Splinters in Lebanon’s protest movement emerged around a mass demonstration in Beirut called on Saturday with the stated purpose of renewing the energy of the anti-government uprising that started October 17, 2019.
But along with calls for early elections, anti-corruption and economic justice measures, and an end to sectarianism, some of the protest organizers decided to call for the disarmament of Hezbollah, an issue that had been largely avoided in the earlier days of the protests.
In October, protesters of different sects and political affiliations took up the slogan “all of them means all of them,” calling for all of the government leaders to step down, and the organizers were careful not to single out any specific political party.
After the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, from the Sunni Future Movement party, the March 14 parties aligned with Hariri withdrew from government, and the new government was selected by the Hezbollah-aligned March 8 coalition.
Watch: Protesters have gathered again in Lebanon's #Beirut, where they are facing off with supporters of Iran-backed #Hezbollah and Shia political party #Amal.https://t.co/xxNPLZkojk pic.twitter.com/KVIUa1YW8S— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) June 6, 2020
During earlier demonstrations, clashes did take place between protesters and counter-protesters affiliated with Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, another Shia party allied with Hezbollah. Similar clashes occurred once again on Saturday after a group of counter-protesters descended toward the square, until the groups were separated by soldiers and riot police.
But there was also tension within the protesters themselves.
‘No arms, no Hezbollah’
A small group of protesters stood in the middle of Martyr’s Square with signs reading, “No weapons but legal weapons. 1559, make it happen,” referring to a UN Security Council resolution adopted in 2004, calling for the disarmament of all militias and the extension of government control over all Lebanese territory.
“With their weapons, they are controlling the state, they are controlling everything,” one of the protesters, who did not give her name, told Al Arabiya English. “The smuggling comes from the weapons, the poverty comes from the weapons, the stealing comes from the weapons, the corruption comes from the weapons. If we got rid of the weapons, the rest of the problems will be solved.”
Another woman added that they were singling Hezbollah out because “no one besides them has weapons on the ground. We are asking to get rid of the illegal weapons and no one should have weapons but the Lebanese Army.”
But a number of other groups protesters objected to the slogans, accusing the group of sowing “discord” between different Lebanese communities. One of them, Jaafer, 24, from the south Lebanon town of Bint Jbail, told Al Arabiya English, “I’m not with any party but I’m speaking logically...What has the (Hezbollah) party done to you? Did the party prevent you from eating or from your salary? This is the only party that is fighting corruption in this country.”
Nevertheless, he said he was with the October Revolution in its economic demands.
“I’m 24 years old and I’m sitting without work,” he said. “...There’s nothing you can call a state.”
Twenty-year-old protester Yara Abdo from Akkar did not speak about the issue of weapons but said her demand has remained the same from the beginning.
Same demands remain
“We want them all to come down without exception,” she said of the country’s leaders. “They left us hungry on our land, they displaced us, they came and told us, ‘You are Sunni, you are Shia, you are Muslim, you are Christian.’… If not for me, I want to hand over to my children in the future a good country that they can live in and not have to go abroad.”
Saturday’s protest was organized with the support of the Sabaa party, a relative newcomer to the political system which has positioned itself as independent, but also with participation by established parties from the anti-Hezbollah so-called March 14 coalition, including the Christian Kataeb and Lebanese Forces parties, as well as Sunni politicians Bahaa Hariri -- the elder brother of the former prime minister -- and Ashraf Rifi, who have both taken a hard line on Hezbollah’s weapons.
Some activist groups that had previously been part of the October Revolution refused to join on Saturday, saying that the movement was being co-opted for political ends by political parties. Protest organizers in Saida held their own separate march on Friday and wrote that they would focus on the same demands “that we have raised since October 17th: an independent judiciary that will recover the looted fund, and a transitional government that establishes a fair electoral law that guarantees proper representation.”
The You Stink campaign, which headed up Lebanon’s 2015 garbage protests and was active in the October Revolution, wrote on Twitter, “Every attempt to manipulate by parties that are trying to take advantage of the people's revolution for their own interests is rejected and we will expose and confront them.”
Other activist groups opted to join the protest but steered clear of the issue of weapons. The protest group LiHaqqi wrote, “To the street, to complete the path of change that we started on October 17, to overthrow the sectarian system and build a system of justice and equality!”
Watch: Video shows Lebanese protesters near the parliament building in #Beirut throwing rocks shortly before getting dispersed by tear gas. Several hundred protesters are taking to the streets demanding the government resign.#LebanonProtestshttps://t.co/xxNPLZkojk pic.twitter.com/vaxFlASZ0K— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) June 6, 2020
Members of the group carried a banner reading, “Work, health, food, and housing for all.”
Apart from the clashes between protesters and counter-protesters, protesters clashes with security forces after a group of demonstrators gathered at the entrance to the Parliament building, where they began throwing rocks over a security wall. Security forces then pushed protesters back with tear gas, and sporadic clashes went on for hours.
According to the Lebanese Red Cross, 48 people were injured at the protest, of whom 11 were transported to hospitals and the rest treated at the scene.