BEIRUT — Hundreds of Lebanese protesters set up tents, blocking traffic in main thoroughfares and sleeping in public squares on Friday to enforce a civil disobedience campaign and keep up the pressure on the government to step down.
By early afternoon, clashes broke out in the epicenter of the protests in central Beirut, when supporters of the powerful Lebanese terror group Hezbollah entered the area in response to chants calling on their leader, Hassan Nasrallah, along with other politicians, to step down.
“Nasrallah is more honorable than all of them,” the pro-Hezbollah supporters chanted. They attacked the protesters who were previously in the square until riot police tried to break up the fight. The incident came shortly before Nasrallah was due to speak.
Anger has been building among Hezbollah supporters because the protesters named Nasrallah, along with other corrupt politicians. At least two protesters were injured in the scuffles. The riot police encircled the pro-Hezbollah protesters, who carried batons, separating them from the other protesters.
But tension returned when the protesters moved down the main road, lobbing stones and at one point attacking a TV crew from a station aligned with a Hezbollah rival. Some protesters chanted for calm.
Not enough security forces here to push them back. pic.twitter.com/PwDAtlvac7
— Timour Azhari (@timourazhari) October 25, 2019
Later Friday Nasrallah called on his supporters to leave anti-government protests to avoid friction and seek dialogue instead.
Nasrallah said the protests in Lebanon are no longer spontaneous and popular but have become politicized. He said political rivals who are critical of his group’s political line are manipulating the protests.
He said the protests have been exploited by international and regional powers who are also against his party. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah is facing widening US sanctions amid tension between Washington and Tehran.
Nasrallah said he is worried the country would return to a civil war, conjuring fear of the country’s war that lasted 15 years and ended in 1990.
Banks, universities and schools remained closed Friday, the ninth day of nationwide protests, which initially were triggered by new proposed taxes that followed public spending cuts.
Earlier Friday, protesters briefly closed the highway linking the southern city of Sidon to Beirut, burning tires and blocking traffic. The army later removed the tires and reopened the road.
On the highway linking eastern and western Beirut, protesters set up tents, some sleeping on the road, to block traffic. They allowed only ambulances and army vehicles through. Protesters waved banners that read: “You have put up with the state, bear with us for a couple of days,” to motorists who arrived at a blocked road linking eastern Beirut to its southern suburbs.
In its first official warning, the Lebanese military urged the protesters to respect the right of the people to move, calling on them to stop blocking roads. “The army leadership warns against continued use of these means, obstructing personal and public freedom,” the military said in a statement on its official Twitter account.
Amnesty International said the Lebanese protesters are making their voices heard in a peaceful manner, including the blocking of roads, calling on authorities to
Despite government promises of reforms, the leaderless protesters have dug in, saying the country’s incumbent officials are corrupt and must go.
“We will accept nothing less than the resignation of the government, the president, dissolving the parliament and holding early parliamentarian elections,” said Mohammad Mazloum, an engineer who has been protesting since the protests began on October 17.
Mazloum said he spent the night in the tent set up on one of the highways.
The unprecedented mass protests come amid a deepening economic crisis in Lebanon. They have united Lebanese against the country’s sectarian-based leaders, who have ruled since the end of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.
Lebanon is one of the world’s most indebted nations, with public debt over 150 percent of the gross domestic product. The protesters accuse the politicians of amassing wealth even as the country gets poorer.
He said he and fellow protesters from various cities and sects have been putting their heads together to come up with new, alternative names to the incumbent politicians.
The country’s top politicians have addressed the protesters, telling them they have heard their complaints. Prime Minister Saad Hariri presented a reform program which was only passed in the Cabinet after street pressure. President Michel Aoun asked the protesters to send representatives for talks with him.
Nasrallah, whose Iran-backed Hezbollah has dominated the national unity government, has said the resignation of the Cabinet would plunge Lebanon into political feuding.