Hundreds of people march through Lebanon to mark year of anti-government protests | Middle East


Hundreds of people marched through the Lebanese capital to mark the first anniversary of a non-sectarian protest movement that has rocked the political elite but has yet to achieve its goal of radical reform.A whirlwind of hope and despair gripped the country in the year since the protests began, as an economic crisis and devastating port explosion two months ago pushed Lebanon deeper in decomposition.

While the unrest led to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, politicians have since failed to form a government capable of meeting the country’s challenges.

Two governments have resigned since the movement began, but the country’s barons, many of whom are strongmen in the 1975-1990 civil war, remain firmly in power despite international and domestic pressures for change.

On Saturday, hundreds of people holding Lebanese placards and flags gathered in Martyrs Square in the heart of Beirut in a scene reminiscent of last year’s rallies.

Protesters marched in front of the central bank, the target of their anger over a financial crisis that has seen the Lebanese pound lose nearly 80% of its value.

They then marched past the parliament building before gathering near the damaged harbor, observing a minute of silence just before their destination before holding a candlelight vigil near Ground Zero at 6:07 pm (3:07 pm GMT).

People carry torches at protest marking one year since nationwide protests began near Beirut port [Emma Freiha/Reuters]

It was the precise moment of August 4 when a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate fertilizer exploded, killing more than 200 people and devastating swathes of the capital – a disaster largely blamed on corruption and incompetence of the hereditary elite.

Activists have installed a metal monument at the site to mark the anniversary of their October 17 “revolution”.

“For a year we have been in the streets… and nothing has changed,” said Abed Sabbagh, a 70-year-old protester.

“Our demand is the dismissal of a corrupt political class which continues to compete for positions and seats” despite everything that is happening in the country, he told the AFP news agency of the main camp of protest from Beirut.

‘Deeply ruined’

The immediate trigger for last year’s protests was a government decision to tax WhatsApp calls, but they quickly turned into a national movement demanding an end to a faith-based power-sharing system which protesters say has tarnished public life.

Lebanon’s deepest economic downturn since the civil war has led to increased unemployment, poverty and hunger, causing many people to seek better opportunities abroad.

“Our government and political parties have dashed our hopes,” said May, a 25-year-old university student.

“We are tired and deeply ruined, they gave us no choice but to leave. ”

A spiraling coronavirus outbreak since February has resulted in a ban on public gatherings, but even without protesters on the streets, public resentment has grown.

The explosion in the Port of Beirut prompted protesters to return to the streets as a result, but the movement then shifted most of its energy to relief operations to replace what it sees as an absent state.

Since then, the political class has failed to form a new government capable of responding to demands from the streets and from international donors who have refused to release desperately needed funds.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited Lebanon twice following the port explosion, said the country’s ruling class had “betrayed” the people by not acting swiftly and decisively.

‘Another face of the revolution’

President Michel Aoun is due to hold consultations with major factions in parliament next week before appointing a new prime minister for the third time in less than a year.

Hariri, who bowed out in the face of the first protests last October, is expected to return in a date that activists are likely to reject.

Aoun on Saturday renewed his call for protest leaders to work with the state and existing institutions – a call repeatedly rejected by activists.

The protest movement has maintained a loose structure which some analysts say could be an obstacle.

“The lack of political agendas and leadership made the process and progress rather daunting and difficult,” said Jamil Mouawad, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut.

Authorities almost completely left the public alone to deal with the aftermath of the port explosion [Anwar Amro/AFP]

A revolt against the status quo means breaking a network of sectarian favoritism cultivated by the ruling elite that benefits many members of the divided population.

Even if they are not satisfied, some blame other factions for the country’s problems or fear the change will give another sect power over them – a fear politicians are eagerly stoking.

“We don’t have a head of state, it’s a group of men, they have agreed to share the spoils of the state at all levels. It’s a system you can hardly overturn, ”Carmen Geha, associate professor of public administration and activist, told the Associated Press news agency.

She compared the dismantling of the Lebanese system to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, a long and arduous process.

Despite all its limitations, the protest movement was successful.

Even after the dissipation of street protests, grassroots networks quickly mobilized following the explosion in Beirut.

Authorities almost completely left the public alone to deal with the aftermath, with no government clean-up crews on the streets and little contact with those whose homes or businesses had been destroyed.

“You find people more mobilized to help each other… that’s another face of the revolution,” Geha said.

“We need to show people how incompetent politicians are and provide them with an alternative, service-oriented system.”


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