Lebanon's protesters occupy central Beirut road in display of unity

Since anti-government demonstrations broke out in Lebanon two months ago, protesters have resorted to blocking the main roads and highways across the country, including the Ring Bridge, which connects East and West Beirut and which divided the capital between Muslims and Christians during the civil war.

al-monitor Lebanese protesters wave the national flag at a roadblock they set at a central bridge during ongoing anti-government protests in Beirut, Nov. 4, 2019.  Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images.

Dec 20, 2019

Since the start of Lebanon’s two-month long revolution Oct. 17, protesters have continually blocked the main road connecting East and West Beirut — known as the Ring Bridge. While that tactic has slowly started to fade, during times of frustration with the government, groups of protesters will sometimes head to the Ring Bridge, blocking the flow of traffic.

For many political scientists and historians, such as Makram Rabah, a lecturer at the American University in Beirut’s Department of History and Archaeology, Lebanon’s monthslong daily protests have come as a surprise because while Lebanon has had demonstrations in the past, the current one does not fit any of the previous molds.

 “The Lebanese do have a long history of protest and public protests against the government or protests in support of causes,” Rabah told Al-Monitor. “However, what we are seeing [today] is unprecedented simply because this is a nationwide protest against the whole system. The whole system in the sense that these people who are part of the communities and part of sects and parties have decided against the ruling establishment and to demand a new system. It is unprecedented, the intensity as well as the dedication of these people, and, particularly, the lack, or absence, of any political ideology, at least on the outside. You don’t have political parties [officially] joining this revolution which is, in its own, a new phenomenon.”

While the intensity and scale of the current protests are unique, tactics such as road blocking that are being used are nothing new. “Road blocking is simply always on the menu when it comes to protesting and acts of revolution,” Rabah said. He said that in the past, such barricades were "done by political parties who would clash with each other. In this case, we have people who are demonstrating against the ruling establishment.”

The road that has had the most media attention is Beirut’s Ring Bridge, which acts as a direct path that connects the two sides of the city. For many Lebanese, though, it is more than just a bridge — during the 15-year civil war, it consisted of the Green Line, which separated Christian East Beirut and Muslim West Beirut. This is something that is not lost on protesters Alex and Jean-George, who both requested that their family names not be used.

“The Ring is a very strategic place,” Alex said. “First of all, it’s a symbolic place because, basically, when the civil war broke out, it was the line that separated the Christian side from the Muslim side. But more than that, it is the place that connects all of Beirut and this is where anyone from every religion can meet.”

“I think for us [the Lebanese] it’s important to have symbolic gesture of Muslim and Christian people standing together on that street,” Jean-George added. “So, I think it makes sense that there’s a huge media coverage of that region.”

However, Rabah, while acknowledging the deep meaning of people protesting on the Ring Bridge, believes that besides the symbolism, the Ring Bridge is not as important as other roads when it comes to protesting. According to Rabah, when protesters block more important roads, it creates a more significant disruption to the system and has angered various groups such as Hezbollah.

The Ring is so popular because Beirut “is the capital and because the media focus on it, unfortunately,” Rabah said. “But what is happening in Jal el-Dib [north of Beirut] and the roads leading up to the south — the other day in Jiyeh — these places where the army used extreme violence ought to get the media to focus more on that. And it [opening the roads] is something that, unfortunately, the Lebanese army is pursuing. The road blocking is not a new thing and it will not stop anytime soon as long as the government doesn’t take any concrete actions for reform.”

Jean-George also agrees that while the Ring Bridge is historically significant, other roads are strategically more important if the protesters’ goal is to disrupt.

He said closing down the Ring Bridge is "not really closing down a big access or anything. Jal el-Dib is a highway, for instance. So, when they [protesters] go to Jal el-Dib it actually is more problematic.”

Rabah said Jal el-Dib and the Beirut-Damascus highway are significantly more important as they have a higher ability to disrupt everyday life in Lebanon since many people use these major roads as a way of getting in and out of Beirut. Because of this, security forces have worked harder at making sure that these particular roads remain open.

“When you close the Ring [Bridge], you don’t actually close anything,” he said. “You have back allies and you have back roads. So, strategically and logistically, you are doing nothing by closing the Ring except by calling the media to come and cover you. What is important here and what should be focused on is that all of the roads that can get you from the suburbs — whether that be Jal el-Dib or the Beirut-Damascus highway or, more importantly, the one leading up to the south — is what should matter. And this is why Hezbollah, as well as the establishment, is very aggressive to stop it.”

While the Ring Bridge might provide little strategic value to the protesters, Jean-George is glad to see the new generation change the Ring Bridge's meaning from one associated with Lebanon’s long and bloody civil war to one about the people fighting for change.

“I think that it is one of the most symbolic places in Beirut today when you think about it,” Jean-George said. “And I think that it was very important for this generation to give it a very different symbolism than the one that our previous generation had during the civil war. That’s why we [the protesters] tend to go there a lot.”

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