Violence escalates in Beirut as anti-government anger flares

Sarah El Deeb and Andrea Rosa
Associated Press

Beirut – Lebanese security forces used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets in clashes with hundreds of anti-government protesters outside the country’s Parliament on Sunday, as violence continued to escalate in a week of rioting in the capital.

At least 114 people were injured in the protests, according to the Red Cross and the Lebanese Civil Defense teams. 47 of those injured were transported to hospitals for treatment. Reporters on the scene said most of the wounds were from rubber bullets, some in the face and the upper body.

An anti-government protester stands on barriers as he throws stones against the riot police in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020.

Demonstrators used rocks and other projectiles, including shooting a stream of fire from ignited aerosol cans. Security forces responded by firing several rounds of tear gas canisters and water cannons, before turning to rubber bullets in an attempt to disperse the crowds. A few protesters tried to climb over the metal barriers separating them from the riot police. Hundreds more, some chanting “revolution,” gathered farther down the blocked street that leads to the Parliament.

Army troops deployed to the area briefly, and the violence stopped. Protesters cheered the army’s arrival. Minutes later, the army pulled out and the clashes resumed with security forces barricaded behind the barriers.

Security forces reinforced the metal barriers surrounding the Parliament building in central Beirut earlier on Sunday, after the worst night of violence since the unrest erupted several months ago.

Some protesters tried to scale the barriers outside the legislative building on Saturday, sparking nine hours of pitched street battles with security forces.

An anti-government protester is sprayed by a water canon in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020.

Saturday’s clashes left at least 377 people injured, according to the Red Cross and the Lebanese Civil Defense. More than 120 of those were treated in hospitals, including a protester who sustained an eye injury, as well as security force members. Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces said 142 of its members were injured, including 7 officers, some with serious concussions.

Lawyers defending protesters said a total of 43 were arrested Saturday, including two minors. They said that 11 of the arrested were released the same day, and the remaining 32 were released Sunday pending investigation. Most of the detainees were beaten in custody, the lawyers added.

Lebanon’s military made a show of force on Sunday, heavily deploying in downtown Beirut and in the country’s south, patrolling ahead of the rallies. Riot police were in the front line guarding the Parliament.

The clashes took place amid a rapidly worsening financial crisis and an ongoing impasse over the formation of a new government. The government headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in late October. Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab had been expected to announce a new 18-member Cabinet on Sunday after meeting with President Michel Aoun. But after a 90-minute meeting, there was no announcement, signalling another delay among Lebanon’s fractious political leaders.

The protests, which began in October, took a violent turn this week as popular frustration began to rise. Demonstrators say the Lebanese political elite has ignored their calls for forming an independent government to tackle the deepening crisis.

“We don’t accept the government the way they are forming it. They are using the old method to form the government …so it’s not acceptable,” said Jil Samaha, a protester. “We want a different way of forming a government.”

The protesters have been rallying against the country’s political elite in power since the end of the 1975-90 civil war. They blame politicians for widespread corruption and mismanagement in a country that has accumulated one of the largest debt ratios in the world.

Panic and anger have gripped the public as their local currency, pegged to the dollar for more than two decades, plummeted. The Lebanese pound lost more than 60% of its value in recent weeks on the black market. The economy has seen no growth and foreign inflows dried up in the already heavily indebted country that relies on imports for most of its basic goods.

Protesters targeted commercial banks earlier this week, which have imposed informal capital controls, limiting withdrawal of dollars and foreign transfers.

Interior Minister Raya El Hassan condemned Saturday the attacks on security forces and public and private properties as “totally unacceptable.”

However, Human Rights Watch described the security force response as “brutal” and called for an urgent end to a “culture of impunity” for police abuse.

“There was no justification for the brutal use of force unleashed by Lebanon’s riot police against largely peaceful demonstrators in downtown Beirut,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW.

Security forces and the military had prepared for more violence Sunday, blocking access to some buildings in central Beirut with razor wire, and closing off access to areas that included a popular tourist site. Workers also welded fencing together across roadways that lead to Parliament to make it harder for demonstrators to push through.

Earlier Sunday on the quiet rainy streets of Beirut, shopkeepers, banks and other businesses swept up broken glass and boarded up windows. Workers at one bank took down the large sign with its name to remove any identifier and avoid soliciting anger from protesters, who smashed the windows and the facade of Lebanon’s Banking Association headquarters with metal bars the previous night. The demonstrators widely blame Lebanese financial institutions, alongside government corruption, for the crippling economic crisis.

Nearby soot and ashes still littered the ground where security forces burned the tents of the protesters’ sit-in during the chaotic melee.