BEIRUT — Thousands of people gathered in downtown Beirut on Saturday to protest corruption and dysfunctional governance, continuing demonstrations that have shaken the Lebanese capital with sporadic violence.
The rallies started as protests over a garbage crisis and have been transformed into a broader movement demanding parliamentary elections and sweeping change to a political system dominated by an unaccountable elite. The protests have created more uncertainty in a tiny Arab country already struggling to cope with the fallout from civil war in next-door Syria.
Last weekend, similar demonstrations devolved into clashes involving security forces, which used water cannons and rubber bullets to repel rock-throwing groups of young men. In a report released Saturday, the London-based rights group Amnesty International called on Lebanese authorities to investigate allegations of the use of excessive force by security personnel during the protests.
Lebanon’s Red Cross said 59 people were hospitalized with injuries sustained during protests Aug. 22 and 23.
But many of the people who have participated in the rallies — including the “You Stink” group that has organized them — disavow the violence. The protesters represent broad cross-sections of Lebanon’s diverse, and generally quarrelsome, religious groups, which fought a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.
During Saturday’s protests, Christians embraced Sunni and Shiite Muslims in downtown Martyrs’ Square to demand unity from their politicians. Lebanese flags fluttered above the mass of people. Noticeably lacking was the iconography of the religious parties — including the powerful Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement — that hold significant sway over nearly all aspects of life in Lebanon.
The parties, for their part, have expressed lukewarm support for the demonstrations. Many protesters accuse them of sending thugs to foment violence during previous demonstrations.
“This isn’t about which party or religious group gets what. It’s about demanding a government that represents all of Lebanon,” said Mazen Kuttub, 53, a security guard who participated in the demonstrations.
As Saturday’s rally wound down, dozens of demonstrators scuffled with police. But the rally had remained mostly peaceful, with people generally choosing to blow off steam with chants accusing their leaders of being “thieves” and “criminals.” Some brought a sense of humor. One man used the rally to try to sell his car, holding up a placard that advertised his 2006 Citroën C4 for $3,000.
Soldiers and police, meanwhile, were deployed in seemingly large numbers but kept their distance from the protesters, apparently trying to avoid the clashes that plagued previous rallies.
Ahmed Karrga, 35, an employee at a fast-food cafe, said he came to protest over the state of amenities that would be considered basic services in other parts of the world.
“When your government can barely provide you with electricity or water, you have to do this,” he said. “Our government is literally stealing from us, and for years we’ve just let this happen.”
Frustration has been building for years over the failure of authorities to provide adequate public services for Lebanon’s more than 4 million residents. Shortages of water and power have worsened with an influx of more than a million Syrian refugees, who have badly strained the country’s economy and infrastructure.
The trigger for the rallies was a buildup of garbage on Beirut’s streets last month because of the sudden closure of a landfill near the capital. The government has so far failed to resolve the garbage crisis. Much of the trash is being dumped in unregulated sites, and Lebanese officials warn of an environmental crisis if the issue is not resolved.
Partly because of divisions among politicians over Syria’s civil war, Lebanon has gone without a president for a year. Militants from the Hezbollah movement are fighting in Syria’s civil war against the rebellion, a move that was taken independently of the government. That decision has badly strained Shiite Hezbollah’s relations with Lebanon’s Sunnis and their political leaders, who mostly back Syria’s Sunni-led rebellion. Opponents of Hezbollah say that the group’s unilateral entry into the conflict has invited cross-border attacks by Syrian militants, including extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Last year, parliament extended its own mandate until 2017, essentially reelecting itself because of an inability to resolve a dispute over formulating a new election law.
But in Martyrs’ Square on Saturday, the focus of demonstrators such as Dayana Baba was how to mend Lebanon’s divisions.
“We demand elections! We demand real democracy! What we have now is not democracy but rule by warlords and thieves,” said Baba, 34, an activist with the “You Stink” group.