Lebanon police fire tear gas at protesters amid Beirut riots

Updated 19 Jan 2020


Anti-government protesters attempt to throw a large plant pot at security forces taking cover during clashes in the central downtown district of the Lebanese capital on Saturday.—AFP
Anti-government protesters attempt to throw a large plant pot at security forces taking cover during clashes in the central downtown district of the Lebanese capital on Saturday.—AFP

BEIRUT: Tensions flared in Lebanon’s capital on Saturday as angry protesters flung stones, traffic signs and tree branches at security forces, who responded with water canons and tear gas.

Riot police fired tear gas and sprayed water cannon near parliament in Lebanon’s capital Saturday to disperse thousands of protesters after riots broke out during a march against the ruling elite amid a severe economic crisis.

The riots began when some protesters started throwing stones at police deployed near the parliament building while others removed street signs and metal barriers and hurled them at security forces. Protesters also threw firecrackers at police.

As rioting took place in central Beirut, thousands of other protesters arrived later from three different parts of the city to join the demonstration.

The Lebanese Red Cross said it took 30 people to hospitals, while 45 others were treated on the spot.

The protest movement rocking Lebanon since October 17 has revived this week, over delays in forming a new cabinet to address the country’s growing economic crisis.

No progress appears to have been made towards a final lineup, which protesters demand be comprised of independent experts and exclude all traditional political parties.

On Saturday afternoon, demonstrators set out from various spots in Beirut in a march towards the city centre under the slogan “We won’t pay the price”.

But before they all converged near the road leading to parliament, dozens of protesters flung rocks and plant pots filled with earth at the police guarding the institution, local television channels showed.

Security forces sprayed young men with two water cannons and lobbed tear gas over a metal fence to disperse remaining protesters on the wet tarmac.

“A direct and violent confrontation is taking place with anti-riot police at one of the entrances to parliament,” the Internal Security Forces said on Twitter.

“We ask peaceful protesters to keep away from the site of the rioting for their safety.” A photographer saw young men uproot parking metres. He also saw around 10 people faint from the tear gas.

A female protester named Maya, 23, said she was attending the protest because politicians still seemed to be ignoring demands for an overhaul of the old political class.

“I’m here because after more than 90 days in the streets, they’re still squabbling over their shares in government... It’s as if they didn’t see our movement,” she said.

“Popular anger is the solution,” the young protester said.

Forming a new cabinet is often convoluted in Lebanon, where a complex system seeks to maintain balance between the country’s many political parties and religious confessions.

But protesters say they want to scrap the old system, and demand only impartial technocrats staff a new government to address their growing economic woes, including a severe liquidity crisis.

The last government stepped down under pressure from the street on October 29, but has remained in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet takes shape.

The World Bank has warned that the poverty rate in Lebanon could rise from a third to a half if the political crisis is not remedied fast.

Lebanon has witnessed three months of protests against the political elites who have ruled the country since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. The protesters blame politicians for widespread corruption and mismanagement in a country that has accumulated one of the largest debt ratios in the world.

The protesters had called for a demonstration Saturday afternoon with the theme “we will not pay the price” in reference to debt that stands at about $87 billion, or more than 150 percent of GDP.

Adding to the crisis, Lebanon has been without a government since Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned Oct. 29, meeting a key demand of the protesters.

Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab had been expected to announce an 18-member Cabinet on Friday, but last minute disputes among political factions scuttled his latest attempt.

Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2020