HEZBOLLAH SUPPORTERS CLASH WITH PROTESTERS IN LEBANON
▶ Iran-backed militant group’s members disrupt street demonstrations calling for the government to step aside
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.”
Demonstrators from across the political spectrum clashed during anti-government protests in downtown Beirut on Thursday
Nai Jammal was among the Lebanese protesters in New York calling for change in their homeland