BEIRUT: Thousands of protesters marched through Beirut Sunday morning to condemn Lebanon’s living conditions and political system, escalating in the afternoon as Lebanese soldiers beat up demonstrators and camerapeople with batons.
The protest was called for by multiple activist groups on social media, including the Sabaa Party and the Lebanese Communist Party, to express outrage over the monthslong government formation deadlock and myriad issues that have long plagued Lebanon. Top officials had projected that a Cabinet would be formed by Saturday night, but last-minute obstacles crushed hopes it would come together even before the New Year.
Demonstrators shouted, “The people demand to overthrow the regime!,” as the protest kicked off in the morning from Martyrs’ Square, where the Army had deployed a number of armored vehicles, at Riad al-Solh Square, just opposite the Grand Serail, where Internal Security Forces personnel deployed.
Local media reported that protesters were throwing water bottles at police, and that a demonstrator was inadvertently injured when one hit him in the head.
Later in the afternoon, as the demonstration scattered into smaller groups across Downtown, some protesters blocked a street in front of the Beirut Digital District building with dumpsters. Army soldiers later moved the dumpsters and opened the road.
As they headed south toward Bechara Khoury, small skirmishes broke out and Army personnel were seen running after protesters and beating some of them with batons, as some demonstrators burned trash and threw dumpsters toward security forces.
Soldiers beat people trying to take photographs, including a Daily Star photographer reporting from Bechara Khoury who was grabbed around the neck and slammed to the ground.
“You see this? This is Lebanon. These are our rights,” one of the protesters told The Daily Star as the Army dragged two people into an armored vehicle.
The state-run National News Agency reported that Army personnel blocked the road between Martyrs’ Square and Bechara Khoury to prevent protesters from returning to the square.
As the protesters marched toward Hamra, armored vehicles followed the crowd on the highway, emptied of other vehicles. Multiple protesters blocked the roads with dumpsters as they marched.
Demonstrators who formed a human chain in Hamra were also beaten by security forces, and during a live broadcast on Al Jadeed, a soldier was seen kicking and hitting the cameraman with a baton as he was filming, breaking the camera.
ISF and Army forces alike were seen pushing protesters away, several of whom appeared to be injured.
Local media reported that the Army Information Branch arrested several people. The Army also called on protesters to disperse and called for reinforcements to deploy in Hamra, reports said.
At around 4:30 p.m., the Army released a statement “stressing [its] respect for the right of civil protest, freedom of expression and the right to make demands.” It called for “a civil protest” and requested that demonstrators refrain from “vandalizing private and public property.”
After their march to Hamra, dozens of protestors returned to Riad al-Solh. LBCI reported that the protesters said they will stage another demonstration Wednesday.
Earlier in the day, LBCI reported that protesters also blocked the seaside road, but were later thwarted by security forces.
A primary demand among the several thousand protesters was for the next government to improve the healthcare system, fight pollution and fix the economy.
“We cannot overthrow a government that is not there,” one protester told TV cameras broadcasting live from the demonstration in the morning.
Another protester expressed frustration that politicians failed to follow through on their promise to form a government by Christmas. “We expected a government yesterday, and they told us it would be a ‘Christmas gift.’” He also lamented the results of the May elections. “We want a government of technocrats, and we were given a chance in the parliamentary elections to change, but many didn’t vote.”
Another protester admitted that he had accepted money to vote for one of the established political parties. “We voted because they gave us money. Hezbollah offered $100, the Amal Movement offered fuel coupons and the Future Movement offered $100. I am here because I regret [accepting] it.”
One picket sign seen in the crowd said, “Ali Baba and 128 thieves,” referring to the number of Parliament members.
“We are hungry, we cannot find jobs. We came from Bekaa, and we do not have anything,” another protester said.
"We are beggars, we are hungry. Shame on them. We want education and jobs," another protester said.
"The country is corrupt ... everything is corrupt," another added.
Local media reported that a protest was also staged in the southern coastal city of Tyre, and that tens of protesters gathered at Tripoli’s Tal Square to demand “the rights of Tripoli.” A protest was also staged in Nabatieh’s Kfar Roummane, local media reported.
Social media activists had called for the Beirut protest on Facebook using a symbol of a yellow vest with a cedar tree logo, and at least one activist group dispersed yellow vests to protesters.
Mass anti-government demonstrations in France known as the “yellow vest” movement began earlier this year, and protests in a number of other countries have since adopted the symbol.