BEIRUT: The deteriorating economic situation and living conditions drove hundreds of dissatisfied Lebanese to protest and block roads across the country Sunday.
The demonstrations, called for by online activists, brought hundreds to Martyrs’ Square in Beirut Sunday morning, before spreading to other areas of the city.
Protesters tried to find ways into Nijmeh Square, the location of Parliament, but police had securely blocked all access.
A large group of marchers met a wall of riot police near the Beirut Municipality building, facing one of the square’s entrances.
Riot police were more lenient than they have been at previous protests, later allowing the protesters to pass through the roads leading to Riad al-Solh Square.
In a statement, the Internal Security Forces commended its officers, saying that they showed restraint, “and carried out their duties ... within the law.”
However, tensions later escalated amid sporadic pushing of the police by protesters in an attempt to enter the Grand Serail. Police were seen pushing protesters away with shields and striking them with batons.
Some demonstrators, attempting to restore calm, stood between angry protesters and the police.
“We are calling for our simplest rights. Hospitals, electricity, water, putting an end to squandering and theft [of public funds],” one protester said.
Members of the Sabaa Party held signs demanding early parliamentary elections. Military veterans, who have protested numerous times this year against austerity measures in the 2019 state budget, were also present.
“Down with the [Central] Bank rule,” many chanted.
“Revolution,” others said.
A confluence of recent events has brought the country’s precarious economic and financial situation to the forefront of public concern. The ability of the state to service more than $85 billion in national debt has been called into question and already hard-pressed citizens now face a wave of austerity measures.
At the same time, an apparent lack of U.S. currency in Lebanon’s highly dollarized economy has led to unofficial exchange rates considerably higher than the authorized trading band of LL1,501-1,514 to the dollar. Were the pound to devalue, it would harm many state workers, pensioners and other retirees.
Economic growth, which stood at just one-quarter of a percent in 2018, has been nonexistent in 2019.
In such a climate, many people are particularly sensitive to what appears to be unnecessary and extravagant government spending. For instance, many protesters criticized the number of people who accompanied President Michel Aoun to the United Nations’ General Assembly. Reports claimed that Aoun’s delegation was made up of 160 people, but the presidency later cited the number as “only 60.”
“To President Michel Aoun, who they refer to as the father of everyone. When a father sees that his children are hungry, he does anything to feed them, not spend more,” one protester said.
Asked who was responsible for the financial crisis, Aoun said in a statement Friday: “I was in New York. You should ask the people concerned,” adding that he “was unaware” of what happened in Beirut during his trip to the United Nations General Assembly.
One protester made his frustrations clear, saying, “They rule the country, they are the majority. This is their responsibility.”
The protesters later marched to a main bridge connecting Beirut’s east and west. They spilled trash cans and burned them, along with tires, blocking the highway and its surrounding roads.
This was followed by more burning tires in Bekaa, Tripoli, Sidon and at least a dozen other areas.
Tensions escalated as security reinforcements arrived to open the roads near Bechara Khoury roundabout. Riot police were seen beating at least one protester with batons.
In its statement, the ISF added that its officers were forced to defend themselves after rocks were thrown at them by some protesters.
It also said that measures were taken against officers who were seen to be aggressively dealing with a protester in a video circulating on social media.
At least five people were injured, two taken to hospitals and many more arrested. “There is no fuel, there is no food,” one yelled as he walked away from security.
“There is no future,” another added.