Lebanon marked 76 years of self-rule on Friday, with protesters joining festivities nationwide instead of a military parade to mark what they say is the 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 on Friday.
“We’re all here together to build a new Lebanon,” said Karl, a middle-aged cyclist with a national flag draped on his bicycle in the crowds of Beirut’s central Martyrs’ Square.
As night fell, dance music boomed from loudspeakers and thousands waved lighters, mobile phone torches 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 — 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,” 21-year-old university student Tamara said, adding: “That’s real independence — one that’s organic.”
Lebanon achieved independence on Nov. 22, 1943, after 23 years under a French mandate, following an earlier wave of demonstrations that brought together the country’s Christians and Muslims.
However, the country was then ripped apart in the civil war. After which, two more foreign powers occupied it — 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.
“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 said, before zipping back into the crowd.
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