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Rally in Beirut postponed amid fears ‘thugs’ may hijack the protests

Some accused the violent protesters of being infiltrators sent by political parties to ruin the movement, while others said they were simply marginalised members of society who were venting anger.
Lebanese are seen through hole in the glass window of a store damaged in clashes between protesters and police officers, a day after a violent protest against the ongoing trash crisis, in downtown Beirut on August 24, 2015. Hassan Ammar / AP Photo
Lebanese are seen through hole in the glass window of a store damaged in clashes between protesters and police officers, a day after a violent protest against the ongoing trash crisis, in downtown Beirut on August 24, 2015. Hassan Ammar / AP Photo

BEIRUT // Organisers called off an anti-government demonstration in Beirut on Monday evening after clashes at protests on the two previous nights left hundreds of people injured.

The You Stink movement, formed to protest the government’s inability to solve an ongoing rubbish disposal crisis, condemned the violence and said protesters who instigated fights with police and later rioted were “sectarian thugs” and “political hooligans” who infiltrated the demonstrations.

“Our movement did not and will not stop,” the group said on Monday. “This is not retreat however, we simply need to re-evaluate and sort out our demands as well as listen to what the people have to say.”

Activists later announced that the next protest will take place on Saturday evening.

Thousands of demonstrators streamed into central Beirut on Saturday and Sunday in response to calls by You Stink. The clashes that broke out on both nights wounded more than 400 people, according to the Lebanese Red Cross.

Prime minister Tamam Salam resisted pressure to step down after Saturday’s protest turned violent, pledging instead to hold security forces accountable for attacking protesters and to resolve the waste disposal crisis that initially led to the protests.

You Stink began holding protests last month over the government’s failure to find a sustainable and environmentally-friendly way to dispose of Beirut’s waste after Lebanon’s largest landfill was closed on July 17.

The loosely-organised movement headed by social activists swelled from just a few hundred to thousands in just a few weeks.

Rubbish piled up in the capital and surrounding communities for nearly two weeks before municipalities began moving them to makeshift dumps, but no permanent solution has been found.

The protests over rubbish have now snowballed into a larger movement against the government’s inability to provide basic services such as electricity and water, corruption, sectarianism, and the failure to elect a president for more than a year.

On Monday afternoon, Lebanon’s environment minister Mohammad Machnouk announced the names of six companies that had won bids to Lebanon’s waste management, describing the development as a “happy ending”.

The bids will now go before Lebanon’s cabinet for approval. However, the announcement did not appease You Stink activists who called for the bids to be annulled, saying the tenders were aimed at stealing public funds, according to local media reports. They have vowed to continue their protests.

While majority of the thousands of demonstrators at Sunday’s rally were peaceful, the situation quickly deteriorated at the front of the protest where crowds grew more violent.

At the razor-wire barricades in front of the prime minister’s headquarters, protesters began hurling water bottles, rocks and other objects at the police. After criticism of their heavy-handed tactics against protesters on Saturday, the police initially showed restraint and limited their response to using water cannon.

This emboldened the protesters and their chants of “the people want the fall of the regime” – the slogan of uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring – grew louder with each dousing.

The jets of water also riled protesters who were attacking police, into attempting to remove the concertina razor wire and throwing larger, heavier and more dangerous objects at security forces.

A group of men broke into a building and one emerged holding a toilet which he smashed, providing more ammunition for the protesters to throw.

Security forces eventually responded by firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets, sending protesters scattering.

“Is this democracy? Is this democracy?” one shouted as the shots rang out.

On Monday, authorities erected concrete blast balls at the entrance of the prime minister’s headquarters, which has been a focal point of clashes in recent days.

As the police turned on the protesters, You Stink activists urged their supporters to leave the area to show they were not encouraging violence.

Some supporters accused the violent protesters of being infiltrators sent by political parties to ruin the movement.

Others said they were simply marginalised members of society who were venting anger that had built up over the years.

Pushed back from the prime minister’s office to Martyrs’ Square, some protesters rioted, destroying traffic lights, setting fire to barricades and a construction site and tearing down street signs.

Two You Stink supporters who stayed in the area despite the movement’s advice to leave watched the rioters with dismay.

Moe, a Lebanese American University student who asked that his surname not be used, said he was upset by the destruction, which tarnished a movement aimed to improve the country.

He was not sure if the rioters were politically motivated, but said some seemed to be from the slums, where opportunities are few and anger at the state has been building up for generations.

“It’s a result of the corruption in this country,” he said. “I want a better Lebanon with no corruption.”

His friend Sam was unsure the protest movement would go forward if violent elements continued to show up.

“The movement is not going to come back unless they all leave,” he said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: August 24, 2015 04:00 AM

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