Beirut, Lebanon – At least a dozen Lebanese banks across the country were torched and vandalised during the second consecutive night of angry protests fuelled by frustration over the national currency’s unfettered depreciation.
Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets from Beirut to southern Sidon along with Nabatieh, the Bekaa Valley, and Tripoli and Akkar in the north.
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While it was unclear how many civilians were hurt, 81 security personnel were injured across the country during attempts to contain the riots, including 50 in Tripoli, the military said.
The largest and most violent protests took place in the northern city of Tripoli – Lebanon’s second-largest, and poorest, city, after protester Fouaz al-Semaan died on Tuesday from wounds sustained while protesting the night before.
The 26-year-old man’s sister, Fatima, said the Lebanese army shot him. The military expressed its “regret” over the killing without directly claiming responsibility and said it launched an investigation.
Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday the army’s heavy-handed response to the protests had inflamed tensions. It called for a transparent investigation into al-Semaan’s death, the results of which it said should be made public.
Protesters in Tripoli began setting banks on fire on Tuesday afternoon after the al-Semaan was laid to rest, and clashes continued into the early hours of Wednesday as they were chased through the streets by soldiers.
In southern Sidon, a branch of the central bank was pelted with at least half a dozen petrol bombs, with cheers going up from the crowd of demonstrators each time a Molotov hit its mark.
مصرف لبنان في صيدا يحترق pic.twitter.com/PLRoepOEqt
— Paula Naoufal (@PaulaNaoufal) April 28, 2020
Banks were also set on fire in Beirut and the southern city of Nabatieh.
At a Sidon commercial bank, protesters broke in and set a fire. They then gleefully sang “happy birthday” outside.
— مجموعة شباب المصرف (@msmasref) April 28, 2020
Protesters are furious over the rapid slide of the Lebanese pound, which has plummeted in value by more than 50 percent in about six months.
They have lashed out at banks throughout the demonstrations because of harsh capital controls that have entirely phased-out withdrawals in foreign currencies, which were previously standard, and even limited withdrawals in the pound.
Poverty, already at about 50 percent earlier this year, worsened during a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown that has been in place since mid-March.
Social Affairs Minsiter Ramzi Mousharafieh estimated 75 percent of the population require aid in a country of about six million – but that aid has been meager and slow to come.
Massive anti-government protests that began in October and paused during the lockdown are now returning angrier and more desperate.
While Lebanese flags and signs with elaborate slogans used to be ubiquitous in mixed crowds of families with children, increasingly it is young men and women who are taking to the streets, rocks and Molotov cocktails in hand.
The Lebanese Red Cross said it had treated 30 injured people in Tripoli on Tuesday and took six to the hospital. Dozens were injured the day before, some by live fire and others by rubber-coated bullets.
The Lebanese army has not yet released figures from Tuesday night, but said 54 soldiers in total had been injured across the country during attempts to unblock roads and quell protests the day before.
Tensions with the army
While the Lebanese military is one of the country’s few respected institutions, perceived to be above the sectarian bickering that permeates the rest of the state, attitudes on the streets have been shifting.
Protesters previously handed out roses to soldiers, but there have been no such acts of kindness over the last few days.
“The army are not our brothers,” a woman told a local news reporter as she marched through the streets of the capital Beirut. “They are shooting at us to protect the politicians.”
In Tripoli on Monday night, people pelted soldiers with rocks and other projectiles as protesters were chased through the streets. The sound of pots and pans being banged rang through narrow alleyways, in a sign of support for the demonstrators that has become popular during Lebanon’s uprising.
Earlier Tuesday, protesters smashed the windshield of a military vehicle, leading the soldiers aboard it to bail out as it rolled backwards, hitting a pole before coming to a halt.
Chaotic moment soldiers in #Lebanon abandon a military jeep during a clash with protesters in northern Tripoli.
— Timour Azhari (@timourazhari) April 28, 2020
A military vehicle was set on fire in Tripoli on Monday night in the middle of Tripoli’s al-Nour square, the main scene of clashes that just a few months ago had been filled with jubilant, thousands-strong demonstrations that became famous for loud music spun live by DJs.
On the southern highway near the town of Naameh, protesters threw stones at soldiers, leading them to quickly retreat and shoot live rounds into the air. Twenty-one troops were injured in the violence.
Still, protesters say their issue is not with the army itself, but with the politicians they say it is protecting.
“To Army Commander Joseph Aoun, we say that you should stand with the people, not in our face,” a protester told another reporter in southern Sidon.
In Tripoli, soldiers and protesters suddenly became a single front when an unknown gunman, apparently part of the security detail of a local lawmaker, shot at demonstrators from a rooftop, wounding one.
Protesters and soldiers rushed towards the source of the shooting side by side.
“The army and the people have become one hand, glory to the army,” a man shouted. “In a single moment, the people have turned back to the army.”
Nineteen protesters were arrested in Tripoli, as was the man who shot at demonstrators.