Lebanon News

No going back: demonstrators shift to violence as patience expires

BEIRUT: The heightened violence of clashes between protesters and security forces in Beirut over the weekend looks set to remain ongoing as Lebanon’s mass uprising nears its 100-day mark. “I think [Saturday] was a very small taste of what’s to come,” 49-year-old Basma Barakat told The Daily Star Sunday in rainy Beirut. “It is likely to get more violent.”

Running battles between riot police and protesters across Downtown Beirut lasted for more than six hours Saturday night, leaving at least 377 people injured. Rocks and fireworks thrown by protesters were met with water cannons, rubber bullets and rounds of teargas.

Clashes began in the late afternoon as protesters gathered outside Nijmeh Square, the seat of the Lebanese Parliament, where they were met by newly fortified barricades and reels of barbed wire.

Hundreds, including busloads of protesters from north Lebanon, returned Sunday for a demonstration titled “no going back.” Many of them said the time for peaceful protests had been and gone.

“We finished the peaceful part, now it needs chaos,” Mustafa, 19, from Akkar, said through a faded red scarf wrapped around his face.

Some protesters, including 21-year-old Mohammad Ali, blamed security forces and the political figures that give their orders for the increased violence.

“The politicians want the peaceful revolution to be over,” said Ali, who drove down to Beirut from Tripoli Sunday.

One of the most widely condemned incidents over the weekend was a confrontation between protesters and riot police on the steps of the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque. Eyewitnesses said that police fired tear gas and were attacking protesters in the building’s entrance.

“If they’ve entered the house of God, it’s clear they don’t want to be peaceful,” Ali said.

High unemployment, a failing economy and limited access to essential social services such as health care and regular electricity are some of the key factors that have pushed hundreds of thousands to the streets since Oct. 17. As those in power fail to act to address increasingly difficult living conditions, 19-year-old Ghina Kabboush, from Beirut, believes protesters have no choice but to resort to more aggressive tactics.

“The people are hungry ... but [the politicians] aren’t responding to us,” she said.

For 31-year-old Hadi Ghannam, who comes from the Chouf, security forces’ intensified crackdown is in fact a mark of the uprising’s success.

“Finally the revolution targeted the right things: the banks,” he said.

Saturday, the shopfronts of commercial banks across the country were smashed, egged and covered in graffiti. The Central Bank was also targeted by protests last week.

Ghannam said he believed that violence is an essential part of a “real revolution.”

“If we are talking about a revolution, there’s going to be blocked roads, there is going to be blood, there’s going to be clashes with security,” he said.

While many expressed their support for an escalation of protests, there were attempts by others to prevent violence.

An MC used a loudspeaker to warn against attacks on police Saturday, to avoid injuries to women and children participating in protests. Later, as violence spread to Riad al-Solh Square, a nearby church rang out its bells as a call for peace and the imam of the mosque next door asked police to move away.

“We will remain peaceful until our demands are met. We are staying in the streets until that happens,” 65-year-old Abu Tabbara said.

Nevertheless, the failure of politicians to take action to address a worsening economic crisis and form a Cabinet to enact much-needed reforms has converted even those who at first believed in a totally peaceful protest. “A non-violent revolution needs patience,” Barakat said. “But right now, Lebanon cannot afford to be patient.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 20, 2020, on page 2.

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