BEIRUT – Lebanon is bracing for deepening unrest after weekend riots in the capital suggested the country’s once-peaceful protest movement is entering a dangerous new phase.
Rescue services and police said Sunday that more than 400 people were treated for injuries after the worst night of violence since Lebanese took to the streets in October to demand a new government capable of leading the country out of an acute economic and financial crisis.
Police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon to disperse demonstrators hurling paving stones, fireworks and other projectiles Sunday.
The dark new mood was palpable. “Not peaceful, not peaceful. This is a revolution, not a song,” the protesters chanted in downtown Beirut, pointedly contradicting the “peaceful, peaceful” slogan of the uprising’s earliest days, when huge demonstrations against the government turned into dance parties.
Heavily armed troops joined riot police at the scene, some carrying shoulder-launched rockets.
“Lebanon is being pushed to the brink of chaos and anarchy,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. “This is a country that is spiraling economically downwards, you have increasing frustrations among a young population, and things could get out of hand very quickly. It’s only a matter of time.”
The unrest also risks embroiling Lebanon in the accelerating competition for regional influence between the United States and Iran, both of which count allies among rival groups in Lebanon’s tangled political system that the protesters are seeking to reform.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned what it called the use of “excessive force” by police to disperse protesters. Intense volleys of tear gas filled the streets with choking smoke, and videos posted on social media showed police seemingly firing rubber bullets directly at protesters.
It was also clear, however, that the demonstrators had sought an escalation. Young men arriving at the scene earlier had warned onlookers that they planned to attack the security forces, and they assaulted police lines with firecrackers, rocks, uprooted trees and potted plants.
The protesters said they had decided on a more forceful approach in their efforts to exert pressure on the country’s elite because three months of peaceful demonstrations had failed to bring about either a new government or any easing of the country’s financial and economic crisis. The value of the Lebanese currency has plunged by half in three months, and ordinary people are prevented from accessing their savings as the central bank seeks to stave off financial collapse.
Companies are halting the payment of salaries, hospitals are running out of vital medicines, and people are going hungry as the economy skids to a halt.
“People have reached a point of no-return,” said Bachar el-Halabi, a lecturer at the American University of Beirut who supports the protests. “They’ve been protesting peacefully on the streets for 90 days, and no one listened to them.”
Some protesters expressed concerns that infiltrators are seeking to radicalize the demonstrations and push them toward violence to justify harsh crackdowns by authorities and deter ordinary citizens from participating. The shift toward more-confrontational tactics was accompanied by a noticeable fall in the numbers showing up to the demonstrations.
“There are instigators here,” said Elias, 22, a protester who declined to give his full name as he joined demonstrators at the police barricade blocking access to the parliament ahead of the eruption of violence on Saturday. “It’s people who are not with the protests and want to give us a bad name.”
There had been instances of violence at some of the protests last year after supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal movements turned out on the streets to challenge the demonstrators.
The Iran-allied Hezbollah has now, however, signaled its willingness to support the protest movement, even as it plays a dominant role in pushing for the installation of a new government formed exclusively of its allies. The powerful Shiite movement has sent representatives to discuss with the protesters ways that it can contribute to their cause, according to representatives of the protesters and politicians allied with Hezbollah.
At the same time, Hezbollah is exerting pressure for the swift confirmation of a new cabinet led by its nominee, Hassan Diab, a professor at the American University of Beirut who once served as an education minister but is otherwise little known in the country.
Hezbollah hopes that Diab’s appointment will succeed in meeting the protesters’ demands for a government that excludes the traditional political elites widely blamed for the country’s slide into insolvency, according to people involved in the negotiations.
But as the mostly unfamiliar names of the proposed new ministers have leaked to the press, Lebanese have discovered that they have powerful establishment figures behind them. It seems unlikely that the expected announcement of Diab’s cabinet will satisfy the protesters’ demands or the international community’s conditions for offering badly needed economic and financial aid, analysts say.