Beirut, Lebanon – Lebanon‘s caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri has announced he would not seek the top post again, on the eve of twice-delayed talks to name a new prime minister that were expected to lead to his selection.
Hariri’s announcement on Wednesday came 50 days after he resigned the post amid massive protests against the ruling elite that in recent days have escalated into clashes of an increasingly sectarian shade.
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Hariri said he would still participate in the process of selecting a new prime minister on Thursday, which is done through a series of meetings between MPs and President Michel Aoun, so that there were no further delays in the process.
It remains unclear who will be named prime minister, with Hariri’s Future Movement parliamentary bloc set to hold a meeting Thursday morning.
Any prime minister must be approved by the majority of the 128-member legislature.
Religious tensions rise
Hariri’s announcement comes as tensions between protesters, security forces and supporters of some establishment parties have started to rise, more than 60 days after the uprising began.
Protesters have taken to the streets to call for the removal of the entire ruling class, who they accuse of causing an economic and financial crisis in the country. Their main demands, which include the formation of an independent government of specialists to lead the country out of the crisis, as well as early elections, have not been met.
Beirut awoke on Wednesday to a large cement wall blocking roads that have been a focal point of clashes between security forces and supporters of the Shia Hezbollah and Amal Movement parties in recent nights.
Men chanting “Shia, Shia” repeatedly pelted riot police with stones and fireworks and burned and vandalised cars before being pushed back by tear gas the previous night.
The parties have a large following in the Khandak neighbourhood across the road from downtown Beirut, part of which has been transformed into a large protest camp.
The wall has sealed off three main entrances to Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square, the birthplace of the protest movement.
A spokesperson for the Internal Security Forces did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.
Protesters said they suspected the barrier served the dual purpose of making it more difficult for groups of Hezbollah and Amal supporters, as well as peaceful protesters, to enter the downtown area.
“The wall is ugly, and its definitely not here to protect us. It’s here to protect them (politicians),” Petra, a protester in Riad al-Solh, said after squeezing through a narrow gap left for pedestrians.
“They are making it as if they are our enemies, or we are their enemies,” Petra told Al Jazeera, pointing towards the Khandak neighbourhood. “But we are one people, even if our opinions differ.”
Protesters have held repeated demonstrations in front of Nejmeh Square, the location of Lebanon’s parliament, which is accessible from Riad al-Solh.
The protests devolved into running street battles on Saturday and Sunday, during which security forces allegedly used “excessive force”, according to Amnesty International.
Caretaker Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan afterwards admitted that some “mistakes were made,” and the Internal Security Forces have launched an investigation.
On Tuesday, construction also began on a metal barrier in front of an entrance to Nejmeh Square.
‘Suicide before incitement’
Speaker Nabih Berri, the head of the Amal Movement, denied any role in the incitement of sectarian strife, saying he would “give orders to commit suicide before we give orders to [incite] sectarian strife.”
Berri said that there was no political cover by his party for those who “target national unity and civil peace”.
Hezbollah and Amal on Monday both called on their supporters to leave the streets after a man who said he was from the Sunni-majority city of Tripoli shared a video of himself insulting Shia religious figures and politicians. However, the men remained in the streets for several hours afterwards.
A similar call was made on Wednesday night in a joint statement released by Hezbollah and Amal in which they said their supporters should “not be dragged by rumours and should promote nothing that pushed strife between the sons of one country”.
But supporters of the two parties again attacked a protest encampment in the southern city of Nabatieh Wednesday after they had done so on Monday and Tuesday, burning protesters’ tents.
Protesters have criticised the security forces’ response to attacks by supporters of Amal and Hezbollah as lacklustre.
Separately on Tuesday night, a group of men in Tripoli burned down a Christmas tree that had been set up in a main protest square. Another one was quickly put up by protesters on Wednesday.
Several marches took place in Beirut and northern Tripoli Wednesday to oppose the sectarian incidents of the past days.
Dozens of men marched through Tripoli’s streets, led by people holding a banner that read “down with the strife of the sectarian state”.
In Beirut, protesters marched from the Christian Sassine neighbourhood and from the Interior Ministry towards the cement barrier in downtown Beirut and then onwards towards the entrance to Nejmeh Square.
“We went to tell them that our religion is Lebanese,” a protester in Sassine told local news channel Al Jadeed, before protesters chanted “Revolutionaries, Liberators, we’re going forward.”
While the numbers present at Beirut’s main protest site have dwindled since the uprising began on October 17, the women and men who remain there say they are determined to carry on through the winter – even those well into old age.
Mariam Fares, who said she was in her 70s, recounted memories of protests-past with her late husband.
She pulled out a picture of them sitting in front of security forces at a protest in 2015, when tens of thousands filled Beirut’s streets to demand the removal of the ruling elite, in demonstrations sparked by mismanagement of the country’s waste sector.
“We’ve been coming down for a long time – not for ourselves, for our children,” Fares said.
“There are some nations that provide you with what you need to live, and other states that try to kill you,” she explained. “Right now, everyone needs to focus.”