Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 November 2019

Lebanon protests: Saad Hariri wins sympathy in Tripoli after quitting

Protests swell in northern city amid calls for other leaders to follow prime minister

Lebanese anti-government demonstrators wave flags and shout slogans during a demonstration in Tripoli's Al Nour Square. AFP
Lebanese anti-government demonstrators wave flags and shout slogans during a demonstration in Tripoli's Al Nour Square. AFP

Night had barely fallen on Tripoli on Thursday but the party had already started.

Music blared from giant loudspeakers, women clapped their hands and young men danced the traditional dabke.

“The streets are the voice of the people. The voice of hunger when people are hungry,” a woman sang in Al Nour Square.

Tripoli has become a hotspot for Lebanon’s protests, but the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Tuesday has created unease.

Mr Hariri is the leader of Lebanon’s Sunni community, which is dominant in Tripoli. Many here feel it is unfair that he is the only politician to have resigned after 13 days of anti-government protests.

But they also know that taking sides with Mr Hariri goes against the spirit of the protests, which called for the resignation of all politicians and for the end of sectarian politics.

In Al Nour Square, a huge banner reads: “Waiting for the fall of the president and the Parliament speaker.”

A local journalist said it had been put up earlier in the day in response to Mr Hariri’s resignation.

“People know that Hariri was not a fair leader but at the same time they don’t want him to be the only victim of this revolution", said Sabine, a young woman who had driven half an hour from the neighbouring district of Koura to watch the demonstrations.

Giggling with her friend, she watched the festive protest with excitement.

“Our husbands do not know we are here and had not allowed us to come previously, but we wanted to see how it was after people returned to the streets last night,” Sabine said.

After the army reopened the roads on Wednesday, breaking barricades set up by protesters in the past two weeks, many in Lebanon thought the protests were over.

But videos then emerged in the evening of a massive gathering in Tripoli.

“It’s even more brilliant than we thought it was. We did not think people could be so united,” Sabine said.

Riad Yamak, the Mayor of Tripoli, told The National that 70,000 people had gathered across the city on Wednesday night.

“People here are wondering why did Hariri resign and not others?” Mr Yamak said, sitting in his office from where chants of “revolution, revolution” could be heard in the streets below.

For the first time since protests started, Mr Hariri’s supporters took to the streets on motorcycles, carrying flags of his Future Movement party in his strongholds of Beirut and in the southern city of Saida.

North of Tripoli, in Abdeh, the army used tear gas to disperse protesters blocking a main road.

Mr Yamak said soldiers assaulted the Mayor of Bebnine, a town close to Abdeh, who was at the roadblock.

He said this fuelled anger among protesters and numbers swelled from a few hundred to a few thousand.

“People do not trust soldiers," Mr Yamak said. "Why did they use violence here and not against Hezbollah and Amal?”

He was referring to the attack by supporters of the two movements on protesters in Beirut on Tuesday.

Hezbollah, which was against Mr Hariri’s resignation, has criticised protesters, saying they will cause chaos and accusing them of being manipulated by political parties and foreign countries.

Amal reportedly warned people against gathering to protest in front of the residence of the party's leader, Parlimentary Speaker Nabih Berri, in Ain Al Tineh in Beirut on Saturday.

As in Abdeh, soldiers and anti-riot police fired tear gas at Hezbollah and Amal supporters who attacked protesters in Beirut.

But many witnesses said they took a long time, at least half an hour, to respond to the attack.

“Protests last night swelled in Sunni areas: Akkar, Saida, Tripoli," Mr Yamak said. "I do not like to speak like this but it’s the truth."

In Tripoli, locals who did not support Mr Hariri previously have started to feel more sympathy towards him.

In the poverty-stricken, Sunni-majority neighbourhood of Bab Al Tebbaneh, the site of sectarian violence with a neighbouring Alawite area in 2014, Ahmad Dib said Mr Hariri’s resignation had “calmed the streets down”.

“Mr Hariri is 30 per cent corrupt,” said Mr Dib, 58, a vegetable shop owner. “All the rest, they are 100 per cent corrupt.”

He said that in last year's elections he voted for Jihad Samad, a Sunni rival of Mr Hariri.

But thanks to Mr Hariri, “there will be no civil war”, Mr Dib said.

In Al Nour Square, giant posters of Mr Hariri were torn down during the first days of the protests. Several of them remained above Mr Dib’s shop.

Updated: November 1, 2019 12:10 AM

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