BEIRUT: Lebanon is gearing up for the biggest street protests in months, after the coronavirus pandemic stifled the popular movement that kicked off in October last year.
Activists have called on people from all walks of life to gather in downtown Beirut on Saturday to protest against the continuing deterioration in living conditions. However, many civil-society groups that took part in the previous demonstrations have announced that they do not intend to do so this time.
The enthusiasm of the public seems to be waning, even as the economic crises people are facing increase.
A few activists not affiliated with any organized protest groups assembled in Martyrs’ Square, in the heart of Beirut, on the eve of the rally.
“We are here to say that we still hold our positions on the failed power that has brought us to a worsening economic and social situation,” said Nazih Khalaf. “However, this time activists are divided; each group has its own opinion. This can be seen on social-media platforms. I fear that people will not take to the streets on Saturday.”
Ghina Jamil, a teacher of students with special needs, said: “I am independent and I want the governing authority to hear my voice. I do not care who the ruling class is; what I care about is getting my rights. I have two options: go onto the street and protest, or stay home and die of hunger and the taxes that burden us.
“I do not bet on people anymore. The government, shielding itself under the guise of a technocrat cabinet, managed to deflate protesters’ anger while the coronavirus outbreak brought the demonstrations to a screeching halt and stifled the popular movement, allowing the authorities to attract people by playing the card of sectarian strife.”
While those activists who remain motivated are preparing for the demonstration so, too, are the security services tasked with maintaining order in the heart of the capital. They have increased the barricades of barbed wire and iron doors blocking the way to the Lebanese parliament. Meanwhile, owners of those shops that remain in business are closing their doors in fear of possible riots.
On Friday night, protesters waved placards with slogans calling for early parliamentary elections, announcing that “there is no confidence in the ruling elite,” demanding “the recovery of looted money and fight corruption,” and complaining about increasing prices and the high exchange rate of the dollar.
There is a big difference between the popular uprising last October and this latest protest, according to Nizar Hassan, a researcher in social movements.
“The Oct. 17 uprising is over and we will not return to the previous situation,” he said. “It is a pity that the political class used the three-month grace period (caused by the pandemic) to restore political divisions.
“The first uprising united people of different sects, doctrines and ideologies around common demands — the authority is now trying to cause a rift between them.
“Past events are causing collective frustration and people no longer have the same beliefs they had on Oct. 17. They have chosen to coexist with what does not currently satisfy them.”
Hassan noted that one activists’ group demands the disarmament of Hezbollah but, he said, this “is not, in my opinion, an urgent demand today, and it will not affect the economic reality Lebanon is facing.”
On the contrary, he said, demands for the implementation of UN Security Resolution 1559, which calls for free and fair elections in Lebanon and the withdrawal of all foreign forces, prompted Hezbollah and its supporters to launch a violent campaign against the civil movement, accusing its participants of being Israeli agents and depicting them as being opposed to the resistance.
“I do not rule out the presence of security agencies working as part of this, because this led to the withdrawal of many groups, including those close to Hezbollah, from participation in the upcoming protest,” Hassan added.
“Some wealthy groups entered the civil movement as well and demanded a date for early parliamentary elections. When we called on Oct. 17 for early elections, it was one of many demands related to establishing a new election law — otherwise what is the point of holding elections under the current election law? This would simply recreate the same authority and give opportunistic groups the chance to exploit it to their advantage.”
Hassan said he still expects “a good number” of activists to take to the streets of Beirut on Saturday, but predicted that they will be making contradictory demands and tensions might flare as a result.
“I know that within each activist group there are two perspectives, which will lead to confusion,” he added.
Among those who have declared that their supporters will not participate in Saturday’s protest is MP Chamel Roukoz, the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun. He is not currently a member of Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement or its parliamentary bloc because “it gives priority to early parliamentary elections, whereas we want to modify the current election law because it leads to rich businessmen controlling the parliament.”
He added: “If the protesters want to overthrow the ruling elite I will not support them, because the responsibility lies with the government and the parliament, since the powers of the president of the republic are limited.”
Roukoz urged those who demonstrate this weekend “not to adopt provocative slogans, and to avoid problems between them and the security forces.”
There were already some signs of rising tensions in Beirut’s Tariq Al-Jdideh on Friday. An existing dispute was blamed for a confrontation between young men armed with sticks, knives and machetes, during which shots were fired into in the air. A number of shops and organizations in the area closed, fearing violence would escalate. An Internal Security Forces patrol and intelligence and army forces were dispatched to the scene and began an investigation.
The dollar exchange rate in Beirut on Friday was between LBP3,890 and LBP3,940, according to a daily statement issued by the Syndicate of Money Changers in Lebanon.
Money changers are expected to decrease the price of the dollar to LBP3200 in the next 10 days, in response to a Central Bank demand.