The Media Line Reports from Beirut’s Ravaged Streets: At Least 6 Dead in Attack on Protest
The demonstrators were protesting against the judge investigating the Beirut Port blast, who critics allege is targeting Hizbullah allies
[BEIRUT] – Violent pro-Hizbullah demonstrations erupted Thursday in Beirut and across Lebanon in protest of Judge Tarek Bitar and the probe which he is leading of the August 2020 Beirut Port explosion. The protests began peacefully but then escalated as gunfire, rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) detonations, and sniper fire were heard near the Badaro district, known for its cafés and nightlife and populated mainly by Christian residents.
A statement released by Hizbullah and the Amal leadership on the Telegram channels used to organize the protests said that “the participants in the peaceful assembly in front of the Justice Palace were subjected to an armed attack by groups from the Lebanese Forces Party.”
“We call on the army and the security forces to assume their responsibilities in restoring matters and arresting the perpetrators of the killing,” the statement continued.
The Lebanese Forces Party is a Christian-based right-wing political party and former militia that fought during the Lebanese Civil War.
Following the deaths of at least six people in Beirut, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati apologized to the Lebanese people for the eruption of violence in an interview with Annahar newspaper. He also said that he had been informed by the army that the security situation in the capital was improved.
The protests in Beirut began just before 11 am in front of the Justice Ministry and were attended mostly by men from the predominantly Shiite Dahieh residential district and the Khandak al Ghamik area of Beirut. Protesters told The Media Line that Judge Bitar was being sheltered inside the Justice Ministry. Representatives of the Shiite-affiliated Amal and Hizbullah parties were present near the Justice Ministry, taking questions and interviews from the press. A truck mounted with large speakers was leading chants and slogans against Bitar, as well as cries of “Shiite, Shiite” and “Nasrallah and Berri,” the names of the party leaders, Hassan Nasrallah of Hizbullah and Nabih Berri of Amal.
The protest came hours after a Lebanese court declined to remove Bitar from the case in response to a lawsuit alleging bias. Bitar has moved to question senior politicians and security officials, many of them Hizbullah allies, on suspicion of negligence in the blast which was sparked by a significant amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the port.
A young Lebanese-Canadian man named Hisham told The Media Line that the judge had to be ousted because he is unfairly prosecuting ministers backed by Hizbullah. “Bitar is going after [Hassan] Diab, [Hassan] Khalil, and others,” Hisham said, “but what about all of the ministers before that? Hariri, Mikati, no one.” Rafic Hariri served as prime minister 2009 to 2011 and 2016 to 2020; Najib Mikati is Lebanon’s current prime minister and also held that office in 2005 and 2011-2014.
We all knew that since the beginning that they were going to try to target Hizbullah
“A lot of people are pissed off right now because of the inconsistency,” Hisham continued, after being startled by a volley of gunfire. “We all knew that since the beginning that they were going to try to target Hizbullah.”
Protesters said that the demonstration had been organized through Telegram and WhatsApp channels. The first notice of the protest came at 3:55 pm on Wednesday on a channel with over 7,000 subscribers and read: “Hizbullah to organize a small protest tomorrow near the Palace of Justice against Judge Tarek Bitar and the mismanagement of the investigation file.”
By noon it had already been reported that two people had been shot dead at a similar demonstration in another city.
Despite the apparent organization, protests have remained small considering Beirut’s population of 2.2 million, and many in Beirut suspect the legitimacy of the protesters’ motivations or their understanding of the issue.
A mother of two from Beirut told The Media Line on Wednesday night, as she was checking to see whether the impending protests would disrupt her children’s school schedules, that most of the protesters would be paid.
“They only follow their leaders, and since many will be from poorer families, the money they are given is hard to turn down,” she said.
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The Media Line was unable to determine if any protesters were being paid for their presence at the demonstration.
A woman in her early 70s who joined the protest told The Media Line, through a translator, that she was tired of the situation in the country and wanted better leaders. She was dancing and waving a large Lebanese flag, wearing a floral robe and a dark blue hijab. “There is nobody who is taking care of me, I’m by myself, and I’m here because that person (Bitar) will never bring justice to what’s happening at the port,” she said.
She stooped down to take off her shoe and used it to hit a poster featuring Bitar’s face held by a nearby protester, and then she ripped the poster from the man’s hands, tore it, and stepped on it with her bare feet.
Her level of emotion, however, was hard to find anywhere else.
Another middle-aged man wearing black slacks and a striped polo shirt, who did not provide his name, said as he calmly walked away from the main protest site: “We’re here because of inconsistency in the process.”
“Inconsistency in the process” was the main soundbite of the first two hours of the protest, echoing the posts on Telegram, WhatsApp and Facebook that had brought out many of the protesters.
The tone in the city by 1 pm on Thursday, just two hours after the beginning of the “small protest,” was discernibly tense. The voice of a concierge at the well-staffed and popular Smallville Hotel was veritably shaking as she denied this reporter’s request to record the skyline from the rooftop bar. “It is not because we are afraid of what you might do,” she explained, “but because there are snipers on the roofs and you might be confused as someone who is dangerous.”
As the protest continued, people were seen hurriedly leaving office buildings in the city. A young professional, Charbel, told The Media Line that he could not work with the sound of gunfire in the background. “I’ll just work from home, this isn’t worth it,” he said.
The clashes in the Tayouneh neighborhood, where the protests eventually moved, devolved rapidly. Videos have circulated that show RPG’s being fired and people being felled by unseen gunmen.
Ali Muhammad, a man in his 20s, also from the Dahieh district, told The Media Line that “there will be double the numbers tonight,” referring to the dead, while raising two fingers.
“Only with blood will things go right,” he concluded.
No one expects Beirut to return to normal the day after the deadly protest. Businesses were set to be closed on Friday as part of a day of mourning called by the prime minister for the six people killed in the violence. In light of the economic issues that have been plaguing Lebanon for the past two years, many fear that Thursday’s protest will be the flashpoint of a descent into sustained violence.
(Victor Cabrera is a former student intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)