TRIPOLI, Lebanon — For the fourth night in a row, protesters flooded the streets of Lebanon's port city Tripoli on Thursday, objecting to a 24-hour lockdown that has disrupted employment and demanding government support to help low-income citizens weather the pandemic.
The chanting protesters clashed with the Internal Security Forces and the army, and stormed Tripoli’s city hall, setting it ablaze. Security forces fired tear gas into the crowds.
The Red Cross reported transporting at least six people to the hospital and more than 100 people were treated at the scene. More than 50 people have been sent to the hospital over the four days of unrest.
The previous night, a man was hit in the back with a bullet, later dying of his wounds. Protesters blamed the security forces, who admitted firing into the air and in self-defense but did not take responsibility for the death and said unknown assailants had also been shooting.
A cabdriver set himself and his car on fire earlier in the month, making him the second cabdriver and third Lebanese citizen to set himself alight in the past 10 months over economic conditions.
Protests against government-mandated lockdowns have recently erupted in several countries, including in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, primarily by right-wing groups, and in Israel by ultra-Orthodox Jews who threw rocks at police to protest public health restrictions on religious gatherings.
But Tripoli’s protesters are mostly low-income Lebanese who were already suffering the brunt of a long-running economic crisis only to have their livelihoods come to a halt under the lockdown.
“There is no one here in this square who has a job,” one protester yelled.
Lebanon’s latest lockdown came into effect Jan. 14 and has already been extended until Feb. 8. Rumors of a further extension have further sparked anger against the lockdown, which permits pharmacies to open and restaurants and grocery stores to deliver. It also includes exemptions for medical staff and workers in the oil and wheat sectors.
Taxi drivers are among the many low-income workers whose jobs are not exempted. Last week, a group of taxi drivers clashed with hotel bus drivers at the airport, who were allowed to pick up arrivals and transport them to a 48-hour mandated hotel stay. The army had to intervene.
Two friends, Hussein and Ahmed, 31 and 29, said they hadn’t been able to find full-time work for nearly seven months and were making ends meet working in a cafe — until it was shut down during the latest lockdown.
“I just want to work and feed my kids. I don’t want more. I don’t want to build palaces or save money. I just want to feed my three kids,” said Khaled, 21, who used to work at a modest market that was shut by the lockdown, unlike bigger supermarkets.
The three men, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition that their last names would not be published for fear of government reprisals.
Lebanon’s government, deeply divided and in debt, has struggled to cope with the pandemic that has crippled an already-struggling economy. Officials have promised to allocate 400,000 Lebanese pounds ($45) to families in need. Few protesters said they had received the assistance.
“They’re lying to us,” said Ali, 21.
In Tripoli’s central Nour Square, a crowd of young men gathered, shouting their grievances, their voices straining and growing hoarse.
“They’ve forced [the lockdown] on people who don’t have money to eat. Those who have families and the young men without jobs, what do they do? They called us thugs, we’re not thugs,” said one man, who did not give his name.
Another man, who also withheld his name, said: “They gave the people three days to stock up on food. The guy who’s working every day to eat, what does he do?”
“They’ve been hitting us with tear gas since October 17 until now,” said a teenager called Ahmed, referring to widespread protests that began in 2019 against the worsening economic situation.
The young men all seemed to grow bleary-eyed as their voices grew louder and their stories got more desperate. It wasn’t clear if it was emotion brimming or the effect of tear gas canisters flashing the sky red.
Since Monday, more than 200 protesters have been treated on the scene of the protests, according to the Red Cross, in addition to those taken to the hospital.
The hospitals are already overwhelmed by coronavirus cases, which surged after public health restrictions were loosened during the holiday season. People were allowed to apply for government permits to throw “covid-safe” parties for New Year’s Eve. Low-wage earners fumed that the rich were throwing bashes while the poor were later suffering the consequences.
Ahmed, who is 59 but whose deeply lined, tired face makes him look older, lamented the rising price of bread. “Why are all these people here? For what? To climb over people, over the army?” he said. “No. They’ve come out driven by pain, driven by hunger.”
As he spoke, a trio of red-hot tear gas canisters flew in front of him, hitting a painted fist on a wall that said “Revolution.”
Susan Haidamous in Washington contributed to this report.
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