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Shiite groups’ supporters clash with security forces in Beirut, opening a new chapter in Lebanon’s crisis

Supporters of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups hurl fireworks at security forces late on Dec. 16, 2019, in central Beirut. (Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIRUT — Lebanese security forces battled protesters in downtown Beirut late Monday into early Tuesday, firing tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons at crowds gathered on and near a bridge and getting pelted in return by rocks, chunks of concrete and firecrackers.

But instead of the anti-corruption activists who have taken to the streets in the last two months in nationwide demonstrations, the protesters this time were supporters of two Shiite groups that have participated in efforts to quell the unrest stemming from the country’s dysfunction.

Motivated by a video of a man cursing Shiites, the protesters yelled “Shia! Shia! Shia!” late Monday at riot police as glowing tear gas canisters hit the bridge they were standing on. Instead of being dispersed by the walls of stinging smoke, the men picked up the canisters and threw them at the advancing column of riot police below the bridge.

The protesters were supporters of the Amal Movement, a Shiite political party in Lebanon, and its ally Hezbollah, a militant organization designated as a terrorist group by the United States but whose members hold political office in Lebanon.

It was the third night in a row that supporters of the two Shiite groups had taken to the streets. On the first two nights, they clashed with protesters who started blocking roads and carrying out strikes two months ago to demand an end to corruption and the resignation of Lebanon's leaders.

The small country has too many problems to handle: Garbage and waste snake their way along its Mediterranean coast, fouling numerous beaches and fishing grounds. The whole country functions on generators to combat daily electricity cuts. The capital's air is heavy with pollution. Crumbling infrastructure serves as a lopsided reminder of the 15-year sectarian civil war that tore the country apart between 1975 and 1990.

On Oct. 17, thousands of people flooded the streets, prodded by forest fires in the beloved Chouf Mountains, a proposal to introduce a tax on Internet calls for popular apps such as WhatsApp, and an incident in which a cabinet minister’s bodyguard fired into the air over a small group of protesters.

The nonstop protests, frequently attended by hundreds of thousands of people, prompted Prime Minister Saad Hariri to submit his resignation.

Seven weeks after Hariri’s Oct. 29 announcement, there are no signs that a new government will be formed in the immediate future. The president continues to delay consultations necessary to find a new prime minister, who, according to Lebanon’s sectarian-based power-sharing system, must be a Sunni Muslim.

Hariri, a U.S. ally, is currently acting as caretaker prime minister, and rumors abound that he will return to his role. The son of an assassinated prime minister, Hariri has echoed protesters’ calls for a cabinet formed of specialists who could tackle Lebanon’s financial crisis and staggering debt.

His opponents, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement and the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal Movement, favor a government made up of politicians and experts.

Protesters have demanded that all of the old guard relinquish power, regardless of sect and religion. But many Hezbollah and Amal supporters were inflamedwhen the protesters included Hezbollah’s leader, Hasan Nasrallah, in their chants naming those who must leave.

After clashes in the first weeks between Hezbollah supporters and protesters, Nasrallah prevailed upon his backers to retreat, and the protesters stopped naming leaders.

But clashes resumed over the weekend, escalating on Monday night after a video made the rounds showing a Sunni from the northern city of Tripoli cursing Shiites, their leaders and their religious figures. The man, who resides abroad, later released an apology, saying he was sick and on medication, that he was drunk and that he was provoked and could not control his anger.

But the damage was done. Supporters of the two Shiite groups drove protesters away after destroying their tents in downtown Beirut and other cities. The Shiites set at least two cars on fire, screamed profanities and threw rocks at riot police who fired rubber bullets and tear gas at them.

The raging crowds ignored Hezbollah and Amal leaders’ calls for them to leave. Past 2 a.m. Tuesday, a mosque near downtown Beirut was frantically broadcasting pleas to the men to go home — “For the love of Hussein and Ali,” the two most revered Shiite historical figures.

But two men advanced from the crowd across the bridge toward the security forces, throwing their hands up in disbelief that tear gas and rubber bullets were being fired at them when they feel they and their religious sect were wronged and disrespected.

“We are the people, and we are the army,” one middle-aged man screamed.

“No,” a security officer bellowed back. “You are the thugs.”

With dollars running low in Lebanon, ATMs spit back bank cards and locals panic

Amid economic despair, young Lebanese see only two options: Protest or leave

‘The country is burning’: Thousands fill Lebanon’s streets to protest corruption

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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