BEIRUT: Lebanon teetered on the edge of total chaos Sunday night as anti-government protests in Downtown Beirut descended into riots, rattling the Cabinet and leaving at least 50 demonstrators and security forces injured.
Anti-riot police chased protesters through the streets of Beirut hours after Prime Minister Tammam Salam brushed off their call to resign. Around midnight, the Army deployed in the area and cleared the rioters after they began destroying public property.
At the urging of the You Stink campaign, thousands of protesters, enraged by the government’s inability to solve a garbage crisis that began mid-July, gathered near the Grand Serail at Riad al-Solh Square for a second straight day, calling on Salam to step down.
After an initially peaceful protest, demonstrators slowly moved toward Martyrs’ Square, chanting “The people want the downfall of the government,” and “Revolution!”
“We want our dignity, and after the security forces shot at us, we now want the government to leave,” said 35-year-old Mohammad Ghandour.
A couple hundred protesters stayed behind and clashed with police from across a barb wire barrier, setting fire to a police motorcycle.
Shortly after, police fired tear gas, forcing the protesters to pull back. Some responded by throwing water bottles and rocks.
Around 9:10 p.m., You Stink spokesperson Imad Bazzi called on protesters to leave Downtown and return to Riad al-Solh Square on Monday 6 p.m. for a new protest.
A majority heeded his call. The remaining protesters were relentless in their efforts to overcome a barbed wire fence erected by ISF personnel around the Grand Serail.
Some smashed cars and storefronts in Downtown, a commercial district, and set large fires in Martyrs Square, burning billboards and trash containers.
Police used rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons to disperse the protesters and chased them through downtown.
Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk gave instructions to security forces “to contain the situation and preserve security, public property, and the right of demonstrators to express their opinion in line with laws in effect.” He made his remarks after chairing a meeting at the ISF General Directorate.
Bazzi and other You Stink officials denied that the rioters who had battled police in Riad al-Solh belonged to their movement, accusing political parties of sending supporters to stir up the violence.
Media reports said one man suffered grave injuries to the head caused by what protesters say was a bullet. There was no confirmation of media reports that he died in hospital.
The Red Cross said it had transferred at least 50 wounded protesters and security personnel to hospitals for treatment, as Health Minister Wael Abu Faour called on medical centers to receive all cases.
“There are some cases of suffocation and others suffering from [bone] fractures,” George Kettaneh, head of the Lebanese Red Cross, told The Daily Star.
The ISF said 36 of its members had been wounded in the clashes, with one in serious condition.
Police first began firing water cannons at the protesters around 7:20 p.m., initiating a series of violent actions that resembled scenes Saturday’s demonstration, also called by the “You Stink” group.
The Internal Security Forces had cracked down on a You Stink protest Saturday, firing live ammunition, rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons. At least 75 demonstrators and 35 officers were wounded.
People across Lebanon briefly blocked roads in solidarity with the Riad al-Solh protesters, while others did so in support of the Cabinet. Late Sunday, Ali Slim, a spokesperson with the You Stink campaign, read a statement calling on protesters to regroup Monday in the same square.
“We entirely refuse to negotiate with the Cabinet until it takes clear and effective measures to guarantee that it will hold accountable political and security officials, and backs down on the excessive use of violence against protesters,” he said.
Slim also said that the movement refused to discuss any issue with Salam before he resigns.
The campaign called on Lebanese to continue to demonstrate, urging Lebanese expats to gather in front of the embassies in their countries of residence to express solidarity.
Salam said Sunday that those responsible for the use of force against peaceful protesters would be held accountable.
“The events of yesterday [Saturday] cannot pass without holding those responsible – at all levels – to account. I will not protect or provide [political] cover to anyone [involved],” Salam said during a news conference at the Grand Serail.
“All political parties are responsible for paralyzing the government and for the presidential interregnum, and as I have said, this paralysis will have negative effects on the country,” Salam added.
He said that due to his belief that the situation required a swift and radical solution, he had set a Cabinet session for Thursday, with items related to people’s most pressing needs at the top of its agenda.
“I and [my] people will continue to be patient, but my patience has limits and it is tied to [the public’s]. If your patience runs out, I will make the right decision.”
“There will be no need for a government anymore if Thursday’s session is not productive,” Salam said.
Several politicians voiced support for Salam, urging him not to resign.
Speaker Nabih Berri was quoted by his visitors as saying, “People have the right to yell. What is happening is a legitimate act. But at the same time there is no alternative for the Cabinet, particularly amid the presidential interregnum.”
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri voiced support for Salam and the premier’s attempts to energize the government and address the garbage crisis.
He condemned the extreme security measures taken against the protesters, warning against attempts to drag the country into chaos.
“We must remind [people] that the mission of this government is to reinforce security and stability and manage the affairs of the State until the problem of the presidential vacancy ... is solved,” Hariri said in a statement.
Hariri admitted government negligence in finding a solution for the garbage crisis, but noted that there is difference between “objecting to the garbage crisis and demanding its swift end and calling for the fall of the government and the system.”
“Toppling the government means toppling the last legitimate stronghold and taking Lebanon into the unknown. We will not allow the collapse of Lebanon and its legitimacy.”
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea called on the thousands of demonstrators who poured into Downtown Beirut to remain put until lawmakers elect a new president.
“We are ready to join demonstrators until MPs participate in electing a new president, then we [can] head toward the formation of a new government,” he said in a news conference.
FPM leader Michel Aoun responded to Salam in a statement, saying that his sterile bid to contain the situation and “blackmail attempt” would not pass “without a suitable response both inside and outside the Cabinet.”
In what appeared to be an attempt to assuage protesters, Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk said Sunday that the announcement of tenders for waste management in Beirut and Mount Lebanon would be moved up to Monday from Tuesday.
“The bidding results will be moved to Monday afternoon instead of Tuesday,” Machnouk said in a statement issued by his press office.
He said the move came in light of a request by Salam to redouble efforts to solve the crisis.
Earlier Sunday, Lebanese State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud ordered Military Prosecutor Judge Sakr Sakr to open an investigation into Saturday’s clashes.
The state prosecutor also ordered the interrogation of protesters accused of assaulting security officers.
Sakr and Anwar Yahya, head of the Judicial Police, will meet at 12 p.m. Monday with Hammoud to brief him on the course of the investigations.