The narrow lanes of Burj al-Barajneh are bustling again. Shops are open, shisha smoke mingles with the scent of coffee in the autumn air. Residents are calm. But it wasn’t like this a few days ago when here, in the Shia suburb of south Beirut, and across the rest of the Lebanese capital, streets heaved with anger and indignation.
Potholed, strewn with rubbish, and usually choked with traffic, Beirut’s streets may have seemed an unlikely place for an uprising. But over the past six days people who had long turned a blind eye to the country’s failings suddenly found their voice.
The tipping point was the government’s response to a severe economic crisis. Facing a domino effect of capital flight, dangerous levels of government debt and an imminent currency devaluation, the government’s solution was to introduce a budget which taxed the poor through popular goods and services such as WhatsApp and cigarettes.
In the Shia suburbs of south Beirut, across the Sunni north and in the Druze and Maronite heartlands, a revolt quickly gathered steam.
Lebanese officials, including Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, initially appeared supportive of the demands, despite their calls for the government to resign. But by Monday, supporters of the Iranian-linked party and the other main Shia party Amal were taking to the streets denouncing the protests while waving the flags of both parties.
Despite this show of force, Shia citizens appear to be challenging the authority of traditional leaders Nasrallah and Amal head Nabih Berri.
Nasrallah’s weekend speech had reportedly already angered many Lebanese, including his own supporters. On Saturday, the veteran leader had started to inch away from the mood of the street, declaring the huge public gatherings “a waste of time” and setting the scene for signs of a subsequent Shia pushback.
“I didn’t feel like he stood with us,” said Safi, 35, in Burj al-Barajneh, where Hezbollah and Amal maintain an armed presence. “I thought he would tell us to go protest some more; not to remain at home and stick with the status quo. I feel deceived. I can’t take to the streets of my neighborhood because I’ll surely get harassed.”
“Plenty of folks from my area have had enough. We are tired of chasing after bread and pledging loyalty to someone who is hand-in-hand with the elite who are making us struggle,” he added.
Analysts have reported this sentiment across the protests, including in Shia areas in Lebanon’s south.
“We have seen chants against Nasrallah and Berri. [The criticism of Berri] is the one to keep an eye on more than Hezbollah. Berri has been able to provide people with jobs and services longer than Hezbollah,” Beirut-based journalist Joseph Habboush told Al Arabiya English.
“In the South, people have never come out so blatantly and accused [Berri] of corruption … saying we are hungry because of you. We saw in videos people beating [Amal] protesters in the South,” he added.
Protesters in Beirut have been heard singing songs declaring solidarity with the southern city of Sour, where protesters have reportedly been cracked down on by men affiliated with Amal and Hezbollah.
Back in Burj al-Barajneh, Abbas, 47, who refused to share his last name on fear of repercussions, said “Kullun yaani Kullun” – all of them means all of them, referring to demands for the entire government to leave.
“The Party have stopped providing properly,” he said, implying Hezbollah. “They’ve gotten themselves entangled in wars and have been spending all their resources in them. What exactly should I keep supporting?”
Additional reporting by Jacob Boswall.