Lebanon parliament consultations postponed amid popular anger

Lebanon's parliament consultations were postponed as police wielded batons and tear gas against protesters in downtown Beirut.

al-monitor Protesters stand near burning tents during anti-government protests in Beirut, Lebanon, Dec. 15, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Issam Abdallah.

Dec 16, 2019

BEIRUT — After two days of clashes between security forces and protesters and a weeklong wait for the next prime minister to be announced, ​President Michel Aoun postponed governmental consultations until Dec. 19 to “respond to the wishes of [Saad] Hariri,” who resigned as prime minister Nov. 4.

In downtown Beirut on Dec. 15, protesters slowly backed away from the police barricade blocking the entrance to the parliament building in Nijmeh Square. A white fog of tear gas crept toward the massive crowd that had gathered in the area. As the gas swept past the barricade, those who did not have masks or protective gear coughed and struggled to breathe.

This was the second consecutive day police deployed tear gas against protesters. On Dec. 14, the first day of clashes, protesters tried to gain access to Nijmeh Square. Alex, a protester, described what happened next: "[The police] immediately attacked us with batons and started beating people. And right after that, they started throwing gas grenades at us. People were unprepared. The weak, the elderly and the people who could not run basically suffocated in the smoke.”

This area downtown is closed off to the public, with barricades and razor wire blocking all roads to the area. After a group of protesters tried to breach the barricade, the police worked to clear downtown Beirut of protesters, pushing the demonstrators east, into the Gemmayzeh neighborhood next to Martyrs’ Square.

Videos and photographs from the night of Dec. 14 show cannisters of tear gas falling from the sky. Some protesters run away while others prepare for a confrontation with the police. For protester Ahmad Hneini, once the police attacked, the protesters had to fight back. Throughout the night, the police would chase off the protesters only for them to return. The back-and-forth continued into the early hours of the next day.

“At first, I was a little scared because there was a lot of tear gas coming down,” Hneini said. “But after that, I didn’t have any fear. The police hit us, and when they started doing that, we had to fight back.”

During the confrontation, Hneini felt sadness. He had seen the revolution as one that would benefit the police and respond to their demands as well as those of the protesters'.

“It felt like we were fighting alone,” he said. “We started all of this [the revolution] so that they [the police and military] don’t have to. We should all be together and not fighting one another.”

Christina Haddad, who was not in the streets that night, kept a close and constant watch on social media, reaching out to friends for updates on the protests.

“I felt really bad because it was the first day that I didn’t go,” Haddad said. “I kept messaging my friends, asking them where they were and what was happening. I just wanted someone to talk to me about what was going on.”

Alex said that during the clashes with police, "we were extremely scared, but we’re even more scared of what will happen if this revolution does not work. We need to be very clear-minded about how we act on the streets. We need to show them that we are peaceful.”

Alex described how, when the clashes began, he saw people helping the elderly and children escape from the tear gas. As he headed toward Martyrs' Square with his friends, the police attacked them with batons.

Jean-George, who was with Alex during the clashes, explained how he found solace in seeing fellow protesters standing together despite the danger.

“That is one of the amazing things about this revolution,” Jean-George said. “You’re on the streets getting beat up and the tear gas is raining down on you and you still see hundreds of people who are still standing, going strong. And I think that this gives you a lot of strength on some level and makes you want to stay with them.”

Many viewed that night as the true beginning of the revolution.

“I felt very happy,” Hneini said, “because now I feel like it is a real revolution. It was like we were really doing something for Lebanon.”

Alex said, “I think that it was a protest until now. Yesterday was a real revolution. People showed their anger. Some of us, the younger generation and the really poor who have nothing to lose, fought back.”

By the end of the night, at least 54 people were injured, provoking outrage among the Lebanese on the amount of force used against protesters.

“I felt anger toward everything that happened yesterday because, for me personally, [the police] always are like this to the protesters but don’t do anything for the people who are actually doing bad things," Haddad said. "It’s really unfair. I’m also angry at the government who keeps trying to avoid our issues and our revolution."

Interim Minister of Interior Raya el-Hassan announced Dec. 15 that she had “asked the leadership of the Internal Security Forces to conduct a rapid and transparent investigation to determine those responsible for what happened.”

“I also call on the demonstrators,” Hassan said, “to be alert to the presence of parties that are trying to use their rightful protests or confront them with the aim of reaching a clash between them and the security forces working to protect them and protect their right to demonstrate …”

However, protesters did not respond enthusiastically to her announcement of an investigation. They expressed doubt that such an investigation would produce any results.

“I think that everything is just words until we actually see some results,” Haddad said.

Alex was even less optimistic. He argued that the police's use of force was only possible with clearance from the Ministry of Interior.

“The police do not and never act without the accord of the Ministry [of Interior],” he said.

Over a thousand protesters stationed themselves outside the barricades near parliament on the evening of Dec. 15 and into the next morning, condemning the use of violence. Some protesters threw water bottles and fireworks at the police, and police once again deployed tear gas to drive the protesters away.

As the clashes continued into the night, some of the protesters’ tents were set on fire.

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