Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 November 2019

'Shame on you': protesters defy threats in southern Lebanon

Demonstrations in Hezbollah and Amal stronghold continue without mentioning political leaders by name

Protesters in southern Lebanon on Monday returned to the streets in a mood of defiance, a day after violent altercations with local militiamen.

“They tried to separate us but, thank God, people were not afraid and came back to the streets,” actress Sally Basma told The National.

Basma, 31, was wearing a red bandana with Lebanese flags on her head as she took part in a protest in the southern coastal city of Tyre.

She said she was among the protesters who were attacked on Saturday morning by armed militiamen affiliated to the Amal movement, one of the strongest in the region alongside its Shiite ally Hezbollah.

They attacked because because insults had been hurled at Amal leader Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s veteran Parliamentary Speaker.

A visibly upset Basma filmed herself after the attack, calling out: “Nabih Berri, did you see that, do you accept that? They stole my phone and hit us with their weapons. Shame on you.”

The UN special co-ordinator for Lebanon, Jan Kubis, said he discussed the situation in Tyre with Mr Berri on Monday.

"Important to listen to the millions of protesting Lebanese and their legitimate demands for just and radical reforms and change," Mr Kubis tweeted after the meeting.

He said that Lebanese security forces should protect peaceful demonstrators against "possible political instigators of violence".

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have since Thursday been protesting against the government, in the biggest demonstrations the country has seen in more than a decade.

The protests were sparked by a proposed tax on WhatsApp calls, which was quickly cancelled.

Demonstrators are expressing years of resentment against politicians, who they accuse of corruption and incompetence.

“Since the end of the civil war [in 1990], the situation has changed for the worse,” Basma said.

Unusually for Lebanon, the protesters have been blaming politicians by name, and songs insulting them have spread like wildfire.

But those in south Lebanon on Sunday were careful not to name members of Amal or Hezbollah, the only militia.

Both parties enjoy strong support among the local population, who rarely criticise them publicly out of fear of retribution.

“We just chant now that all politicians are thieves,” said Mohammed Ezzedine, 47, a father of four who was taking part in a protest for the first time in his life, along with his family, in Tyre.

After the tension on Saturday, protesters had agreed not to use politicians' names, Mr Ezzedine said.

Residents of Nabatieh, an Amal stronghold about 30 kilometres north-east of Tyre, said there were scuffles between the party's supporters and protesters in the city but the situation had calmed.

More than 1,000 people were protesting in Nabatieh on Sunday afternoon, including Mohammed Makki, 24, who was in a wheelchair.

“People are still afraid to attack politicians directly," Mr Makki said. "Strength comes in numbers.

"We are a maximum of 2,000 protesters here, while in Beirut they are more than 10 times that."

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Lebanese flashpoints

Protest sites and roadblocks mapped

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Lebanon’s youths have flocked to the demonstrations. Many of them bemoan the fact that they have to go abroad to find a job because of high unemployment.

Hussein, 25, a relative of Mr Makki, told The National he had flown back from Cameroon to take part in the protests.

He moved there last year to work in transport with his uncle because he could not find a job in Lebanon.

“I wish I could work in my home country,” Hussein said.

Some protesters call for the government’s resignation while others are not sure what they want next. One thing is certain: they all aspire for change.

“Life is very hard," Mr Ezzedine said. "We cannot take it any more.

“Banks are not lending to us and people are depositing their money in banks where they get high interest rates of 15 per cent instead of spending it.”

Lebanese who have not joined the protests have been glued to their TVs, following live coverage of the demonstrations where protesters have been chanting, “The people want the fall of the regime” – the same slogan used in the 2011 Arab uprisings.

On the first-floor terrace of a building in a dark street of Tyre, a little boy was chanting over and over again: “The people want the fall of the regime.”

His mother chuckled.

Updated: October 22, 2019 03:47 AM

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