BEIRUT (AFP) — Lebanon marked 76 years of self-rule Friday, with protesters joining festivities nationwide instead of a military parade to mark what they say is a first year of “real independence.”
Christians and Muslims from across the political spectrum have for weeks marched together united in their rejection of a governing class they deem inept and corrupt.
The youth-led movement has boosted a new cross-sectarian pride in the small Mediterranean nation that was torn by a bloody 1975-1990 civil war — a fresh sense of optimism that was on full display Friday.
“We’re all here together to build a new Lebanon,” said one reveler in the crowds in Beirut’s central Martyrs’ Square, Karl, a middle-aged cyclist with a national flag draped on his bicycle.
As night fell, dance music boomed out from loudspeakers and thousands waved lighters, mobile phone flashlights and candles, while others lighted balloon lanterns and released them into the sky.
Throughout the day, tens of thousands had massed across the country for outdoor festivities, with the upbeat mood in stark contrast to the sober state ceremonies held in the morning.
The street movement brought down the government last month, though a new cabinet has yet to be formed.
The demonstrations have brought together people from different religious and political backgrounds, who share the hope of sweeping out a system they say is broken and often unable to provide even basic services.
“It’s the first time Lebanese from all religious communities have protested en masse without a political party calling for it, and against all parties,” said 21-year-old university student Tamara.
“That’s real independence — one that’s organic.”
Lebanon achieved independence on November 22, 1943, after 23 years under a French mandate, following an earlier wave of demonstrations that brought together the country’s Christians and Muslims.
But the country was ripped apart in the 1975-1990 civil war.
Two more foreign powers occupied the country — Israel from 1978 to 2000, and Syria from 1976 to 2005.
A post-war accord sought to share out power between Lebanon’s various religious communities, but the country remained deeply divided along sectarian lines.
Many Lebanese however now feel united by the new protest movement, whatever their backgrounds.
In a sign of defiance on Friday, demonstrators in Beirut replaced an iconic symbol of the protests, less than 24 hours after it was burnt down by an unknown perpetrator.
After dark, dozens of demonstrators in Martyrs’ Square hauled into place the giant cutout of a clenched fist, inscribed with the word “revolution.”
In the afternoon, huge crowds cheered on an alternative civil society parade representing various groups, from students and farm workers to scouts, hikers and bikers.
A team celebrating nature clutched flowers and tree branches, while elsewhere women were clanging saucepans, as they have done every evening to protest against the government.
And a troop of expatriates — the Lebanese diaspora being famously widespread — pushed suitcases in front of them.
About 600 Lebanese expatriates were expected to be traveling in, from the Gulf, Europe, North America and as far afield as Australia, to join the party.
“I hope this independence day will be a turning point,” said Leila, a woman carrying cymbals in both hands.
“Our pockets are still empty but we’ve found a new dignity,” she told AFP, before zipping back into the crowd.
Wajed, a 26-year-old activist, also said this year’s independence day gave him fresh hope.
“We want to emancipate ourselves from the corrupt people governing us,” he said.
A revised version of the national anthem is making the rounds online to pay tribute to Lebanese women, many of whom have played a central role in the protests.
Two people have so far been killed during the protests, a far cry from the hundreds dead in similar demonstrations in Iraq.