Angry confrontations in Lebanon before parliament sitting

Thousands thronged the capital’s cobbled streets amid tear gas and fireworks to call for an independent government.

Beirut, Lebanon – Thousands of protesters clashed with security forces in Lebanon on the eve of a parliamentary sitting that is expected to select caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri to form a new government. 

Security forces fired tear gas and threw stones at protesters on Sunday who gathered outside Beirut’s Nejmeh Square, where parliament is located, and which has been closed off to the public since the outbreak of nationwide protests started 60 days ago. 

Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter at least four protesters had been injured by rubber-coated bullets. 

For nearly two months, protesters have sought to remove a ruling class of former civil war-era militia leaders and businessmen who they accuse of bankrupting the country through corruption and mismanagement. 

Facing enormous street pressure, Hariri resigned on the 13th day of protests. But more than six weeks later, the main demands of the hundreds of thousands who have taken to the streets – namely, the formation of a government of independent experts and early elections – have not been met. 

Instead, Hariri seems set to return after a number of other candidates failed to garner enough support from Lebanon’s Sunni establishment.

Lebanon’s prime minister must be Sunni under the country’s complex sectarian power-sharing system.

“Saad, Saad, Saad, don’t dream that you’ll come back again,” protesters chanted outside parliament before the violent clashes erupted.

Street battles

Following a violent crackdown by security forces in the capital the previous night, many protesters arrived ready for confrontation, wearing helmets and gas masks. Some had sticks. 

One group arrived wearing blue helmets and were cheered on by other protesters as they walked towards the square. 

“There is no peaceful any more,” one of the men, who identified himself as Tony, told Al Jazeera. “We are peaceful now but, if they fire any tear gas at us we will not be peaceful. We have the right to defend ourselves.”

A man next to him added: “Peaceful didn’t work with them – we’ve had 60 days of peaceful and look where it’s gotten us.”

As protesters gathered outside Nejmeh Square, some began throwing water bottles and fireworks at security forces blocking the entrance, with cheers going up from the crowd when the fireworks exploded.

“Do it again, do it again,” they chanted. 

Lebanon protests
Lebanese riot policemen run from firecrackers set off by supporters of the Hezbollah and Amal groups, as they attempted to attack anti-government protesters in Beirut on Saturday [Hussein Malla/AP Photo]

Then, security forces charged at protesters and fired tear gas, while many also threw stones, injuring a number of people. Security forces pursued protesters through the city’s cobblestone streets and onto the central Martyr’s Square, where an hours-long standoff ensued.

Investigation called

Police at the Parliament last week had attacked protesters as they passed near the speaker’s Beirut house, smashing cars and beating several people, including a journalist. On Saturday night, security forces, including the parliament police, cracked down on protesters gathered outside Nejmeh Square, firing tear gas and beating the crowds. 

Caretaker Interior Minister Raya Haffar El Hassan on Sunday called for an investigation into the crackdown, which saw armoured vehicles mounted with water cannon and tear-gas rounds deployed. 

As the clashes unfolded on Sunday night, she asked “all the revolutionaries present in the squares and streets of central Beirut to evacuate immediately because of the presence of infiltrators, who are working to attack the security forces for suspicious purposes”, in a phone call with local news channel MTV.

Hassan said that the “infiltrators” sought to prevent binding parliamentary consultations for the selection of a new prime minister on Monday.

But protesters said they were fed up and had been left no choice but to escalated matters.

“People are angry,” Abdo, a 21-year-old finance student told Al Jazeera from Martyrs Square, as tear gas canisters landed nearby and were thrown back at riot police by protesters. “Yesterday, they allowed parliament police to beat us while we asked for our rights – these are not demands, these are rights that are provided in any respectable country,” he said.

“We are not thugs but poverty and hunger will take this country towards chaos, towards ruin,” he added.

LEBANON-POLITICS-DEMO  Protesters chant slogans as they march during a demonstration outside the Interior Ministry headquarters in the Lebanese capital Beirut on December 11, 2019. IBRAHIM AMRO / AFP
Protesters who have been on the streets for weeks are angry at economic mismanagement and the entrenched political elite [Ibrahim Amro/AFP]

Protesters have also been angered by what they say is a disproportionate use of force against them, while supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement have repeatedly attacked security forces and peaceful protesters with little accountability. 

A large group of these men advanced on the city centre from an adjacent neighbourhood on Sunday night, for at least the sixth time since the protests began.

But as they neared Martyrs Square protesters charged in their hundreds to confront them. They threw rocks and fireworks and brandished clubs while chanting slogans against Nabih Berri, the head of the Amal Movement, whom they called a thief. 

‘Really a revolution’

Soldiers eventually pushed the two groups apart, and the clashes fizzled out about midnight. 

“The Amal boys just got beaten up, we pushed them back and let them run away like rats,” Khaled, a 40-year old unemployed truck driver from Tripoli, said as he walked back down the road from the site of the clash.

“This is the first time we feel like this is really a revolution,” he added, raising the wooden club in his hand. “Lebanon’s revolution won’t work any other way, and it’s the politicians who have let it get to here.”

Lebanon protests
People in Lebanon gathered near parliament on Sunday amid concerns that Saad Hariri would once again be chosen to form a government [Timour Azhari/Al Jazeera]

Despite hailing from an area usually seen as a Sunni support base for Hariri, Khaled rejected the former premier’s re-appointment because he was “one of them” – a member of Lebanon’s ruling elite.

Protesters instead want someone from outside the political class to head the next government – a demand that seems to be supported by Jan Kubis, the United Nation’s representative in Lebanon.

“Tomorrow [Monday] is the moment of truth,” Kubis said in a tweet late on Sunday. “Either politicians will show at this critical moment of deep complex crisis they understand the needs of #Lebanon & its people & help steer a peaceful way forward, or that they remain captive of their traditional habits & attitudes. Act responsibly.”

The international community has called on Lebanon to quickly form a government that can deal with the country’s worst economic and financial crisis in a generation, which has already begun to cause the shortages of basic goods. 

“They are fighting dead people,” one protester hailing from Tripoli told Al Jazeera, as he reflected on the night of clashes. “We are dead from hunger already, they’re hitting dead people who have already lost everything.”

Source: Al Jazeera