Lebanon News

Protesters stare down political parties, violence

A Lebanese demonstrator carries a placard as she takes part in a rally in the capital Beirut's downtown district on October 20, 2019. / AFP / Anwar AMRO

BEIRUT: In the days since momentous demonstrations began in Lebanon, protesters have been faced with attempts by traditional parties to join the movement or violently force it off the streets. And across the country, women and men have been resisting these attempts.

“The big test was in the past two days [Friday and Saturday], with unprecedented violence by security forces and militias tied to parties. Despite all of that, even more people are on the street,” said Jean Kassir, a political activist.

“Their strategy isn’t working.”

Parties’ attempts to join the movement began within 24 hours of the first protesters setting foot on the ground. Progressive Socialist Party supporters, flags in hand, wearing partisan shirts, attempted Friday to join a protest in Baakline in the Chouf.

“They tried to enter and stand between us. We chanted, “All of them means all of them,” 24-year-old Nassim Nassif, who was on the ground at the time, told The Daily Star. He was referring to a slogan that became popular in 2015 protests against the government’s mismanagement of the solid waste sector.

“When their numbers increased, we decided to march somewhere else in order to maintain our independence,” he said.

“There is no place in the national movement for people holding the flags of their parties,” he added.

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, who at midnight Saturday announced the resignation of his ministers, had earlier called on his supporters to head to the streets without flags or party symbols, making it more difficult to tell them apart from the rest of the crowd.

Many responded to the call, especially in Kesrouan and Jbeil, where the party has popular support.

Similarly, Free Patriotic Movement MP Salim Aoun said, “Your goals are achieved by supporting the president and by standing with him, not by targeting and insulting him.”

But if chants in Lebanon’s squares are anything to go by, people are not convinced. Even in a country where insulting the president is illegal and can land you in prison, many have chanted slogans, some laced with profanity, accusing President Michel Aoun of thievery. They have also viciously attacked FPM leader Gebran Bassil, the president’s son-in-law.

“I think state propaganda is becoming more predictable and it’s harder to scare people with rumors or even violence,” Kassir said.

Some attempts to infiltrate the protests seem relatively tame, when compared to the violence that has occurred at others.

Former MP Misbah al-Ahdab Friday attempted to join protesters in Tripoli’s Al-Nour Square. Demonstrators responded by throwing water bottles and other projectiles toward his vehicle. Ahdab’s bodyguards then fired shots directly at protesters, wounding up to seven people, according to reports.

Infuriated protesters then forced Ahdab out of the square and destroyed and set alight a transport company belonging to the former lawmaker. Ahdab did not attempt to join them again.

Brutal scenes played out in Tyre, south Lebanon, this time led by armed gangs that protesters have claimed are affiliated with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

Demonstrators in Tyre and Nabatieh – both locations where Berri’s Amal Movement holds power – chanted Friday night, “Thief, thief, Nabih Berri is a thief.”

They had also chanted against his wife, Randa, who they accused of participating in corrupt property deals in the south.

The armed men fired directly into the crowd Saturday, wounding several protesters who were carried off on motorcycles. Videos circulated of Amal Movement supporters threatening violence against protesters and media. But, as in Tripoli, protesters returned in greater numbers than before by Saturday night and filled squares Sunday.

“The barrier of fear has been broken,” former minister and independent party leader Charbel Nahhas said of the recent protests in a video recorded from Riad al-Solh Square in Downtown Beirut.

This doesn’t mean the coast is clear. In his speech Saturday morning, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah said the party might take to the streets if it did not succeed in stopping new taxes that have so angered demonstrators. But the people are defiant. As Nasrallah, perhaps traditionally the most untouchable politician, took to the screen Saturday, protesters in Riad al-Solh chanted, “All of them means all of them, and Nasrallah is one of them.”

And that points toward an important shift since 2015, Kassir said. Back then, chanting against Berri or Nasrallah led to scuffles. Yes, protesters chanted “All of them means all of them,” but back then it was not universally accepted who “all of them” were.

But with Nasrallah clearly saying in his speech that he supported the survival of the government, and that everyone in power shared responsibility, he placed himself unmistakably on the side of parties in power.

“They have put themselves all in the same basket,” Kassir said. “They can’t escape from it anymore.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 21, 2019, on page 2.




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