Playing the numbers game

The coinciding commemoration of Rafik Hariri's death and the funeral of Hezbollah operative Imad Mugniyah had Lebanon's political camps fighting again over who owns the street - by proxy of the media.
Beirut 14 Feb 2008.jpg
The 3rd commemoration of Hariri's death. © S.M. for / Hezbollah militants pay their respects to Imad Mugniyah's father. © Ramzi Haidar for AFP / Getty

BEIRUT, Feb. 14, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Despite the heavy rain and fear of violence between rival political factions, hundreds of thousands of government supporters from all over the country took to the streets of the Lebanese capital today to participate in the commemoration of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, three years ago on February 14.

Only a few kilometers away, supporters from the country's leading opposition group Hezbollah gathered for the burial of their slain top security operative Imad Mugniyah, who was killed in a car bomb in Damascus on Tuesday night.

The death of Mugniyah unexpectedly threw Lebanon's political camps into another contest to see who could gather the most supporters in the streets.

February 14 is supposed to be March 14's day, and today's demonstration would have gone unchallenged by March 8 if it wasn't for the untimely death of Mugniyah.

On Wednesday, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah called for a massive rally at Mugniyah's funeral on the same day as the Hariri commemoration.

(Note to the uninitiated: In Lebanon's intricate numbers game, February 14, 2005, the date of Hariri's death, is claimed by the "March 14" coalition, which gets its name from the date of a huge anti-Syrian demonstration in 2005, while the opposition gets its name from March 8, 2005, date of a huge pro-Syrian demonstration. To make things even more complicated, Michel Aoun, Hezbollah's Christian ally, was still "March 14" on February 14 but joined "March 8" on February 6, 2006. Last year, some people even created the "March 11" movement in an attempt to cover the middle ground.)

In downtown Beirut, today, more numbers were being thrown out.

"168 martyrs. Thanks Syria," read one sign.

But the real numbers game is about how many people each camp can turn out in the streets.

"All parties in Lebanon are well aware of the importance a good showing at their rallies holds for their political position," the news site Now Lebanon wrote on Wednesday in an article entitled, "Behind the numbers."

"The key to holding a successful rally, those involved with organizational matters say, is ensuring that supporters from distant areas of Lebanon are assembled and brought to the site of the protest.  The larger parties pay for buses that bring people to downtown Beirut."

Interestingly, Now Lebanon, a "March 14" website, quoted an article from Ad-Diyar, a "March 8" newspaper, which in turn quoted a source from the Lebanese Forces (a "March 14" party) claiming that his party would provide up to 10,000 vehicles for transportation to the event. Some parties also distribute coupons to reimburse people for the gas money they spend to get to the protest, wrote Now Lebanon. 

Video by for MENASSAT.

What complicates the numbers game is that there is no independent way to verify the number of people that show up for a demonstration of either camp. There is no "police estimate," as with demonstrations in the West, to counter the number claimed by the organizers. (The Lebanese police wisely steers clear of the politically charged numbers game.)

So it is left to the media to battle it out.

Today, "March 14" websites started out quoting a figure of one million and a half people at the Hariri commemoration. This was later adjusted to "more than a million" after the French news agency AFP came out with a figure of one million.

(AFP is more courageous than most in actually naming a figure; most Western media preferring to err on the side of caution. The BBC, for instance, said that "thousands braved the rain to remember Hariri," which is always correct although a wee bit vague.)

The website of Hezbollah's TV station, Al-Manar, immediately latched onto the AFP figure, saying, "According to AFP, there were a million people there; giving the opposition the right to claim it was able to gather more than 2 million people in 2006."

That sounded a bit like sour grapes. For if it is undeniable that Hezbollah's December 2006 demonstrations outnumbered the March 14 demonstration after Minister Pierre Geyamel's assassination in November 2006, it is equally undeniable that today's turnout for the Hariri commemoration was, well, huge.

"It's definitely more people here this year compared to last", said one participant in the crowd today.

"Today's rally is much like that of last year. Almost as many people. Despite the rain," said a reporter from Orbit TV covering the event.

And that's saying a lot because it wasn't raining but pouring in Beirut today. Last year, the weather was lovely.

Al-Manar didn't give a figure for the turnout at Mugniyah's funeral, except to say that "huge crowds gathered", and, "Indeed, the processions of martyrs never stopped, as it's not meant to stop before complete victory."

The New York Times said 10,000 mourners packed the Sayyed Shohada'a Complex to bid farewell to Mugniyah.

(In all fairness, the opposition hadn't had much time to prepare, while the government camp had all year. So Hezbollah wasn't playing with a full deck of cards this time around.)

Downtown, feelings were high among Hariri supporters as they criss-crossed around military blockades on their way to Martyrs Square, the burial site of Hariri, holding banners, Lebanese flags, and photos of the late prime minister.

"I am happy with today's turnout. It was as I expected it," said Ahed, a member of the Democratic Left, adding that, "I haven't felt threatened at all."

One figure we can probably take for granted: 8,000 Lebanese government soldiers were deployed in Beirut today to prevent clashes between government and opposition demonstrators. They managed to keep the peace on a day on which many outside had predicted renewed clashes.

Danny, Delta, and Rudolf from the Lebanese Forces, a Christian faction of the March 14 movement, told MENASSAT that they had "no fear whatsoever" of coming to the rally.

Of course, several fiery speeches from the March 14 front figures were delivered at the Hariri commemoration, including that of MP Saad Hairiri, who condemned pursuits to "assassinate the majority and the government under the leadership of PM Fouad Siniora."

"The Syrian regime is pushing the Lebanese resistance to civil war," said Hariri.

Across town, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah blamed Israel for the death of Mugniyah, saying that "his blood will be the road to eliminate Israel" and that "Hezbollah is ready for open war with Israel."

Culture Minister Tarek Mitri summed things up nicely, saying, "The hazard of history has made it such that a large number of Lebanese will be commemorating the loss of Prime Minister Hariri while others, a large number of Lebanese too, would be mourning one of the leaders of Hezbollah."

In the end, it all comes down to this.

There were a lot of people on the streets of Beirut today.

It won't be the last time.

And to claim any less than one million people in a Lebanese street demonstration is to admit certain political defeat.

Alexandra Sandels contributed to this report from Beirut.