BEIRUT: Violent clashes between security forces and protesters in Downtown Beirut wound down Saturday evening, following the largest demonstration since coronavirus lockdown measures stifled the momentum of the Oct. 17 uprising.
Hundreds of Lebanese had gathered in Martyrs’ Square at 3 p.m. to protest the country’s deteriorating economic and living conditions, exacerbated over the last three months by coronavirus restrictions. The national currency has lost more than half of its value on the parallel market, prices have soared, and many have lost their jobs.
The peaceful protest devolved into violence after tensions came to a head when Hezbollah and Amal supporters attempted to advance on crowds, but were blocked by the Lebanese Army.
The confrontations lasted several hours as riot police fired rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters lighting fires, breaking store windows and hurling rocks in Downtown Beirut.
The Army, security forces and tanks were quickly deployed to clear protesters from the area. Crowds were pushed out of Martyrs’ Square and dispersed to the main north-south highway, Saifi, Riadh al-Solh and the street outside of Parliament.
The Lebanese Red Cross reported 48 people injured, 11 of whom were taken to hospital. Security forces in a statement asked “peaceful citizens to withdraw from places where riots are taking place to preserve their safety.”
The clashes came just after a group of Amal and Hezbollah supporters threatened to clash with protesters, running toward the crowds from under the Ring Bridge. The Lebanese Army formed a human wall to block the advancement, as dozens of protesters ran toward the supporters of the two largest Shiite parties in the country.
The Hezbollah and Amal supporters could be heard chanting in praise of Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah as well as, “Shiite, Shiite, Shiite.”
Shortly before the altercation, protesters launched rocks at the Army and Security Forces, which retaliated with smoke bombs.
Violence at Saturday’s protest had been highly anticipated, due to conflicting demands of protesters and activist groups.
Unlike previous street protests, Saturday’s demonstration witnessed a new call by some protesters for Hezbollah to disarm and the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which demanded the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, including Hezbollah.
This demand has caused anger among Hezbollah and Amal supporters.
Supporters of the Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb Party, which are part of the government opposition, as well as the Sabaa Party have called for protests with the primary demand of holding early elections.
Some independent civil society groups have opposed holding early parliamentary elections, as they believe the electoral system will work in favor of politicians and only serve to perpetuate the corrupt nature of elections in the country.
However, many protesters and activist groups are calling for Lebanese to remain united under the original Oct. 17 demands, which called for the ousting of the political elite they accuse of corruption, mismanagement and squandering of public funds.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab Thursday cautioned protesters that they would plunge the country into chaos if they resorted to blocking roads, clashing with security forces or vandalizing public and private properties.
Saturday’s protesters had initially started on a more peaceful and cordial note. Demonstrators earlier in the day had filled the streets of Downtown Beirut and crowded the steps of Al-Amin Mosque in Martyrs’ Square, the original epicenter of the popular uprising in October 2019. Many protesters did not wear masks or adhere to social distancing measures.
“Everything that is happening in this country is wrong ... we will stay here until they change the system and the politics and end the corruption,” protester Salam Ayash, 57, told The Daily Star.
“I want my kids to be able to live and work here and they can’t because there’s no future. The corruption is unbelievable, and enough is enough. We have to change the whole thing and get rid of the government,” said Nada Abu Fadel, 45.
Security forces and the Army surrounded the area and closed off streets around the square and Riadh al-Solh with caution tape.
Crowds gathered around a newly erected stage with loud speakers by the iconic 6-meter-tall cutout of the revolutionary fist, in scenes reminiscent of the October uprising. Dozens of vendors set up shop to sell food, Lebanese flags and protest paraphernalia to demonstrators.
"I'm protesting for my future, because this is my country," said Yumna, 24. "I want to live here, I want to work here and I can't, the country is dying."