BEIRUT — Security forces fired tear gas amid confrontations in central Beirut that went into Monday morning between Hezbollah supporters and demonstrators protesting against Lebanon’s political elite.
The confrontations began after dozens of supporters of the Iran-backed terror group arrived on scooters and attacked the protesters with clubs and metal rods, chanting pro-Hezbollah slogans. Riot police and soldiers then formed a human barrier, separating between the two sides.
Groups of young men threw stones at each other for hours, with security forces in the middle. Several people were beaten and injured. A few Hezbollah supporters held up the Muslim Shiite group’s large yellow flag, waving it and taunting the protesters on the other side.
“Shiites, Shiites, Shiites,” the Hezbollah supporters shouted. Some fired flares in the direction of security forces and protesters. Protesters on the other side responded: “Hezbollah is terrorist.”
Protesters are chanting « Hezbollah are terrorists! » at the Hezbollah supporters on the other side of the police line.
Its about time we say things as they are! #لبنان_يتنفض #LebaneseRevolution pic.twitter.com/UGFXFAVaI5
— Romy (@romyjournalist) November 24, 2019
The attacks occurred after protesters blocked a major intersection known as the Ring Road that links eastern neighborhoods of the capital with western parts. Protesters simultaneously closed roads in areas north of Beirut and in the eastern Bekaa Valley.
The demonstrations began Oct. 17 against proposed taxes on WhatsApp calls but turned into a condemnation of the political elite who have run the country since the 1975-90 civil war. Protesters blame them for years of corruption and mismanagement.
Young people have been at the forefront of the leaderless protest movement, facing a plunging economy and high unemployment and left with few options other than emigrating. The protesters call for a new government and elections outside of the traditional sectarian-based power-sharing agreement.
The top political leaders have been deadlocked over forming a new government since the Western-backed prime minister, Saad Hariri, resigned on Oct. 29.
Hariri said he has hit a dead-end with his partners in the government, dominated by the Iran-backed Hezbollah, and has called for an apolitical emergency government. His rivals in the president’s party and its ally Hezbollah want to preserve their electoral wins and Hariri, as the face acceptable to the world.
The two sides have sparred publicly. Hariri said the party of President Michel Aoun is acting “irresponsibly” while Aoun’s group said the acting prime minister is holding the Cabinet hostage: “either me or no one else.”
Late Thursday, Aoun said in a televised address that a consensus on forming a government remained far off because of “contradictions that control Lebanese politics.” He didn’t elaborate.
Iranian-backed Hezbollah built a reputation among supporters as a champion of the poor and a defender of Lebanon against Israel. It and its Shiite ally, the Amal party, have enjoyed overwhelming backing among the Shiite community since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, making them a political powerhouse that, along with allies, has dominated recent governments.
— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) November 25, 2019
But now many protesters are grouping Hezbollah into the ruling class they are revolting against, blaming it for wrecking the economy with years of corruption and mismanagement.
Protesters want that entire political elite out. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and Amal’s chief, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, have not been spared.
“All of them means all of them, and Nasrallah is one of them,” protesters have chanted at some Beirut rallies.
In several instances, men suspected of being Hezbollah and Amal supporters beat up protesters and destroyed their tents. Some of those who had criticized Nasrallah and Berri on social media appeared in videos, after apparently being beaten, to apologize for what they did.
Amal denied any link to those behind the beatings, saying in a statement that they should be arrested and that they violated the movement’s belief in freedom of opinion.
Hezbollah has survived many threats over the past years, including charges by a U.N.-backed tribunal for the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 — an accusation Hezbollah strongly denies — a ruinous war with Israel in 2006 and the war in neighboring Syria, where Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to back President Bashar Assad, losing an estimated 2,000 men.