Lebanese security forces, protesters clash for second night

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The Mohammad al-Amin Mosque in downtown Beirut opened its doors to every religion and sect for evening prayer on Sunday to condemn Saturday's violence by police and army that left 400 protesters injured overnight.

The situation at the mosque quickly turned tense after night prayers with a massive military parade of commanders, including armored vehicles, guns, and military personnel being deployed.

Anti-riot police fired tear gas and water cannons at the protesters who were also seen throwing stones.

The weekend clashes were the worst since the protests began in October over rising popular frustration with a political class that is struggling to contain a growing economic crisis.

The government sent mixed signals about the unrest, with President Michel Aoun calling on the army and security forces to “preserve the safety of peaceful protesters and prevent vandalism” while Interior Minister Raya El Hassan defended the right to peaceful protest and condemned attacks on security forces and property. Caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri termed the clashes “crazy, suspicious, and unacceptable.”

Clashes started outside Parliament in central Beirut on Saturday afternoon, but later spread across the city.

According to the French news agency AFP, 337 people were injured, including 80 who were admitted to hospital. Several protestors were arrested; Instagram channels that monitor the protests released names of those incarcerated overnight.

Many wearing crash helmets and gas masks, protestors launched fireworks and rocks at police. In turn, the Lebanese Army forced them away from the downtown area, after some people used tennis rackets to volley the tear gas canisters back toward the authorities.

A demonstrator holds the Lebanese flag during a protest against a ruling elite accused of steering Lebanon towards economic crisis in Beirut. (Reuters)
A demonstrator holds the Lebanese flag during a protest against a ruling elite accused of steering Lebanon towards economic crisis in Beirut. (Reuters)

This week’s events have seen a return to road closures and burning tires on a scale not seen since October. Protesters have returned to the streets in full force denouncing government failures to address the worsening economic crisis.

“Now it’s a genuine matter of survival,” 21-year-old student, Omar told Al Arabiya English. “We need to make really good financial decisions if we want to live properly.”

Omar, who is hoping to graduate in the spring, said he would have to use money intended for his university fees to cover his living costs. If this happens, the American University of Beirut student will need a bank loan.

“But right now, it is really scary to go to a bank to try and get a loan,” Omar said. Banks have imposed strict restrictions on people trying to withdraw their savings in an attempt to prevent a financial collapse.

Omar has been out protesting every night this week in an attempt to force politicians to make changes.

“We’ve been on the streets since October and nothing has changed, we have to keep going,” he said. “We need to target the banks. We want our money back.”

This wave of protests comes as Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab is facing further obstructions in forming his 18-member cabinet, and the country temporarily lost its right to vote in the UN because of a late payment.

Diab, who was designated to be the next Prime Minister in mid-December, has moved away from a technocratic government in a potential line-up that was leaked on Thursday.

“The guy who is in charge of forming the government, he is in a really good position right now to change everything in Lebanon,” Omar says. “It’s a matter of him making a decision.”

However, Saturday’s clashes appeared to have made that decision for him, with protesters denouncing him on the streets.

“He screwed up,” one female masked protester told Al Arabiya English last night on condition of anonymity.

Despite a desperate need for a new government to stop the deepening economic crisis, protesters are refusing to accept anything less than their demands for a leadership of technocratic experts.

“We have been asking for a government of technocrats since October,” she said. “It’s a simple demand but all they do is ignore us, and now they attack us.”