Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 November 2019

Amal and Hezbollah supporters overrun Beirut protesters

Prime Minister set to speak with many expecting him to resign after 13 days of protests

A group of men shouting Hezbollah and Amal Movement slogans attacked protesters and overrun a sit-in blocking a major highway before chasing the demonstrators down the hill to Martyrs' Square and destroying the 13 day-old sit-in.

The group of a few hundred men charged and attacked protesters on the ring-road that connects east and west Beirut before breaking through and running down towards Martyrs' Square where they pulled down tents, smashed chairs and tore down stages at the centre of the national protest against the government. As their numbers swelled, the army was deployed to push them out of downtown but hundreds headed down the road towards the prime minister's office at Riad Al Solh where a few hundred protesters were still gathered.

“It’s like a war zone,” Mohammed Serhan, a political activist with the National Bloc, a small secular party, said minutes before hundreds of Hezbollah and Amal supporters charged at protestors on a highway that connects the city centre to the rest of the capital.

Police tried to keep the men back, firing teargas and engaging with batons. Most of the protesters appeared to have fled. The army chased the men up the road from Downtown to Riad al Solh. Earlier the security forces stood on the sidelines, doing little to stop the destruction as men tore down banners in the centre of Beirut calling for the resignation of the government in an attempt to end the movement.

After trying to smash a large wooden silhouette of a raised fist with the word 'revolution' written on it in the centre of Martyrs' Square, a group of men set fire to the sign. A large group of riot police stood by and watched.

Sunniva Rose, The National's Beirut correspondent, was at the scene and described the situation as very tense. The army moved in shortly after the fighting to reinforce police units but after the initial scuffles back and forth on the Beirut ring road connecting east and west Beirut, they appeared to do little to stop the chaos.

Protesters appeared to have fled the scene in the face of the attack but live footage from local TV appeared to show groups of men surrounding and attacking anyone who was still left. Footage showed a group chase a young woman as she tried to flee before a police officer stopped the men.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri is set to address the country on Monday afternoon, with many expecting him to resign.

On Monday, protesters calling for the government to resign over years of ineffectual leadership and corruption bolstered roadblocks on the Beirut ring road, a route that connects the capital’s east and west.

Tents sprang up and people brought benches, sofas and seats with scores of protesters keeping the highway shut. Despite the rain late on Monday, people remained overnight.

On Tuesday afternoon, a group of about 100 men who said they live nearby and backed the protesters' demands but did not want to see roads blocked, attempted to remove the demonstrators by force.

Dozens of protestors attempted to resist peacefully, sitting on the highway near colourful tents and mattresses they set up in the past two weeks and chanting that they were “peaceful” as soldiers stood behind them.

Others berated the army for allowing the menacing group of men to approach them. A woman on a bicycle screamed at the soldiers: “why are you standing behind us? Protect us! Stand in front!”.

The crowd ran for shelter behind the soldiers when supporters of Amal and Hezbollah charged at them for the second time that day.

After succeeding in temporarily clearing the highway, soldiers garnered praise from protestors who waved Lebanese flags and chanted: “We the people are the red line. Down, down with the regime of thugs”.

A protestor with a ripped shirt told The National that he had been attacked when he tried to protect a man on the ground from others who were trying to take his phone.

“They wanted his mobile phone because he was filming them. They were hitting him so hard,” said 30-year-old Nassim Azzam, an activist with Li Haqqi, a civil society group.

Other protestors confirmed that the men ripped their phones from them if they attempted to film them.

Mr Azzam said that those who attacked him were chanting chants of support for Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who presides Amal, and Hezbollah, such as: “God and Nabih Berri” and “The Sayyed is more honourable than them”, using an honorific title used for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Many protestors want the government to resign and a new government of technocrats to be appointed to implement much-needed economic reform in a country that is heading towards financial collapse.

“We have demands, they just have riots,” said Mr Serhan, referring to the men who attacked the protesters. “They see someone lying on the street that got hit or stumbled and they hit them on the face, stomach and chest... They are organised and attacking us. The ISF is not doing enough to keep us safe. They take sticks from the police to hit us."

Mr Serhan added that several protestors, including him, tried to fight back.

“Since this morning, there is news that the prime minister will resign, but what we heard from Sayed Nasrallah and [President] Michel Aoun in their speeches is that they do not want the government to resign,” he said. "Maybe they are doing this in preparation for the resignation, to scare people with riots and tell them to be ready for the worst if the government resigns.”

Mr Serhan and others insisted that they would not be intimidated.

“If we cannot close the ring [road] right now, we will close it later, we will close the port, the electricity company just to stop them from forcing us to follow their command,” he said.

Mr Azzam too said protestors would not be put off.

“I have a spare t-shirt in the car, I will change and come straight back. I am not moving from here.”

There have been sporadic clashes between protesters and those opposed to the movement throughout the last 13 days, as well as with the police.

In Beirut and areas just north of the capital, the authorities have not moved against protesters blocking major roads since security chiefs met at the weekend.

However, reports in several areas outside the capital – particularly in Sidon – showed police beating and removing people trying to close roads.

On Tuesday, Al Jadeed reported that Mr Hariri would step down on Tuesday, collapsing the government.

The move would directly contradict statements from the Hezbollah leader last week who said the government was not going anywhere.

Local media reported that Lebanon's political parties have been in discussions about finding a way forward and a Cabinet reshuffle. Several papers reported that a refusal from President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil –who says he will not accept a government without him in it – brought negotiations to a standstill. Mr Bassil has become one of the main figures derided by the people on the streets, with a popular lewd chant about the minister being heard almost non-stop in the early days of the movement.

The Daily Star newspaper cited official sources on Tuesday saying that Mr Hariri’s resignation was a possibility and that discussions are ongoing between parties.

A representative of petrol stations has also told local media that the countries gas stations will run out of fuel in a matter of days due to the blocked roads preventing deliveries and closed backs preventing them importing more supplies.

Banks are set to remain closed.

Updated: October 30, 2019 11:15 AM

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