Beirut, Lebanon – Riot police have broken up an anti-government protest in Beirut where at least 10,000 people had gathered to demonstrate against a services crisis.
The police chased men and women from the city’s Riad al-Solh square shortly after 10pm, beating both men and women as they cleared the area. Several protesters were arrested.
The demonstrators had gathered in downtown Beirut to call for the resignation of officials responsible for the current waste crisis and for new elections.
The police earlier had called for peaceful protesters to move from the square after protesters set fire to rubbish and began climbing through a barbed-wire barricade.
The organisers of the YouStink! protest, said they would give the Lebanese government until Tuesday to meet their demands, including the resignation of the country’s environment minister, otherwise the group would escalate its efforts.
Earlier, on Saturday, the atmosphere at the rally was festive with families carrying signs, singing songs and shouting chants. Sandwich stands and ice cream trucks were rolled out, providing food and drinks to those attending.
The protest follows several weeks of tension over the country’s ongoing rubbish disposal issue and the government’s failure to provide other services such as water and electricity.
Banners held up by the crowds called for the downfall of the government while others listed demands including accountability, fixing the country’s rubbish crisis, and removing the 128 parliamentarians from office.
Riot police just chased us out of Riad Al Solh. Started beating protestors- both men and women. #Beirut
— Nour Samaha (@Nour_Samaha) August 29, 2015
“People are not ‘welcome’ to join, people should join – it’s their duty as Lebanese citizens to come down today,” Marwan Azzi, a 34-year-old businessman from Mount Lebanon, told Al Jazeera. “We are all here today because we are sick of the politicians taking us for fools.”
Protest organisers said the rally had drawn 30,000-40,000 people, while security sources put the figure at 10,000.
Wissam Saliba, a 26-year-old producer, said: “This is the first time ever we are waking up and breaking the old system that has chained us. We are fighting for our basic human rights.”
The protesters are also demanding the release of all who were detained in previous demonstrations.
Earlier in the night the security forces unfurled a massive banner from one of the abandoned buildings, which read: “We are here for your protection,” which was greeted with loud jeers from the crowd.
Last weekend, tens of thousands of people attended two rallies which descended into violence after security forces opened fire on the protesters.
Security forces used water cannon, tear gas, live ammunition and rubber bullets, while also beating many, leaving hundreds injured over the space of two days.
Human Rights Watch has since called on the government to investigate the excessive use of violence by security forces “and refrain from repeated violence against demonstrators”.
Further scuffles erupted again earlier this week as protesters continued to hold sit-ins downtown. On Tuesday, security forces severely beat dozens of protesters and arrested several more, as activists called on the country’s interior minister, Nouhad Machnouk, to be held accountable.
Call for restraint
Machnouk has since announced an investigation into the incidents, and on Friday admitted excessive use of force was used during last Saturday’s protest.
Civil society activists, under the movements of You Stink! and We Want Accountability, are demanding accountability against those involved in the use of excessive force against the protesters, new elections to replace the current government – which had previously cancelled elections and extended its own mandate twice – and the resignation of Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk, for failing to resolve the ongoing rubbish crisis.
“We started as dozens of protesters and now we’re thousands,” Asaad Thebian, an activist with the You Stink! campaign, said during Friday’s press conference. “We are demanding parliamentary elections.”
As the protests have gained momentum, many politicians and parties currently in government have been issuing statements of support for the protests, despite the fact that they are the same figures being named and shamed in the demonstrations.
The country has been without a president since May 2014, and the parliament has been unable to convene in full in order to vote for one, with cabinet ministers unable to decide how to make decisions, let alone address ongoing issues.