Protesters in Lebanon defiant despite intimidation attempts

Protests that paralysed the country for more than a week continued despite attempts to intimidate protesters.
Saturday 26/10/2019
 Police carry a demonstrator to open a blocked highway during ongoing anti-government protests in Beirut, October 26. (Reuters)
Unshaken resolve. Police carry a demonstrator to open a blocked highway during ongoing anti-government protests in Beirut, October 26. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - Protesters across Lebanon remained defiant despite attempts to appease them by a ruling elite they accuse of driving the country’s economy to collapse through corruption and mismanagement.

Protests that paralysed the country for more than a week continued despite attempts to intimidate protesters by followers of Iran-backed Hezbollah who reject criticism of their leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Dressed in plain black T-shirts, supporters of Shia Hezbollah and the Amal Movement wrestled with protesters in central Beirut, shouting: “Nasrallah is more honourable than all of them.” The chant was in reaction to the protesters’ call for the resignation of “all without exception.”

Some people threw stones and sticks, threatening to turn the peaceful protests violent. Riot police with masks and batons were dispatched to defuse the situation, which appeared to be growing more tense.

“We will continue (the protests). We will not allow them to break our dream of living united from all regions and all sects,” shouted one protester.

“This is a peaceful demonstration. It is unbelievable that these thugs are attacking us and riot police alike,” a clearly shaken man said.

The protesters appeared determined to force a change in government notwithstanding emergency reforms announced by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, calls by President Michel Aoun to negotiate with the government or advice carrying veiled threats by Hezbollah to heed the president’s invitation for dialogue.

Analysts said distrust and lack of confidence with the political elite are so deep that protesters won’t be convinced to vacate the streets unless they get concrete and serious concessions, including a government change that would bring in independent figures and technocrats.

Nasrallah, who spoke shortly after his supporters clashed with protesters, said the protests were no longer spontaneous and popular but have become politicised, adding that political rivals who are critical of Hezbollah’s political line were manipulating the protests.

He insinuated that the protests had been exploited by international and regional powers against his party.

“What started as a popular expression of anger against corruption and deepening economic crisis is being steered by some political groups who are financing it and who are as corrupt as those the protesters are against,” Nasrallah said

Echoing calls made by Aoun, Nasrallah welcomed talks with representatives of the movement to voice a “clear set of demands.”

The movement has yet to present a tangible agenda to the government. Instead, it has continued in a decentralised fashion with protesters of all walks of life voicing their discontent on television.

Nasrallah, who had evaded demonstrators’ anger up to this point, has not been spared. Protesters have lumped him into the ruling class they accuse of leading Lebanon down a treacherous path.

“As usual Nasrallah is seeking to scuttle the protests by insinuating that they are politically motivated and supported or motivated by foreign powers… Always the conspiracy theory to abort any attempt to make a change,” said one activist who asked to remain anonymous.

Ahmad Bshennaty, a 19-year-old university student who has been participating daily in the protests, told Al Jazeera: “He (Nasrallah) is coming up with conspiracy theories just to get people to stop revolting but that’s not going to stop us. We’re going to come here every single day. All of them (should go) means all of them.”

Unified by socio-economic woes, unemployment, inflation, austerity measures, government corruption and disdain, the often-divided Lebanese public has been flooding public squares across the country in the largest protests in 15 years to demand the government’s resignation.

Sparked by proposed new taxes, the protests that mobilised the people across regions, sects and backgrounds, have shaken the country and top leaders.

Lebanon has $74.5 billion in public debt, creating one of the world’s highest debt-to-GDP ratios.