Lebanese take to the streets to mark protest anniversary

Anti-government demonstrators take pictures of a metal sculpture spelling out the word "revolution" topped by flames during a protest as Lebanese mark one year since the start of nation-wide protests, near Beirut's port, Lebanon October 17, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 17 October 2020

Lebanese take to the streets to mark protest anniversary

  • The explosion at Beirut port served as a shocking reminder to many of the rot at the heart of their political system
  • On Saturday, hundreds of people brandishing placards and Lebanese flags gathered in Martyrs' Square in Beirut

BEIRUT: Thousands of Lebanese protesters marked the one-year anniversary of nationwide demonstrations on Saturday by marching from Martyrs’ Square in the heart of Beirut to the central bank and government offices where they renewed calls for an end to Lebanon’s sectarian political system.

Activist groups from the southern cities of Sidon and Tyre, as well as Baalbeck, Bekaa and Tripoli in the north, joined the protest, which brought Martyrs’ Square back to life after weeks of inactivity. Wearing masks, the protesters waved Lebanese flags and demanded the overthrow of the “criminal” ruling class.

The march continued to Beirut port, where protesters lit a “torch of the Oct. 17 revolution” to commemorate victims of the explosion that devastated large areas of the capital on Aug. 4.

Almost 180 people were killed and more than 6,500 injured in the blast, which left Lebanon reeling after a year of financial scandals and political stalemate.

In that time, the country has plunged into bankruptcy, the Lebanese lira has collapsed and the dollar exchange rate has skyrocketed on the black market.

Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs, and more than 20 percent of companies and institutions have closed their doors. Meanwhile, the poverty rate has soared from 28 percent to 55 percent, with some indicators predicting it will reach 75 percent.

The central bank’s reserves have dropped from $30 billion to $17 billion and the gross domestic product from $55 billion to $31 billion. Inflation has reached 100 percent.

Amid mounting popular anger at the country’s political class, Saad Hariri’s government resigned, Hassan Diab’s government quit after the Beirut blast and Mustafa Adib stepped down after failing to form a government in line with a French rescue initiative led by President Emmanuel Macron.  

Hariri recently offered himself as a “natural candidate” to head the new government, but President Michel Aoun postponed parliamentary consultations after the Free Patriotic Movement objected to the appointment.

Amid these dramatic developments, protesters say they have no intention of backing down.

“Our positions have not changed,” activist Mahmoud Faqih told Arab News.

“The recent developments have made it even clearer that the ruling class has lost legitimacy and must be removed from power. We have proven that we are the alternative power to heal the wounds of the people.”

Faqih said the coronavirus pandemic has slowed the revolution’s momentum, which has also been affected by “many active protesters deciding to leave Lebanon.”

However, “during the past year, initiatives have taken place between revolutionary groups to increase coordination and establish an opposition front,” he said.

Another activist, Ziad Abdel Samad, said: “This year has shown that our rulers are criminals who commit crimes against their own people. The ruling class has lost all legitimacy in their people’s eyes.”

He said that “frustration and desperation” had forced many activists to leave the country.

“Nothing has changed. The ruling class is still fighting over the quota system, even in light of the French initiative.”

However, Abdel Samad said that the creation of opposing political blocs in the wake of the protests might lead to the “emergence of new alternative officials.”

“The revolution has created a new equation on the political scene. On its one-year anniversary, the revolution is still getting foreign support.”

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted: “One year ago today, the Lebanese people began taking to the streets demanding reforms, better governance and an end to the endemic corruption that has stifled Lebanon’s tremendous potential. Their message remains clear and undeniable — business as usual is unacceptable.”

The UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Jan Kubis, said that he “stood beside Lebanon and its people, and the necessary reforms that should be carried out by an effective government.”

Kubis said that “the massive wave of protests brought to the streets hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of Lebanese across all the Lebanese regions and across political and sectarian divides to express their profound disappointment in the ruling class and the sectarian political and administrative system that has promoted corruption and nepotism in the country.”

Tunisian family of alleged Nice knifeman in disbelief over attack

French policemen patrol on top of the Montmartre hill in Paris on October 30, 2020 as France's security forces are on high alert ahead of the All Saints Catholic holiday after a string of attacks blamed on suspected Islamists in recent weeks. (AFP)
Updated 1 min 37 sec ago

Tunisian family of alleged Nice knifeman in disbelief over attack

  • Issaoui had already tried once before to reach Europe, and did not tell his family he was making another attempt, according to his brother

SFAX/TUNISIA: The family of a man detained for killing three churchgoers in France weeks after leaving his home in Tunisia has told AFP they are struggling to believe he carried out the attack.
“It’s not normal,” said Brahim Issaoui’s brother Yassine, incredulous that his sibling was responsible for the attack, which came amid widespread anger among Muslims over comments by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Macron had strongly defended secular values and the right to mock religion after a French schoolteacher, who had shown his class cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad deemed offensive to Muslims, was murdered earlier this month in a Paris suburb.
Issaoui, 21, is in serious condition after being shot multiple times by police in the aftermath of Thursday’s brutal knife attack in the southern city of Nice. Born to a family of modest means in the central Tunisian city of Sfax, Issaoui had turned to religion and isolated himself in the past two years, his relatives told AFP.
“He prayed ... (and) went from home to work and back, not mixing with others or leaving the house,” said his mother, crying as she clutched a passport photo of the young man in a white hoodie.
But before that “he drank alcohol and used drugs. I used to tell him, ‘we are poor and you’re wasting money?’ He would reply if God wills it, he will guide me to the right path, it’s my business’,” she added
Tunisia, where before a 2011 revolution, authorities controlled the practicing of religion and repressed dissent, saw a rise in radical Islam after the uprising and a wave of jihadist attacks in 2015.
While the security situation has greatly improved, sporadic attacks still take place, targeting security forces in particular.
One of 11 siblings, Issaoui lived with his parents in a modest house on a potholed road in a working class neighborhood near an industrial zone on the outskirts of Sfax.
His mother said her son had dropped out of high school and had worked as a motorcycle mechanic.
Having put some money aside, he opened an unlicensed petrol station, similar to those found across Tunisia, where most economic activity takes place on the margins of the official system.
“I told him to rent a small shop with the 1,100 to 1,200 dinars (around $400 which he had saved) in order to be able to work,” said his mother, who did not want to give her name.
“He told me he wanted to set up a stall to sell petrol.”
Issaoui joined a wave of Tunisians departing for Italy that has grown in recent months due to the combined pressures of the Covid-19 crisis, which has exacerbated already soaring unemployment, and a political crisis.
The number of Tunisians emigrating illegally to Italy reached a record 20,000 after the 2011 revolution, before falling sharply. The number of arrivals has been on the rise again since 2017.
Issaoui had already tried once before to reach Europe, and did not tell his family he was making another attempt, according to his brother.
After successfully reaching Italy and finding work harvesting olives, his brother added, he made his way to France.
“He said he went to France because it was better for work and there were too many people in Italy,” Yassine said.
The family said he called the evening of October 28, the day before the attack, telling them he had just arrived in the country.
Incredulous, they said they could not understand how he would be able to carry out the attack in Nice just a few hours after arriving in France.
While many Tunisians condemned Macron’s statements on Islam, it sparked debate on freedom of speech — seen as one of the most solid achievements of the country’s 2011 revolution.