BEIRUT: Tens of thousands of protesters stood hand in hand Sunday in a bid to form a 170-kilometer human chain spanning the country from north to south to symbolize national unity. Participants lined up peacefully along the coast in Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, Jal al-Dib, Zouk Mosbeh and Tripoli, on the 11th day of a nationwide uprising following Saturday’s violent clashes between the Army and protesters in north Lebanon’s Beddawi that left several people wounded.
Televised footage showed participants in Beirut, Sidon, Tyre and along parts of the highway. It was not clear whether they formed a continuous human chain from Tyre to Tripoli as announced.
However, organizer Julie Tegho Bou Nassif said that the participants successfully covered the entire distance by approximately 3 p.m., despite “some gaps.” Exact numbers of participants have not been confirmed, but organizers estimated that 170,000 people were needed to form a continuous chain.
The turnout “was very overwhelming to see and it confirmed our hunch that Lebanese people want to be unified and that they have come together,” Bou Nassif told The Daily Star shortly after the event ended at 3 p.m.
A history teacher, Bou Nassif said the idea to form the human chain sprouted spontaneously over breakfast early last week with her sister, Edith Tegho.
“I created a Facebook event and then by Thursday I was flooded by emails and phone calls with people across the country volunteering to help and organize,” Nassif said.
Earlier in the day, a Google map pinpointing over 40 locations where people could participate, detailed with volunteers’ contact numbers, circulated on social media.
Cyril Bassil, one of the main organizers working with Bou Nassif, said that by the end of the week there were over 300 volunteers from south Lebanon to Akkar in the north.
Bassil said the human chain symbolized “the unity of Lebanon no matter what social class or religion you come from. ... We are all one.”
“We’re all holding each other’s hand. When we think of each other as one, that’s when we start to work together. We need to live together and respect each other,” he said.
Participants from Martyrs’ Square to the Beirut Souks echoed Bassil’s sentiments, some citing Saturday’s clashes between the Army and protesters in Beddawi, near Tripoli, as a call for a show of unity.
“This [chain] is sending a message to those politicians that all religions and beliefs are joined together and are holding hands all the way to Tripoli. It shows we are against one corrupt system, especially after what happened in Tripoli [Beddawi] with protesters being hit and injured by bullets,” Jad Traboulsi, 16, said.
“This is the 11th day and the authorities aren’t paying attention. Enough,” he added.
The Army released a statement Saturday following the Beddawi clashes, saying that the incident began when a number of civilians tried to get through a road blocked by protesters with their car. When “an Army force tried to intervene ... rocks and fireworks were thrown at them,” which led them to “shoot into the air and [fire] rubber bullets.”
The wording of the statement was unclear as to whether rubber bullets were fired directly at protesters or into the air.
“It’s a peaceful protest and that’s exactly what we need right now after [Saturday’s] violence. Something to show that we are strong and we are completely together,” said 30-year-old Dina, a human chain participant.
A protester taking part in the human chain in the Raouche area said, “We’re proud to be Lebanese and that we are standing here to reclaim our rights.”
A participant in a wheelchair called on all Lebanese to join.
“We are taking our independence now. ... This is the last chance for the Lebanese people” she said.
Early Sunday, activists in Downtown Beirut, Zouk Mosbeh and Sidon began their daily cleanup campaign to clear the previous night’s trash. In Jal al-Dib, dozens gathered for Sunday Mass, which was held at the protest site.
As the day progressed in Downtown Beirut, tens of thousands of protesters poured into Martyrs’ Square, where the mood remained jovial but defiant.
Music blared from speakers and makeshift stages while vendors continued to sell food, beverages and protest paraphernalia including Lebanese flags and masks.
Tens of thousands of Lebanese also gathered in public squares in cities across the country including Tripoli, Sidon, Tyre, Nabatieh, Jal al-Dib and Zouk Mosbeh, as well as in the Bekaa Valley and other areas. The northern city of Tripoli once again witnessed demonstrators gathering in the central Al-Nour Square, seemingly unfazed by the previous day’s violence in nearby Beddawi.
Lebanese expats held solidarity protests in Sydney, London, Washington and Montreal. Hundreds gathered in each city, holding Lebanese flags and singing patriotic songs.
Through the day Sunday, the main highways connecting north and south Lebanon to Beirut remained blocked, while roads inside the capital were accessible. The northbound highway was blocked in Zouk Mosbeh, Jal al-Dib, Jbeil and other areas, while the southbound highway was blocked in Jiyyeh. A main road in Akkar’s Halba was later blocked by tires and cars, the state-run National News Agency reported.
Security officials had agreed on a plan Saturday to open roads across the country without the use of violence.
Earlier Sunday the “Ring Bridge” in Beirut was opened by protesters after security forces failed to keep it open Saturday. Activists said the road was opened to allow easy access to participants in a large protest scheduled for later Sunday in Downtown Beirut.
By the evening, scores of protesters resumed blocking the bridge from both directions.
On the western side, protesters diverted the flow of traffic toward Ashrafieh off the bridge, allowing only ambulances to pass. On the eastern side, protesters recreated an apartment, setting up furniture, including couches, fridges, desks and mattresses in the lanes of traffic headed toward Hamra. A football match ensued on the empty highway.
Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have been taking to the streets since Oct. 17 in protests against the ruling class and corruption. The protests started when ministers announced government proposals of tax hikes. The protesters are demanding that Cabinet and the president resign, and that new parliamentary elections be held.