HEZBOL­LAH SUP­PORT­ERS CLASH WITH PRO­TEST­ERS IN LE­BANON

▶ Iran-backed mil­i­tant group’s mem­bers disrupt street demon­stra­tions call­ing for the gov­ern­ment to step aside

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - SUNNIVA ROSE

Sev­eral peo­ple were in­jured in clashes be­tween Hezbol­lah sup­port­ers and anti-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers in down­town Beirut on Thurs­day af­ter­noon, hours after Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun ad­dressed the move­ment that has brought Le­banon to a stand­still.

De­spite the heavy rain, pro­test­ers were ham­pered only by pro-Hezbol­lah at­ten­dees in­ter­rupt­ing de­mands for the gov­ern­ment’s res­ig­na­tion by shout­ing slo­gans such as “Has­san Nas­ral­lah [Hezbol­lah’s leader] is the most hon­ourable of them all”.

The men also chanted “Hezbol­lah is not ter­ror­ist, it pro­tects my coun­try” and “We wor­ship you, Nas­ral­lah”. A large Is­raeli flag had been placed on the floor for peo­ple to walk on, sig­nalling their ha­tred for Hezbol­lah’s arch-en­emy.

How­ever, pro­test­ers crit­i­cised their be­hav­iour and drowned out the chants with mu­sic and danced in their rain pon­chos.

“I told them that I wanted to chant that all politi­cians must leave, in­clud­ing Nas­ral­lah. They told me I could not say that. They only came to cause trou­ble,” one young woman told The Na­tional.

An­other pro­tester said she had seen a Hezbol­lah sup­porter hit­ting a woman who had chanted that Nas­ral­lah should re­sign too. “I was film­ing the scene and they tried to take my phone,” she said.

The tense stand-off con­tin­ued un­til fight­ing broke out midafter­noon. Po­lice fired shots in the air to sep­a­rate the pro­test­ers and one wit­ness said at least four peo­ple were in­jured. Po­lice stood be­tween the two op­pos­ing camps as they con­tin­ued protest­ing into the night.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands have taken to the streets ev­ery day since last Thurs­day, ac­cus­ing the rul­ing elite – in­clud­ing Hezbol­lah – of cor­rup­tion and de­mand­ing its res­ig­na­tion.

For the first time in Le­banon’s re­cent his­tory, peo­ple from across sec­tar­ian po­lit­i­cal di­vides have united to crit­i­cise the leadership, who have gov­erned the coun­try since the end of the civil war in 1990, for fail­ing to pro­vide them with ba­sic ser­vices such as elec­tric­ity.

But clashes have oc­curred be­tween pro­test­ers and party sup­port­ers.

The most vi­o­lent in­volved Hezbol­lah and its ally Amal in south Le­banon. In Beirut on Mon­day, the Le­banese army pushed back a mo­tor­cade of Hezbol­lah sup­port­ers driv­ing through the city cen­tre.

Min­utes be­fore scuf­fles broke out in front of par­lia­ment on Thurs­day, one of the or­gan­is­ers of the pro-Hezbol­lah protest

Nai Jam­mal car­ried a sign that read “leave so we can come back”, a mes­sage for Le­banon’s rul­ing elite that res­onated deeply with the de­mands of the young crowd.

But Ms Jam­mal, 23, was not on the streets of Beirut, Tripoli or Saida. She was in New York’s Wash­ing­ton Square Park, 9,000 kilo­me­tres from the epi­cen­tre of the protests.

She was one of the hun­dreds of Le­banese im­mi­grants and tourists who turned out de­spite the rain to add their voices to the hun­dreds of thou­sands across their home­land who have been protest­ing against years of cor­rup­tion, in­ef­fi­ciency and in­equal­ity.

“I grew up in Beirut, stud­ied in Beirut and left to go to Paris for work. Work even­tu­ally took me here, but I would move back to Le­banon im­me­di­ately if there were job op­por­tu­ni­ties that paid a live­able wage,” Ms Jam­mal told The Na­tional.

“Ev­ery­one is strug­gling with debt; the coun­try is the third most in­debted coun­try in the world but our politi­cians are in­sanely wealthy. It’s not fair.”

Like many of her friends and fam­ily work­ing abroad, Ms Jam­mal left Le­banon with the in­ten­tion of build­ing a ca­reer and earn­ing enough money to sup­port her­self and her fam­ily back home.

But given the steady de­cline of the Le­banese econ­omy over the past few years and the alarm­ing de­vel­op­ments in re­cent months, the ef­fort to send money home has be­come in­creas­ingly fu­tile.

“I came here to fin­ish my ed­u­ca­tion and build my ca­reer,” said Salma, 25, who was also among the crowd in New York.

“In Le­banon, we don’t have the right re­sources for me to grow as a ther­a­pist. I am in this field be­cause of Le­banon, be­cause I want to serve ev­ery­one back home, but home doesn’t have the right re­sources to shape me into the provider I need to be.”

Rami Din­nawi, 25, said the sit­u­a­tion cre­ated by Le­banese lead­ers had ef­fec­tively forced peo­ple to leave.

