” There was a moment of confusion when everyone realized that being pro-Syrian and being pro-Asad were being posed as opposites in this small confrontation. That made me happy.
Then, another group of all-male counter-protestors arrived, running from the other side of the street; the one with the SSNP minibus-as-cafe. The Lebanese security detail disappeared, and the now larger group of counter-protestors began to push towards us, clearly trying to intimidate us into leaving. They would push into us, a couple of them would shout at the rest to step back--“protecting us” they later claimed--and then the charade would start up again. Finally, the supporters of the Syrian regime (a mixture, that night on Makdissi street, of Ba‘thists, SSNP members, and others) realized that the anti-regime protestors were still holding their ground and not responding to their threats of violence. So they attacked.
When they attacked us, they all came together and they came at all of us indiscriminately. We were easily overwhelmed, and at first, they came after anyone with a camera. Men picked up chairs and threw them at us, others took off belts and began whipping us with them, and others pushed, punched, and kicked at us. I saw a friend, one of the political activists I respect most in Lebanon, being punched in the face. He reeled backwards, and both he and I began to (me) walk and (him) stumble backwards into a parking lot where I, for some reason, thought I would be safer. As he stumbled backwards, his attacker pushed him, and my friend fell silently like a heap of bones and meat onto the concrete floor. I walked towards him, as the attacker--still not satisfied--kicked him while he was on the ground. As I bent down over my friend, I saw the attacker move on to another friend, grabbing her by the neck and swinging her around the street in a bizarre semi-circle. He then turned around towards me and my friend who was still on the floor. The man, who was shouting in a Lebanese accent, was heavily muscled in a white T-shirt, tanned and had short black hair. He approached me, shouting and swearing and accusing me of having a camera and taking pictures. I am ashamed to say this now, but I stood up, looked at him and pleaded with him to not hurt me or hurt my friend any further. I opened my hands, looked into his eyes, and said “I don’t have a camera or a phone. I don’t have anything. Please don’t hurt me.” At that moment, even as the words were leaving my mouth, I hated myself for feeling so vulnerable, and so afraid. He had won. Furiously, the attacker turned away and towards others.
We tried to carry my friend to a nearby restaurant/bar called Main Street (formerly known as Grafitti) in order to keep him safe until the ambulance that someone who had also been punched in the face and neck had called. A man who identified himself as the manager of Main Street refused to allow my friend to enter his establishment, saying that he could not allow his business to become a political target. Across the street, a young man lay on the ground near the entrance of The Prague, where he was being kicked repeatedly by a group of men. We picked up my friend (whom we later learned had a broken hip) and carried him up to Hamra street.
At this point, everyone was dispersing. A group of protestors were followed to a restaurant in Hamra where they were attacked again, a group of us staggered into Ras Beirut’s other streets, and another group followed my friend to Hamra street in order to regroup and wait for the Lebanese Red Cross to arrive. Finally, the Lebanese Internal Security arrived in full force. We told them what had happened and pointed them towards Makdissi street, where the pro-Syrian regime attackers were still congregated, picking off strays from the violently dispersed protest. Three people went to the police station on Bliss Street (Maghfar Hubaysh) to file a complaint against those that had physically harmed us. They were turned away by the police, who told them that the attackers had political backing and that there was nothing the police could do. Thus a broken hip, a cracked skull, and countless black eyes and swollen body parts were all meted out by a group of shabab confident in the knowledge that they are not accountable to anyone.
About half an hour later, I was walking back with another female friend towards our car. Still shaken, I asked her if we could possibly not walk down Makdissi street. She is, I suppose, much braver than I am. She led me down that street, at the end of which we were parked. We passed by a group of men who were beating up some other person from their own “side” and reprimanding him for some reason. We walked on, past the SSNP “snack” and past the SSNP flags. Once behind us, the boys began to threaten us with sexual assault. “Do we hit girls?” “What do we do with girls?” “How do we deal with women?” were some of the sentences spit at our backs. Not lost on me was the irony that these threats of sexual violence were being made under a poster of Sana’ Mhaydel, who is often touted as evidence of the SSNP’s progressive gender politics by achieving an almost legendary place in SSNP lore as the first female suicide bomber in formerly occupied South Lebanon. Finally, we reached our car and left.
Yesterday, the Lebanese press, that bastion of freedom of expression, was largely silent about these events. Even the so-called “progressive” Lebanese newspapers, al-Akhbar and al-Safir, chose to bury news of the protest and its violent break-up under off-putting or misleading headlines. In some ways, I am glad that this happened in Ras Beirut and not anywhere else in Lebanon. The fact that a group of protestors can be viciously attacked and that their attackers remain unaccountable to anyone in Ras Beirut is important. People always speak of Ras Beirut as if it is somehow not really Lebanese, as if it is an oasis of diversity, progressive politics, and revelry. But by now, everyone should know that this is not true. Behind the bars and coffee shops and stores, Ras Beirut, like everywhere else in Lebanon, is also owned by a particular political party. When I told friends what had happened that night, many of them revealed this knowledge, asking me why we had chosen to protest in Ras Beirut (where the Syrian embassy is) and not in another part of Beirut where we would be “safer.” The answer is simple. If we protest against the Syrian regime in downtown Beirut, we will be considered allies of the March 14 movement (and its racist discourse against Syrians in Lebanon); if we protest in other areas of “West Beirut,” we will be considered allies of the Hariri-led Mustaqbal movement, and if we protest in Ashrafiyya (or “East Beirut”) we will be considered allies of the Lebanese Forces. This is the political geography of the city, and for those of us who refuse to be associated with any of these broken and corrupt political parties or with the false binary of March 14 / March 8, our politics and our political bodies are unprotected, vulnerable, homeless, and vagabond. Today in Lebanon, it is dangerous to support the Syrian people who are being killed on a daily basis by the Asad regime while at the same time being against against the US-Saudi-Zionist alliance as well as both the Hizballah-led March 8 movement and the Hariri-led March 14 movement.
That night, there was a man in the counter-demonstration whose sole function was to take pictures and record everyone who was protesting against the Syrian regime’s criminal suppression of a popular uprising. After the protest, we were told in no uncertain terms that we will be attacked if and when we return to Ras Beirut. We have been profiled, and threatened with further violence if we enter “their area,” filled with cafes run out of minivans, flags, and posters of martyrs who are used as tokens of past glory. Hamra is not a safe place for those who are conscientious, progressive, and politically active. But I, and others, will not stop going to visit Hamra, Makdissi, or other parts of Ras Beirut. Our friends and families live there, we go to school there, we work there, we live there, and we frequent bars, restaurants, and cafes there. And we will continue to be politically active there as we are in the rest of this country. They have my picture. I dare the Lebanese government to do its job and protect me.