TRIPOLI, Lebanon: By early Tuesday afternoon, the day after Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his proposed slate of economic reforms, protesters had begun to filter back into Tripoli’s Nour Square, carrying Lebanese flags.
Initially the crowd was small. Vendors set up to sell kaak and juice. Parents took pictures of their children in front of the square’s distinctive statue spelling out the word “Allah.” A group of men played backgammon in the middle of the street.
By evening, the protest had swelled to thousands, and the space was overflowing once again with demonstrators, waving lighters and cellphones in the air, and calling for all political leaders to resign - an apparent rejection of the government’s proposed reform plan in a city that is traditionally one of Hariri’s strongest bases of support.
Ibrahim Taleb, who joined the demonstration with his wife and infant son, said the economic reform plan proposed by Hariri - which includes taxing bank revenues and cutting in half the salaries of MPs and ministers’ - was too little, too late.
“Every time the politicians promise us the problems will be solved, they just get bigger,” he said. “We can no longer live in this situation. We have children and we want to make a better future for them.”
Taleb added, “The proposals came too late. The problem is, the people no longer believe [political leaders]. If the people believed [the plan], they would have left the streets, but they no longer believe.”
University student Omar Masri, who has been in the square every day since the beginning of the protests, told The Daily Star: “In every election, they come and make promises, lie to us and leave, and then we don’t see them again.”
That includes Hariri, he said: “He came and took a selfie and left - should we be happy with a selfie? Where is the solution? ... The solution is for the government and Parliament to fall.”
Yara Abdo, a 20-year-old university student who was volunteering with the protests’ security team, agreed: “Even if they make 100 reform papers, we won’t believe them.”
Abdo said the problems go beyond economic issues to the government’s sectarian-based system of power sharing.
While Lebanese citizens are angry, she said, “Now, we have hope, and the hope is that we’re going to bring down the regime and build a civil state in Lebanon.”
The mass protests are unusual for Tripoli and demonstrate the unusual reach and breadth of the civil unrest that has brought people to the streets in all parts of Lebanon, representing all sects and social classes.
Ali Milyahieh, the proprietor of a coffee stand facing the Sultan Abdul Hamid clocktower, a few blocks away from Nour Square, said the current protests were the largest he had seen in the city in his 60-something years.
“It should have happened a long time ago,” he said.
As to why the popular movement has begun now, protesters and other residents not attending told The Daily Star that - beset by poverty and unemployment, and feeling abandoned by political leaders - the population of Lebanon’s second-largest city had simply gotten fed up.
“They are a bunch of thieves who haven’t left anything for the country,” protester Jamal Armoush said of Lebanon’s political leaders, citing as one example of government waste the cost of officials’ extensive security details.
“In other countries, a minister has a driver, and drives in one car. Here, if someone works with the minister, he will have 30 cars with him,” he said.
Meanwhile, Armoush added, his job in a shop that sells cheese and labneh barely allows him to cover the $4,000 per year cost of schooling for his three children.
“All month we’re working and it pays for food, and that’s it,” he said.
Others complained of the sectarianism and nepotism at work in the country’s politics.
“When someone who was an MP dies, his son comes, and when his son dies, his son comes,” protester Najib Alameddine told The Daily Star.
While all political leaders - including the prime minister - came in for a share of criticism, Tripoli residents reserved some of their harshest words for Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah has control over Lebanon - not the Army or anyone else,” said a patron of Milyahieh’s coffee stand, who asked not to be named. “Lebanon is held captive by a mafia, police-state party. It’s held hostage by Iran and the Syrian regime, too.”
The group of men gathered around the stand began spontaneously to chant, “The people want the fall of the regime.”
Those not taking part in the protests themselves said they share the same pain.
Omar Aysa, who works in a shawarma and snack shop near the Mina district, said, “May God protect him,” when asked for his opinion of Hariri’s plan.
But he added that people need something to change.
“I have four children and I’m not able to feed them. I work here just four days a month, and the rest of the month there is nothing,” he said. “The people are being choked - they’re pushed to the limit.”