Lebanese Step Up Protests Against Economic Hardship, Corruption
As president is due to meet with parties to choose head of next government, Lebanon’s streets rebel again
Security forces arrested a number of protesters near the Lebanese parliament building in Beirut on Saturday following clashes between police and demonstrators that resulted in at least five injuries and reportedly dozens more, two days before President Michel Aoun was due to begin consultations over whom to nominate to form the next government.
The protesters demand that the new government be composed of technocrats rather than politicians representing the country’s many ethnic and religious groups.
Riot police reinforced their presence in the center of the Lebanese capital after supporters of the Shi’ite Hizbullah and Amal movements again tried to force their way into the anti-government protesters’ location amid heavy deployment of the army.
Reem Haider, a protester who witnessed the violence, told The Media Line that hundreds of demonstrators were, as usual, demonstrating peacefully against the government when a group of men unfamiliar to the protesters entered the area and initiated clashes with the police in an effort to show that the protesters were trying to break into the parliament building.
“Two minutes before these guys came, we were protesting along with music and everything was OK. Then things flipped to a completely different scene as if someone switched it using a remote control,” Haider said.
“Following that, the army reacted aggressively against everyone and fired thousands of tear gas canisters and closed all checkpoints, locking us in and preventing us from leaving. People were on top of each other. We [the anti-government protesters] stood aside and watched, while the other guys continued to clash with the security forces,” Haider said.
Protests were also held in other Lebanese cities as demonstrators blocked the entrances to Tripoli in the north and roads to Sidon in the south. In the evening, they also blocked the Beirut-Damascus highway.
Asad Bishara, a Lebanese political analyst and writer who was an adviser to a former Lebanese justice minister, told The Media Line that the violence between the protesters and the police came at the order of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is also head of the Amal movement.
“Every time the protesters try to deliver a message peacefully to the House of Representatives, the latter’s police take to the streets to attack them, which is contrary to all laws and norms. The other day they attacked a journalist as well,” Bishara continued. “The responsibility lies with the Interior Ministry. How it does allow an official security apparatus under its authority to act in this manner, which is contrary to the rules? It must hold those involved accountable.”
He explained that the clashes were designed to disperse the demonstrations, contain the popular uprising, and impose a government similar to the one that the people had forced to resign because it was part of the problem. “The reformulation of the old government would represent a renewal of the failed and corrupted approach,” Bishara said.
He pointed out that the power struggle in the country was preventing the formation of a government. He added that the biggest player remained the popular uprising that was demanding a technocratic government of independent experts with legislative powers to advance the country and address its crisis.
“Additionally, we have [the former prime minister Saad al-] Hariri [the head of the mostly Sunni Future Movement], who believes that any government to be formed has to be approved domestically and regionally, where he would lead it but under his own conditions. At the same time, we have [the Shi’ite] Hizbullah [movement], which wants Hariri [to be prime minister] but under its own conditions,” Bishara added.
Mass demonstrations in Lebanon began on October 17 to protest government corruption, mismanagement, sectarianism, and foreign influence, and in response to a proposed tax on use of the WhatsApp messaging platform. The government of Prime Minister Hariri, facing massive criticism, resigned on October 29, but the demonstrators vowed not to leave the streets until a completely independent government was formed.
Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of the Lebanese armed group Hizbullah, said during a speech on Friday that any government [to be formed] of “a single color,” whether by Hizbullah or any other party, would not serve the interests of the country.
Mohammed Afifi, a Hizbullah spokesman, told The Media Line that Hizbullah’s position was clear from the beginning: It preferred a techno-political government. This was for several reasons, the first of which was constitutional, as the government was “the center of gravity” and the political decision-maker in the country, and decisions had to be made by the parliament within a certain constitutional mechanism.
“It makes no sense to have a [completely] technocratic representation [in the cabinet], because they have neither the ability nor the expertise to make political decisions. The country is going through a political crisis that naturally needs a political government [to resolve it],” Afifi said.
He added that Lebanon was going through a difficult economic crisis that required agreement on the general economic policies in the country, which could not be left to a technocratic government to decide.
“Despite all of that, we tried to reach a compromise, where we agreed with Hariri − who’s likely to be designated by the president tomorrow [Monday] − to form a government with a majority of technocrats with little political representation, so that the Council of Ministers [the cabinet] maintains its weight and balance,” Afifi stressed.
He pointed out that the parliamentary election took place in Lebanon in May 2018, some 19 months ago, and said that those who were part of the current uprising did not represent the entirety of the Lebanese people. Maybe they don’t like the election results, which is their right, Afifi said, but “it’s not possible to abide by the demands of the popular movement and ignore a large percentage of the Lebanese people who don’t agree with the movement’s demands.
“The Lebanese forces represented in the House of Representatives represent the popular and constitutional majority,” the Hizbullah spokesman said.
Last week, based on a demand by most of the parliamentary blocs, President Aoun postponed until December 16 the parliamentary consultations over whom to task to form a government. The blocs asked for more time to hold consultations among them on whom to nominate.