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In Lebanon, Calls For More Protests As Police Push Back Demonstrators

Demonstrators in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, protest the ongoing trash crisis and government corruption Saturday.
Demonstrators in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, protest the ongoing trash crisis and government corruption Saturday.

Thousands took to the streets in Martyrs' Square in the Lebanese capital of Beirut on Saturday for the second week in a row to demand government accountability and solutions for a mounting garbage crisis.

Also for the second week in a row, the diehard protesters were dispersed by force. As the sun set and the families went home, a faction of protesters tried to break through barricades protecting the government palace. Police chased them down with batons, clearing the entire downtown and arresting stragglers.

Hours earlier, the mood was different. Clerics in flowing robes stood alongside scantily clad 20-somethings snapping selfies. Parents brought their young children and grandmothers linked arms. Even people in wheelchairs and visibly pregnant women braved the crowds. Homemade signs abounded.

They came despite the violent dispersal last weekend. The government has opened an investigation into the use of excessive force, including rubber bullets and live ammunition fired in the air by the security forces. Some of the protesters arrived still bearing their bruises.

Jean Moukazel, a construction contractor, said he was beaten by the police last weekend, but that didn't stop him or his wife from returning to demand that the government step down. He says leaders have failed to provide even the most basic services, like water and electricity.

"The only thing Lebanese had was hope and dreams," Moukazel said. "And now they're dreaming about leaving the country, and that's why they're demonstrating. We want [the government's] resignation to create a new government and parliament so we can have a hope of having a new Lebanon — the Swiss of the Middle East, as it was a long time ago."

He says he worked outside Lebanon for 25 years, but he wants to fight for his future in his own country. He thinks the demonstrations will keep growing.

"Last week was smaller: Saturday, Sunday bigger," he said. "Today much bigger, and tomorrow even bigger. It will grow. It's like a snowball."

Protests haven't just become bigger; they've become more organized, marching under the banner #YouStink. Organizers began their march Saturday in matching T-shirts, flanked by people on bicycles and scooters. Police cars and ambulances trailed behind.

"From north to south, from Bekaa to Beirut, a people united never die!" organizers shouted from megaphones amplified by trucks full of speakers. Women and men took turns leading protests, as demonstrators line-danced, drummed and chanted along.

The organizers are now calling for a sustainable solution to the garbage crisis and accountability for the interior minister and those who ordered force against demonstrators. #YouStink has promised more demonstrations in all parts of Lebanon on Tuesday if the first demands aren't met.

Other demonstrators aren't willing to wait, and have vowed to take to the streets again Sunday to demand that the entire government resign in one go.

One of them is Ali Dawi, who came with his baby boy slung around his chest. Dawi wants a new government of technocrats. He says that bringing his newborn to the protest is a statement.

"The money of this little boy has been taken by this bunch of corrupt politicians," he said. "His future is in danger much more if they remain."

But not everyone is so sure. With the Syrian civil war raging next door, some worry that demonstrations here could unleash sectarian violence in a deeply divided country.

"Even if we did 100 years of peaceful protests, this regime won't go down except with violence," said Khodr Sobah as he watched the march pass by.

Flanked by his wife and three young daughters, Sobah said he supports the demonstrations but has little hope that they will continue peacefully.

"Those political leaders stuck to their chairs won't go in the name of peace or civility," he said. "Even if all the Lebanese people took to the streets and told them to."

Sobah pointed out that many current political leaders were born out during the violence of the country's 15-year civil war.

"All of these politicians came to power by blood," he said. "They're all ex-warlords, and they won't go except by blood."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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