BEIRUT: Lebanese protesters Tuesday resisted security forces’ attempt to remove metal barriers that blocked roads in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, the epicenter of anti-government protests. Access to Martyrs’ Square has been blocked off to traffic since Oct. 17 when the uprising first began, in a demand of an overhaul of the entire ruling class.
Protesters said they were surprised to see security forces removing the metal barriers around the Squares’ entrances Tuesday morning, heaping them on to trucks and allowing traffic to momentarily pass through for the first time in months.
Shortly after, protesters responded by reclaiming the barriers and dragging them back into position to block the surrounding area once again. They also used garbage containers, metal rods, planks of wood and other materials found nearby to form roadblocks.
“They’re trying to put a stop to the protests and tell us it’s over. But it’s not over. I’ll die here,” 20-year-old Hani Ali said.
Ali has lived in the tents that were erected in Martyrs’ Square since the start of the mass protests.
“Making sure this area remains blocked off means that the revolution is still alive,” Ali said.
Martyrs’ Square has become a rallying cry against the privatization of public land, as masses of people reclaimed the space and made it their own by setting up stages, food stalls and pitching tents for various initiatives. Works of art and graffiti also emerged as a visual reclamation of space.
The removal of the barriers is a way to bring back the normalcy of the situation in Beirut Central District before the protests began, according to Nizar Hassan, an organizer for direct action group Li Haqqi, which has been instrumental in the mobilization and the organization of the protests.
“It’s important to protect the areas of protests, the squares of the revolution. As long as these squares, areas and tents survive, then the protests will survive,” Hassan told The Daily Star.
“It’s really symbolic because when you remove the tents and squares, you bring back the normal scene ... you prevent the sense of ownership people have [established] with these spaces and that was born in the revolution,” Hassan added.
New Interior Minister Mohammad Fahmi denied allegations that he had issued the decision to remove the metal barriers as a “security measure to break up the protests.”
Fahmi said in a statement that the decision was made with the aim of “facilitating traffic for citizens in the capital.” Fahmi could not be reached for comment.
Earlier Tuesday, travel and tourism agency owners protested inside the Middle East Airlines offices in Hamra.
The protesters claimed MEA had been dealing with them in dollars while selling tickets to customers directly in Lebanese pounds. They also briefly clashed with security personnel while protesting.
The protesters told local TV channel Al-Jadeed that this practice by the MEA has been negatively impacting their business.
However, a source close to the MEA said that travel agencies deal with an international aviation company that only accepts dollars, which is why they have been forced to exchange Lebanese pounds at exchange shops - where the rate is around LL2,000 - and thus have raised their prices.
MEA sells tickets at the official rate of the Central Bank of LL 1,507. As a result customers have increasingly started to book flights directly from MEA, the source said.
Lebanon has been facing a dollar crunch for months, and the value of the national currency has fallen as a result. The dollar is valued at around LL2,000 at exchange shops but the Central Bank has maintained the official peg at LL1,507.