BEIRUT: Hezbollah supporters marred the ninth day of nationwide demonstrations Friday after clashing with protesters and riot police in Riad al-Solh Square.
Nevertheless, protesters vowed to continue taking to the streets, despite the violence that involved throwing rocks, sticks and chairs.
The group that infiltrated the anti-ruling class protest group chanted, “Abou Hadi,” a reference to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah. The group was protesting against chants that targeted Nasrallah.
After multiple sporadic clashes between the Hezbollah supporters on the one hand and riot police and protesters on the other, the police formed a human chain separating both groups. “Shame on them for beating girls and women. They pushed me and pulled my hair,” one of the protesters in Riad al-Solh Square said of the all-male group of Hezbollah supporters.
Hezbollah supporters then simmered down, listening to Nasrallah’s speech at 4 p.m. in the square surrounded by riot police.
Addressing supporters in his speech just after the scuffles, Nasrallah called on them to leave the demonstrations. They responded and withdrew, but as they did, scuffles erupted again between them and other protesters.
Riot police intervened and pushed the supporters out of Riad al-Solh Square, but they headed to the nearby “Ring Bridge,” amid high security presence.
Supporters on scooters and in cars also roamed different areas, such as in Beirut, Tyre and Ghazieh.
A similar group joined the protests in Riad al-Solh Square Thursday and clashed with them, wounding six people. Protests in the square had been free of violence since Saturday. At least three protesters were wounded, as well as two riot policemen.
Within an hour after the Hezbollah supporters left, the square was full again, with demonstrators chanting defiantly, “All of them means all of them.”
“We’re continuing - we’re not going to stop,” said Sana Abdo, who was in the square with a friend after the clashes. The two women have been joining the protests every day since they began. Abdo decried both the violence and Nasrallah’s insinuations that protesters were being paid.
“We are coming down by ourselves, and what is happening is not right and what is being said is not right,” she said. “We are coming because of ... the corruption that is rampant in the country.”
Maya Sidawi, a student protester who was in the square when the clashes broke out, said, “It is not unexpected, but of course we feel deeply upset.”
But she said she did not expect protesters to be deterred by the violence. “I can’t predict how the public psyche will react, but up until now I see that the people are steadfast against all forms of state violence,” she said. “We are not going to allow any of the sectarian leadership to usurp this moment of unity among the people.”
Some were reassured by Nasrallah’s order for his supporters to leave the demonstration.
Rania Abbas came to the square with her husband and two small children after the clashes died down and after Nasrallah finished his speech.
“Why should we be afraid?” she said. “Now the sayyed asked anyone who loves the resistance to get out of the square.”
Abbas blamed “infiltrators” for the unrest that broke out Friday. She said she had asked one of the Hezbollah supporters what happened as he was leaving the square.
“He told me, ‘They started cursing the sayyed, and we got together against them.’ I asked him, ‘How did they curse the sayyed?’ He told me, ‘They were saying, ‘All of them means all of them, and the sayyed is one of them.’ I told him, ‘That’s not a curse.’”
Even some who are sympathetic to Hezbollah had decided to remain with the protests. Ahmad Fares, originally from Baalbeck and living in Beirut was in the square when the clashes broke out. He said he had been protesting every day and planned to stay.
“True, I’m Shiite, and I’m with the resistance against Israel,” he said. “But I want electricity, I want water, I want a clean environment, I don’t want trash, I want health care, I want hospitals, I want pensions. ... In this state there are no public institutions that work, in all of them there’s corruption. This isn’t a state. We want a state.”
Earlier Friday, highways connecting north and south Lebanon to the capital and connecting east and west Beirut remained blocked with protesters, tires, tents and makeshift barriers. “Road closed for homeland maintenance,” a sign on a blocked bridge said.
Roads in Jal al-Dib, north of Beirut, and Khaldeh, south of Beirut, were blocked since the early morning hours.
During a protest in Furn al-Shubbak, a soldier in a private car with his wife and child attempted to pass through a blocked road. The protesters, mostly women, prevented the car from passing.
A video circulating online showed the soldier grabbing a woman by the neck and pushing her to the ground.
The Army defended the soldier’s actions in a statement, claiming he was reacting after protesters attacked his wife and child and threw hot coffee at them as they tried to walk through the blocked road.
The protesters denied the Army’s version of events, saying the soldier had attacked them first.
Later in the day, Free Patriotic Movement supporters gathered in Jbeil and Batroun, holding the FPM flags and chanting “all of them.”
A joint statement from the American University of Beirut and Saint Joseph University “condemned all attempts to suppress the protests,” and called on the security forces to protect the demonstrators “many of whom are our students, faculty, staff, and alumni.” The statement urged the “Lebanese authorities to respond, at the soonest, to the aspirational hopes of the people.”