“Ev­ery­one here is dis­placed in some way, whether it is be­cause of the econ­omy or be­cause of our choices of life­style – we’re here be­cause our gov­ern­ment has failed,” he said.

The protests across Le­banon were trig­gered by re­ports that the state was to im­pose a $6 (Dh22) monthly fee on What­sApp and in­ter­net calls, tech­nol­ogy widely used to cir­cum­vent Le­banon’s ex­pen­sive mo­bile ser­vices and cru­cial for the mil­lions of Le­banese liv­ing abroad to con­tact home.

The pro­posed tax was the fi­nal straw for many peo­ple after years of in­creas­ing un­em­ploy­ment, with anger ris­ing over the po­lit­i­cal in­ef­fi­ciency and cor­rup­tion that led to the down­grad­ing of Le­banon’s credit rat­ing by in­ter­na­tional agen­cies this year and a dol­lar cri­sis in the coun­try.

Last month, banks be­gan to limit and even refuse the with­drawal of dol­lars. The ef­fect on the econ­omy was im­me­di­ate. Im­porters warned of short­ages of fuel and bread, while many peo­ple rushed to ex­change their Le­banese pounds on the black mar­ket for in­flated rates.

Chronic eco­nomic stag­na­tion, com­pounded by the state’s in­abil­ity to pro­vide ba­sic ser­vices such as 24/7 elec­tric­ity, wa­ter and in­ter­net, has pushed much of Le­banon’s mid­dle and up­per-class youths to leave the coun­try.

The bulk of Le­banon’s ed­u­cated work­force has left their home­land en masse for Gulf states and the West.

“The econ­omy in Le­banon is so bad and op­por­tu­ni­ties for young peo­ple are so scarce that we are forced to look for other places to work,” said An­to­nio Ge­mayel, 28.

“It was a dif­fi­cult process try­ing to get our visas, but fi­nally I was able to get here. I’m try­ing my best to send money back home to sup­port my fam­ily, but with all the po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion that’s hap­pen­ing there, it’s al­most a lost cause.

In­stead, we’re look­ing to bring ev­ery­one here.”

In New York, demon­stra­tors car­ried signs bear­ing mes­sages urg­ing the gov­ern­ment to re­sign and crit­i­cis­ing its lead­ers.

One pro­tester dis­played plane tick­ets to Paris and Tehran that bore the names of politi­cians with dual cit­i­zen­ship, who have fled Le­banon in pre­vi­ous times of un­cer­tainty.

Oth­ers crit­i­cised Le­banese For­eign Min­is­ter Ge­bran Bas­sil in a chant that went vi­ral in Le­banon and among the di­as­pora. Mr Bas­sil, the son-in­law of Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun, has reg­u­larly come un­der fire for re­marks that have been de­scribed as tone-deaf and racist.

“What we’re see­ing is hope and we’ve never seen any­thing like this,” An­thony Abu Zeid, 26, said.

“Some­thing is dif­fer­ent, the peo­ple are fed up and they can­not han­dle it. We feel a change is com­ing and we’re ask­ing all politi­cians to re­sign. We don’t ex­clude any of these thieves.”

While the weather was dreary, Sun­day’s demon­stra­tion was colour­ful in spirit and at­mos­phere, with a dabke cir­cle form­ing around Wash­ing­ton Square Park’s foun­tain.

The crowd it­self was as di­verse as those tak­ing to the streets in Le­banon. Demon­stra­tors in New York rep­re­sented all re­gions of Le­banon and the crowd was con­nected by a com­mon de­sire to see a strong uni­fied coun­try.

Par­ti­san flags or signs were no­tice­ably ab­sent.

“I ar­rived in New York the day the protests started in Beirut,” a Le­banese tourist Joseph Aoun, 27, told The Na­tional.

De­spite it be­ing his first trip to the US, Mr Aoun said that he was spend­ing much of his hol­i­day watch­ing and read­ing the news from back home.

“It’s not the most con­ve­nient time to be in New York,” he said. “I wish I was back home to sup­port the move­ment and I hope that it achieves the re­sult we de­serve.”

That sen­ti­ment was shared by many of the pro­test­ers. While they ex­pressed grat­i­tude for hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to work and study abroad, the urge to re­turn to Beirut and par­tic­i­pate in the un­prece­dented move­ment was un­de­ni­able.

“What’s hap­pen­ing in Le­banon, it ac­tu­ally makes me want to go back now,” said Ralph Sarkis, 26.

“But I know that I can’t get up and leave sim­ply be­cause there is a smell of a rev­o­lu­tion.

“I’m try­ing to sup­port as much as I can from here and I re­ally hope this changes how peo­ple think about our lead­ers and the mar­riage be­tween sec­tar­i­an­ism and the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem in Le­banon.”

Reuters

Demon­stra­tors from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum clashed dur­ing anti-gov­ern­ment protests in down­town Beirut on Thurs­day

Vic­to­ria Yan for The Na­tional

Nai Jam­mal was among the Le­banese pro­test­ers in New York call­ing for change in their home­land

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