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Freedom and fury: When the streets of Beirut became a battleground for rights and wrongs

Freedom and fury: When the streets of Beirut became a battleground for rights and wrongs

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ضحايا يضربون ضحايا وضحايا يبتسمون... مشهد يوم سبت كئيب في بيروت

The scene outside the government serail on Beirut's Riyad al-Solh Street was eerily quiet, and appeared nearly deserted. Just a handful of individuals stood by, awaiting a larger crowd to gather before the Freedom March could commence. The demonstration for rights and freedoms had been organized by several associations and civil society groups. Meanwhile in the distance, a group of young men on motorcycles roamed the road that connected the square to the serail.

As the march drew closer, journalists began converging on the protest site, which was cordoned off by security personnel from both the Parliament police and the Internal Security Forces. They had effectively sealed off access to the roads leading to the serail, while the area designated for the gathering was barricaded with iron barriers. Interestingly, there were more journalists present than the actual organizers of the march. As I crossed the barrier, an officer from the security forces stopped me and requested identification. I identified myself as an independent journalist working with Raseef22. He responded with a mocking laugh to the name 'raseef' (translating to 'sidewalk' in Arabic) and joked, "May you become a 'street' soon", then asked, "What guarantees me that you didn't come here to attack the march?"

How things began

In the days preceding the march, calls for incitement surfaced on social media, primarily by religious figures such as Sheikh Hassan Merheb. Merheb tweeted on platform X, urging people to "combat the suspicious calls by groups promoting sexual deviance under the guise of defending freedoms in Lebanon." He also explicitly stated that he "cannot be held responsible for any incidents that might occur in the streets" if the march proceeded. During the march, Merheb made additional statements, declaring his cooperation with the "Jnoud el Rabb" and Hezbollah to counteract what he referred to as "sexual deviance".

Before Merheb's involvement, the Al-Akhbar newspaper published an article on September 26th, revealing that several organizations, allegedly "funded by American billionaire George Soros, were planning a series of activities and movements advocating for LGBTQ+ rights under the banner of defending freedoms and human rights". Social media campaigns were launched by groups such as the Lebanese Youth Union and the National Front for Resisting Deviance. Motorcycles from areas like Jdeideh and Cola converged on Riyad al-Solh Square and the government serail. Additionally, Hezbollah supporters from the southern suburbs and the "Jnoud el Rabb" group also headed toward the march.

As I crossed the barrier, a security forces officer stopped me to request identification. I identified myself as an independent journalist writing for Raseef22. He gave a mocking laugh then asked, "What assures me you didn't come here to attack the march?"

In front of the serail, journalists from various media outlets gathered to cover the event. There, they encountered a group of protesters who opposed the Freedom March and arrived on motorcycles, gathering in front of the main serail entrance, where security forces were stationed. The initial confrontations then took place with feminist activist Hayat Mershad. Insults were hurled at her, followed by a physical assault, all accompanied by chants advocating "rape" and punctuated with cheers. This continued for approximately half an hour. Ultimately, the march, initially intended to proceed toward the Ministry of Interior in Sanayeh, concluded right where it had started. In essence, apart from journalists, the number of participants could be counted on one hand.

The march concluded with the reading of a statement that emphasized the urgent need to abolish laws criminalizing defamation, slander, and contempt, which have severely curtailed freedoms in Lebanon. The statement also called for religious and political freedom, as "Lebanon had recently witnessed an alarming and unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression and opinion by the authorities". Furthermore, it pointed out the growing number of summonses for investigations into defamation, slander, and contempt crimes made against activists and journalists. These actions were often taken in response to posts shedding light on government corruption or criticizing religious, political, and security authorities. In addition, the world of "art, culture, and academia had not been spared, as the public prosecution had aggressively pursued professors, artists, playwrights, and comedians, creating a climate of fear in theaters and cinemas."

The first moments of aggression

With the belief that everything was over and the anticipated march failed to materialize, a solitary statement was issued and journalists began gearing up to depart the square. However, protesters began congregating, sealing off the three entrances with their motorcycles. They formed a circle around everyone present, wielding small weapons and sticks. Since the Parliament police and the Internal Security Forces had been solely stationed at the primary serail entrance, those who opposed the march made attempts to deter journalists from leaving at the exits, and verbally assaulted them with derogatory remarks. It was evident that they intended to harm anyone in their path. Hatred and anger were etched on their faces. They arrived as if soaked in hostility, ready to destroy anything in their way.

This motorcycle-led "orchestra" received directives from several individuals: one by the name of "Bakr", hailing from the Tariq El Jdideh area, and another known simply as "the Iranian", hailing from the southern suburbs of Beirut, and a third individual, whose name was not known, stood amongst the supporters of the Jnoud el Rabb hurling insults at the serail entrance. For any journalist or activist attempting to depart, it was abundantly clear that physical violence awaited them. Those involved seemed determined to vent their anger on everyone present, journalists included, who wanted to raise their voices against an oppressive regime.

Equally remarkable was the complete lack of action displayed by the security forces and the Parliament police, under the leadership of Nabih Berri. Most of the officers seemed to be amused by the insults, as if they were anticipating the impending bouts of aggression. Eventually, they also launched an assault on a journalist, with the remaining journalists being prevented from documenting or covering the events following an hour-long siege. Media outlets trapped within the square beseeched Acting Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi to extricate the journalists and activists and provide additional support to those besieged. But their pleas fell upon deaf ears.

