BEIRUT: Anti-sectarian protesters turning out in force in Beirut Sunday to call for the introduction of a secular state, their timing clashing with pro-Palestinian demonstrations.
Some 700 people marched the Laique Pride protest route from Ain al-Mraisseh to Riad al-Solh Square in Downtown, chanting “Secularism is the Solution” holding placards saying “Civil Marriage, Not Civil War,” while activists handed out flowers to passersby, intended to symbolize peace and unity.
The nonviolent, mainly youth dominated demonstration, however, was cut short after news emerged of mounting casualties on the Lebanese - Israeli border.
“While we are demanding freedom, social justice, and human development in Lebanon, we cannot forget the memory of Nakba, the oppression and injustice and human rights violations in Palestine,” said Kinda Hassan, a Laique organizer. “[We cannot forget] the occupation of the Palestinian people and the massacres and displacement of peoples that are taking place.”
According to the Lebanese Army, 10 people were killed and one hundred wounded after the Israeli Army opened fire on pro-Palestinian protesters, marking the “Nakba,” or catastrophe, of Israel’s 1948 creation when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian’s refugees flooded into neighboring countries.
The Sunday protest, which saw several thousand people descend on the southern village of Maroun al-Ras, has been blamed for the comparatively poor turnout for the Laique Pride event, which last year drew around 2,000 anti-sectarian advocates.
“I am happy with the turnout but the numbers are not exactly what we hoped for because of what is happening in the south,” said Abdullah Bakri, another Laique organizer. “I know that many people are with us and support us, but many also wanted to go to the other protests.
“We are putting pressure on Parliament and we are saying that we don’t want any more war and conflict. We want to be one nation, living side by side,” he added.
The protester’s ultimate aim is to abolish Lebanon’s sectarian system, which they claim promotes national strife and breeds corruption. But this year’s march has also lent its support specifically to two draft bills, touted as tentative first steps to achieving the wider objective of a secular, democratic state.
The laws, vying for the introduction of civil marriage in Lebanon and the criminalization of domestic violence and abuse, are currently awaiting parliamentary approval and are scheduled to be discussion in committee Thursday.
In contrast to previous attempts to introduce civil marriage, the current bill only seeks to allow citizens to “opt out” of personal status laws that are set by the country’s various religious authorities and rule on issues pertaining to marriage, divorce, inheritance and custody.
“[Personal status law] is very hard on women and it causes a lot of problems,” said Hoda, a 55-year-old mother of two, who did not want to give her last name. “All of my female friends have had grave trouble with this and it has caused a lot of grief.
“It doesn’t have to be like this. It should be better, it can be better and I believe it will be better. That is why I am here today and why I have been with the cause for decades,” she added.
This year’s Laique Pride event was originally scheduled for April but was postponed after a wave of separate anti-sectarian protests started in February.
The anti-sectarian demonstrations attracted many of the same supporters, drawing in thousands of protesters nationwide, before petering out in April following disputes about the movement’s objectives.
Lebanon’s governing system functions on a power-sharing model based around the country’s 18 officially-recognized sects. Under the existing rules, the post of president is reserved for a Maronite Christian, that of prime minister for a Sunni and the role of parliamentary speaker for a Shiite.
“In the Arab world they only have one tyrant, but in Lebanon we have many, represented by the warlords that have been in control for the last 30 years,” said protestor Talal Ammouni, who brought his two young sons to the march. “I believe in [anti-sectarianism] because we don’t want them anymore.
“All they did was build their own fortunes and their own small entities inside Lebanon,” he added. – Additional reporting by Reem Harb