Lebanon News

Protests as uprising enters second month

A couple dances in front of razor wire set between protesters and the Grand Serail in Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT/JIYYEH: From Beirut to Baalbeck and Nabatieh to Tripoli, tens of thousands of Lebanese marked one month of protests Sunday in an outpouring of unity reminiscent of the first night demonstrations kicked off. Sunday’s protests were markedly tamer than those that exploded onto the streets on Oct. 17, when property was destroyed and fires set in main roads and highways. But one month on they have maintained their energy, and the movement has birthed hundreds of small initiatives that have given life to the squares in towns and cities around the country.

Case in point Sunday was a series of musical and artistic interventions in Downtown Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square that saw artists exhibit uprising-themed paintings and musicians taking turn rapping revolutionary rhymes. “We’re here painting the Lebanese people’s dreams,” one artist said.

By nightfall, Downtown Beirut was filed with thousands of people young and old, with children playing and parents waving flags as the uprising’s hits played over large sound systems. Similar scenes played out in Tripoli, Taalabaya, Fakiha, Sidon, Nabatieh, Jounieh and a number of other towns and cities, with numbers ranging from the hundreds to the thousands in each location.

Sunday was dubbed the “Sunday of Martyrs” as a tribute to those who have fallen during the uprising.

Since it began 32 days ago, hundreds of thousands of people have called for an overhaul of the decades-old sectarian political system, the resignation of the government and the formation of a technocratic one, along with parliamentary elections and an early end to President Michel Aoun’s now 3-year-old term.

So far, they’ve gotten a response on just one of those demands: the fall of the government, brought on by resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Oct. 29.

And so protests have gone on.

Demonstrators have increasingly given nods to others in the region struggling against repressive regimes. In Riad al-Solh Square, a large Palestinian flag was unfurled as chants of “Palestine, we are with you till death” were shouted.

Protesters in Riad al-Solh Square also chanted “From Tehran to Beirut, one undying revolution,” after large protests broke out in Iran over the weekend over a 50 percent hike in fuel prices. Lebanon’s uprising exploded after the announcement of a tax on WhatsApp calls that came as an increase in value added tax was being considered.

Scores of demonstrators had earlier in the day gathered at Beirut’s Zaitunay Bay, a symbol for protesters of opulence and corruption. The private coastal development project is part-owned by former Minister Mohammad Safadi, whom establishment parties had agreed to name as premier last week before he withdrew his candidacy 48 hours later. The Zaitunay Bay development has been accused of infringing on public property.

In a statement Sunday, Safadi said he had called Financial Prosecutor Ali Ibrahim to set a time to discuss the Zaitunay case. He also said he’d urged the judge to open a full investigation into the topic and hold accountable anyone who had committed a violation, so Safadi could “close this case once and for all.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of Iqlim al-Kharroub residents gathered Sunday morning outside the aged Jiyyeh power plant, where they had breakfast and ate cake to celebrate the protests’ one-month mark.

Demonstrators carried Lebanese flags and signs decrying the environmental and health hazards of the plant, which runs on heavy fuel oil rather than cleaner and more efficient natural gas. “I am not exaggerating when I say my youngest son cannot breathe. The plant produces toxins, and officials should destroy this plant,” Abdel-Wahab al-Zaart said as he carried his 4-year-old child.

“Look at the plant’s toxic emissions. It is more dangerous than wars. This is a slow death,” Hasan, who was protesting with a group of friends and did not provide his surname, told The Daily Star. The plant often emits a brownish smoke.

“For 30 years, darkness has been reigning over us and our future. This plant and other power plants still use fuel oil ... and it got worse with the power barges that increased the pollution,” Hasan said.

Successive governments have failed to revamp Lebanon’s aged energy sector since the country’s Civil War, which ended nearly 30 years ago. An Energy Ministry plan to overhaul the electricity sector was endorsed in April but has seen slow implementation, with tenders not even launched six months later.

A breakfast protest was also held in the Bisri Valley, where dozens joined a group of demonstrators who have been camped out there for a week to oppose a controversial dam project there.

The weekend did not pass without controversy. A protest Saturday dubbed the “Revolution Bus” aimed to drive from Akkar in the north to Tyre in the south. The Army halted it near Sidon. A group of people had gathered to prevent its entry, claiming foreign embassies were funding the bus and that it was affiliated with the Lebanese Forces.

“We heard the rumors and no, the U.S. Embassy is not financing ‘the revolution bus,’” the embassy wrote Saturday on Twitter, using a “facepalm” emoji.

So is it a revolution? “I prefer to call it a revolution because there’s unity through protest that is unique in Lebanon’s history,” Sami Nader, the director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, told The Daily Star. “It toppled a government, and it’s been a long time since a government has been democratically toppled in the street,” he said.

Over the past month, he said, protesters had shown their strength by imposing their own agenda and sticking to it while refusing cooptation and repression by parties in power. Most recently, they won a victory by scuttling the appointment of Safadi as premier. “The people have recovered their role as the source of authority and power,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 18, 2019, on page 2.

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