BEIRUT: Lebanon's security apparatus took off its gloves on the evening of the second day of mass protests in Beirut Friday, tackling protests with force and making dozens of arrests.
Riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters across Downtown Beirut, after they had been dispersed from Riad al-Solh Square by an earlier tear gas attack, in which a number of demonstrators were reported to have fainted.
Lebanese Army soldiers deployed onto the ring bridge near Beirut's Bechara al-Khoury and were seen aiming their weapons at protesters and journalists.
Another group climbed into Army vehicles and made their way toward protesters, with the apparent intention of breaking them up by force.
Protesters had spread throughout the Downtown area, many smashing shop fronts and throwing flares. As they were spread out, no longer in a unified mass, riot police and Lebanese Army units were able to pick off and arrest protesters more easily.
Fires continued to blaze as tires and debris burned.
In Baabda, protesters also clashed with security forces as they attempted to reach the presidential palace on the second day of mass protests against the country's dire economic situation, new tax proposals and the corruption of the political class.
The Internal Security Forces said that a total of 52 officers had been injured in the protests Friday and that they had arrested 70 people.
In a tweet, Interior Minister Raya El Hassan called on protesters to show restraint, avoid vandalism and refrain from attacking Civil Defense. Earlier in the evening, Civil Defense ambulances were attacked as they arrived at Riad al-Solh Square to treat those wounded in clashes with security.
The head of the Lebanese Red Cross, George Kettaneh, told local TV channel LBCI Friday evening that its medical teams had treated a total of 160 people over the two days of protests.
Demonstrations and roadblocks that had started Thursday continued Friday in cities and towns across Lebanon. Protesters called for "the toppling of the regime," the slogan of the 2011 Arab revolutions, and condemned tax hikes in the biggest protests since the 2015 garbage crisis.
As the day went on, more and more protesters arrived in Downtown, gathering in the capital's Riad al-Solh and Martyrs' squares. They set light to a modern, uninhabited building just off Matryrs' Square and lit a trail of debris in the middle of the road that runs alongside.
There were also large demonstrations in the northern city of Tripoli, with protesters pulling down posters of the city's most powerful political figures. Bodyguards of former MP Misbah al-Ahdab opened fire on protesters, reportedly wounding seven. At least other three people in Tripoli were treated for smoke inhalation.
Throughout the day, protesters intermittently blocked highways across the country, including the main highway connecting the capital to the airport and south Lebanon with metal barriers and burning tires.
In Sidon, protesters sat in the middle of the streets, while others burned tires and blocked main roads.
Some protesters also pitched tents in the middle of key roads east and south of Beirut and remained there late into the evening.
Rubble, smoldering wood, burnt tires and overturned dumpsters partially blocked main roads inside the capital. Cars slowly passed by the remnants of Thursday’s fires, causing heavy traffic, as people headed to work.
Banks, schools and universities were closed Friday as authorities feared an escalation of the overnight protests that were marred by violence in the capital.
While most senior officials did not directly comment on the protests, Cabinet was set to meet Friday afternoon in a session chaired by President Michel Aoun at Baabda Palace to discuss the recent escalation.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri later canceled the session as the protests continued, before delivering a speech around 6:40 p.m., saying he would give politicians 72 hours to agree on a solution. Protests continued afterward.
Education Minister Akram Chehayeb announced Friday that the school and university closures would continue through Saturday.
The protests erupted after the government’s discussion of tax increases and the introduction duties, including a $0.20 levy per day for WhatsApp calls. The plan for a WhatsApp call fee was abruptly revoked late Thursday night.
“It’s shameful that this is happening, but [the politicians] have pushed people to the edge of the abyss,” 23-year old Magalene Mrad said. “The world has closed around us and all they can do is tax the poor. Soon, we will have to start paying for the air in this country,” she said.
“We are asphyxiating. We can’t take it anymore.”
The U.S. Embassy in Beirut issued a security alert, urging Americans to avoid areas of demonstrations and to monitor local media for updates on location and activity. Similar warnings were issued by the Saudi and Egyptian embassies.
The Kuwaiti Embassy asked citizens planning to travel to Lebanon to wait, owing to the unrest.
"The embassy also calls on citizens currently in Lebanon to take utmost care and stay away from crowds and demonstrations," the embassy said in a tweet.