BEIRUT — Shirtless men with covered faces launched shovels at billboards in downtown Beirut. Hundreds of scooters circled a large, blazing fire. Protesters ripped whatever they could from the walls of a construction site nearby and flung it at the blaze to feed the fire early Friday morning. Riot police stood by.
Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, as well as many other cities in the small Mediterranean country, swelled with chants of protesters and the flames of burning tires and bonfires as thousands flooded the streets to rally against government corruption.
“The people want to bring down the regime,” people yelled over and over, pumping their fists in unison. “The people are exhausted,” one protester muttered under his breath.
The famous Arabic phrase, born out of the Arab Spring in 2010, was accompanied by chants of religious unity against the tyranny of the political class. “Bring down, bring down capitalism,” a woman standing atop a man’s shoulders yelled into the crowd. The swelling crowd repeated it back.
A few protesters were reported injured, and the Red Cross said it dispatched five teams to move out the injured from the center of town. Reuters later reported, citing the National News Agency (NNA), that two foreign workers choked to death from a fire that spread to a building near the protests. The report could not be immediately confirmed.
There was no single immediate cause to protest — there were many. When wildfires engulfed several areas throughout Lebanon earlier this week, including the beloved historic Chouf mountain area, the problem was made worse when it was announced that three firefighting helicopters had been out of service for years and were missing spare parts. Lebanese President Michel Aoun said he would open an investigation to determine responsibility.
Earlier Thursday, the minister of information announced plans by the cabinet to enforce 20 cents-a-day fee for Internet phone calls, including on WhatsApp and Facebook. He also revealed a proposal to be discussed by ministers to raise value-added tax to 15 percent by 2022.
“We came down here because we want to bring down this corrupt regime that has been burning us for over 50 years, before they even burned the trees,” said a 26-year-old accountant who identified himself as Kareem.
“We shouldn’t have to depend on Cyprus or Turkey or Iran or Hezbollah,” he said, referring to Cyprus sending helicopters to help with the fire. He said he loved Hezbollah, the Islamist group that is part of the government, and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, but that he believed the ministers were all corrupt.
“Nothing is going to change until the whole country protests.”
As protesters discussed calling a strike Friday, the Ministry of Education announced that schools would be closed that day.
Lebanon has seen a wave in protests recently, driven by dire economic conditions made worse by the country’s financial crisis. It is one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world, and recently the government declared a state of economic emergency. The government says it is seeking ways to fight deficit, but meanwhile, the country’s currency, pegged against the dollar, remains under pressure.
The proposed Internet-phone fee, seen as a new revenue stream, was revoked after the protests. But it was not enough to appease the protesters.
“I haven’t had a job in three years,” said Abed, a 40-year-old construction worker who said he blames everyone in government.
“The country is burning,” his friend Mohammed, 31, said. “They’re burning our country, they’re burning our trees. We don’t even have a helicopter that can put out fires. We paid 15 million dollars for them to park them aside.”
His voice shaking with anger, Mohammed continued: “We don’t have water. We don’t have tourism. Our beaches are abandoned, stolen, looted.”
He listed the names of the country’s prominent politicians: Prime Minister Saad Hariri, parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Nasrallah. “These are all thieves that need to be in jail as soon as possible.”
Walid Jumblatt, the main leader of Lebanon’s Druze sect, told a Lebanese TV channel following the protests that he spoke to Hariri and told him that they were in trouble. “I prefer we leave and quit together,” he told the LBC channel.
Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan said the prime minister has not made a decision, adding that he would speak later on Friday.
“If the government falls, any other government that follows will not have better options than the ones in front of the current government,” she told a local news channel. “Changing the government is not a solution, and if it fell then collapse will be inevitable.”
Meanwhile, in the early hours of Friday, a protester rammed his shovel into an advertising board until the shovel broke. He threw it aside and yelled, “To the Grand Serai!” referring to the prime minister’s office, before getting on his bike. Others drove behind him.
Clashes erupted hours later between protesters and the riot police when the crowd tried to advance toward the Grand Serai, the NNA reported. The police employed tear gas against the protesters.
But on one quiet street, soldiers lined up barricades and watched silently.
“Revolution, revolution,” one soldier whispered.