They surrounded us right in front of the security forces, and one individual brandished a knife. We attempted to reason with them, explaining that we were only journalists, but someone was shouting loudly and pointed at me, saying, "We want you"

After a brief interval, marked by escalating violence and assaults, police vehicles arrived to transport journalists and activists out of the area. At that moment, and before everyone could secure a place inside the vehicles, the Parliament police opened the iron barriers, and the radical protesters stormed the square. They began brutally attacking everyone present, assaulting an activist who sustained facial fractures and another photographer who was beaten mercilessly. In total, approximately seven journalists and activists sustained injuries.

Attempt to escape

The scene within the square had taken on a harrowing dimension. Radical protesters had taken control of the square, unleashing brutality upon all who stood before them. They congregated in the hundreds around the vehicles, blocking their departure. In that moment, I attempted to enter one of the vehicles, but the officer I had encountered earlier said, "You there, Raseef," referring to the media outlet I write for, and added, "Try to escape through the other entrance; you can't get in the vehicles."

My colleague from Legal Agenda (LA) and I headed toward the western entrance of the Parliament. We could clearly see that there was a group of young men from the protesters waiting for us at the Parliament police barrier. I cannot even find the words to describe the overwhelming fear that enveloped us at that moment. They began hurling insults and curses at us, surrounding us right in front of the security forces. One of them brandished a knife menacingly and gestured for me to approach, while the security forces stood by, doing nothing. We attempted to reason with them, explaining that we were just journalists. However, one raised his voice in front of the security forces, pointing at me and declaring, "We want you and you alone."

Suddenly, another protester entered from a different entrance and launched a brutal attack upon me using a wooden stick. Not content with just physical violence, he unleashed a torrent of insults and blows upon me that my colleague had to stand in his face to make him stop. Then their leader, who went by the name "Bakr", intervened and asked the security forces and Parliament police to hand us over to the protesters, under the pretext that they would allow us to leave and reach our car unharmed. This is what happened, but the attackers wasted no time in resuming their assault as we made our way back to the car. Once inside the car, we believed we had escaped, but they didn't stop there. Behind us, four motorcyclists pursued us through the streets of Beirut. They shattered the rear window of our car until we finally reached the airport road, where the first Lebanese Army checkpoint stood guard.

The state has successfully imposed the narrative to combat "deviance", be it related to belief, religion or politics, by exploiting sectarian and religious tensions, diverting attention away from rampant corruption and embezzlement of billions of dollars

To the virtual world

But the ordeal didn't conclude on the streets of Riad El Solh Square. After many journalists and activists were transported to Al-Roum Hospital in Beirut for treatment, a campaign was launched on social media by the same individuals who had chased them for hours on the streets of Beirut. This campaign spread hate speech and incitements to violence and murder under the hashtag "No to Sexual Deviance". Accompanying this online onslaught were images of the journalists who had been present to cover the event. It was a calculated assault not only on these journalists but also on the media itself. The campaign eventually culminated with the blessings of religious figures in Tayouneh, including Sheikh Hassan Merheb, who commended the act.

Furthermore, there was incitement via media outlets affiliated with Hezbollah, as well as intimidation campaigns perpetrated by activists supporting the party and others aligned with the "Jnoud el Rabb". Abdel Aziz Tartousi, who identifies himself as the leader of the "Al-Fayhaa Soldiers" militia in northern Lebanon, expressed gratitude to the residents of Tayouneh in Beirut for successfully halting what he deemed a "sexual deviance march". Tartousi proceeded to name the key figures who spearheaded this incitement campaign: "Abu Bakr", the Iranian, Hussam Al-Baghdadi, Afif Shamaitli, and Rabih Al-Arab, lauding their actions as courageous.

The suppression of freedoms

The events of Saturday and the ensuing attack on freedoms were a premeditated and orchestrated effort with the aim of quashing and silencing all those who advocate for rights and freedoms in Lebanon. This was done under the pretext of combatting "deviance," which is merely a manifestation of the campaign launched by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on July 24, 2023. He exploited the occasion of Ashura to wage a battle against the LGBTQ+ community through various means, while urging both Sunni and Christian communities to shun them.

I can vividly envision the faces of those who abandoned their own suffering and gathered to vent their pent-up frustration on a group of individuals who desire freedom, and are trying to say "no", or at the very least, preserve the right to say no

Nasrallah's call has now become a readily available pretext for suppressing any demands for rights in Lebanon. This is happening against the backdrop of an increasing crackdown on journalists and human rights activists, who are being summoned for questioning on charges of defamation. This authoritarian suppression has garnered support from Sunni groups known as the "Al-Fayhaa Soldiers", Shia supporters of Hezbollah, and Christian followers of the "Jnoud el Rabb". They have all united under the banner of combating any rights-based demands, using the guise of the fear that what they term "sexual deviance" will infiltrate their homes.

The fight against "deviance" has become the slogan for suppressing any gatherings or demands for freedom, be they related to belief, religion, politics, or ideology. Over time, the authorities have successfully imposed this narrative by exploiting sectarian and religious tensions to stifle these demands, diverting attention away from Lebanon's ongoing collapse and years of corruption and embezzlement of billions of dollars.

Saturday eventually drew to a close. It was an experience I never anticipated living through as a journalist. As I departed from the square and returned to my home, I attempted to comprehend the gravity of what had transpired. I can still vividly envision the faces of those who abandoned their own struggles and suffering and converged to vent their pent-up frustration on a group of individuals who desire freedom and accountability, and are trying, with every ounce of their being, to say "no", or at the very least, preserve the right of the Lebanese people to say no.

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