Demonstrations began last week over garbage piling up in the streets of Beirut
(BEIRUT) — Thousands of people began gathering Saturday amid tight security in downtown Beirut, ahead of a major rally to protest government corruption and the country’s dysfunctional political system.
At least two or three armored personnel carriers were deployed around the prime minister’s office. A man over a megaphone chanted: “Declare it a revolution!”
Saturday’s protest is expected to be the largest of the demonstrations that began last week over garbage piling up in the streets of Beirut, following the closure of a main landfill. But the government’s failure to resolve the crisis has evolved into wider protests against a political class that has dominated Lebanon since the end of the country’s civil war in 1990.
Two protests last weekend outside the prime minister’s office drew up to 20,000 people and were generally peaceful. But the rallies turned violent when security forces used batons, tear gas and water cannons to disperse groups of people who tried to break the security cordon around the prime minister’s office.
There were concerns that Saturday’s protest would also descend into clashes. To avoid friction with security forces, organizers of the protest shifted the location from Riyad Solh square opposite the government building known as the Grand Serail to Martyr’s Square, a major square few hundred meters away.
The government said a joint security-military operations room was set up to prevent chaos.
Thousands of people gathered in downtown Beirut, many of them waving Lebanese flags and wearing white T-shirts that read “You Stink,” the name of the main activist group behind the protests.
The London-based rights group Amnesty International called on Lebanese authorities Saturday to investigate allegations that security forces have used excessive force to disperse rallies.
Amnesty said security forces fired live rounds, used rubber bullets and hurled stones or beat protesters, leaving 59 people hospitalized. It called on security forces to refrain from using “unnecessary or excessive” force during Saturday’s protest.
“Everyone in Lebanon has the right to peaceful assembly. Lebanese officials must uphold this right and send a clear message to security personnel that such attacks against peaceful protesters will not be tolerated,” said Lama Fakih, senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk acknowledged there were “mistakes” that led to the excessive use of force and said an investigation was under way. Officials say more than 100 security personnel were also injured.
Reflecting concern over renewed clashes, the rally organizers from “You Stink” said they are deploying 500 volunteers to coordinate with security forces and prevent violence.
Assaad Thebian, a movement organizer, said his group wants to avoid any attempts to spoil their peaceful anti-government rally. They worry politicians would seek to hijack their protest, further entrenching the political establishment they are protesting against.
The campaigners say they seek radical reforms including an end the patronage system that divvies up power among Lebanon’s multiple communities — Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Druze and more. That system has been the center of Lebanese politics for decades and helped fuel the 15-year civil war.
“We warn every politician trying to create chaos by opening a battle in one square that it will fire back at you,” Thebian wrote on his Twitter account.