BEIRUT, Lebanon – In the tightly packed crowds of Lebanon's biggest-ever protest, young and old threw a party: Children streamed in from schools, men and women snapped souvenir cell phone photos and demonstrators directed barbed jokes at Syria.
It was the broadest-based rally the opposition has held in its series of protests demanding Syria remove its forces from Lebanon and end its domination of the country. Druse (search) rolled in from the mountains east and southeast of Beirut, Christians from the heartland in the northeast — and Sunni Muslims turned out big from the north.
In the crowd, blond women with sleeveless tops and plunging necklines mixed with conservative Muslim women in headscarves and modest robes. Protesters who came in from Lebanon's different regions could be picked out by their distinctive accents.
A powerful turnout was key for the opposition movement, whose credibility was on the line after the Shiite Muslim guerrilla group Hezbollah (search) last week brought out a half-million people in support of Syria and after the Lebanese government brought back pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami (search), whose resignation had been the opposition's most concrete accomplishment.
And by all accounts, the opposition showed its pull on the street. More than 1 million people joined the rally, according to Lebanon's leading LBC TV station and some police officials. An Associated Press estimate put the number at over 800,000.
The coastal highway from northern Lebanon was turned into a one-way street, jammed with cars and buses bringing protesters. Flags fluttered from windows plastered with pictures of slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search), with kids leaning their heads out the windows to chant. Some people were stuck in their cars for up to six hours, others left their vehicles to walk.
Some even raced on speedboats to seaside Martyrs Square.
Along with TV ads, the opposition sent out a flurry of e-mails and telephone text messages calling on people to show up. One message pointed to Karami's claim that the Hezbollah rally showed the government has the support of the majority.
"Prove him wrong by being at Martyrs' Square," the call flashed across cell phones and computers.
Everywhere in Martyrs' Square were the red and white bars and green cedar tree emblem of the Lebanese flags. Men and women painted their faces with the colors — some with the cedar right over their noses. Bandanas, scarves, aprons and armbands bore the colors. And thousands waved flags, clambering over the minarets and scaffoldings of Mohammed al-Amin Mosque (search) or up nearby buildings.
"It is like a dream. I look at all these people and get tears in my eyes," said 32-year-old U.N. employee Sana Abi Khalil, who left work to take part. "This is the truth that the entire people knew but few had the courage to say out loud until now."
Children wearing backpacks came from schools, some brought by their parents. Thousands of people spilled over into nearby Riad Solh Square, where Hezbollah held its rally last week.
Under clear, sunny skies, protesters repeatedly sang their national anthem. Others chanted "Truth, Freedom, National Unity," or "We want only the Lebanese army in Lebanon." Lebanese soldiers stood idly watching the protest, taking no action to stop the demonstrators — unlike in some previous opposition protests.
"It was as if they were part of the protesters," opposition legislator Marwan Hamadeh said.
At 12:55 p.m. on Monday, the crowd became hushed to mark the exact time Hariri — the icon of the opposition — was killed in a huge bomb blast. Church bells tolled and flags rippled in the silence.
Many carried pictures of Hariri, and cars on street corners blared excerpts of his speeches. "We miss you," read one large banner. Another was addressed to Emile Lahoud (search), Lebanon's pro-Syrian president: "Lahoud. Please go go go."