Lebanon protests: Laughing, dancing and a deadly seriousness

Protesters determined to carry on for as long as it takes to force corrupt ministers to resign

Protesters in front of Lebanese soldiers as they block a road east of Beirut. Photograph: Wael Hamzeh/EPA

Protesters in front of Lebanese soldiers as they block a road east of Beirut. Photograph: Wael Hamzeh/EPA

 

Tens of thousands of men, women and children continued on Tuesday to pour on to streets and squares of cities and towns across Lebanon to demand the removal of the country’s government.

The protesters rejected a package of reforms unveiled on Monday by prime minister Saad Hariri in a bid to end the unrest, which erupted last Thursday after the government approved a tax on messaging services, including WhatsApp.

Hamza, a driver from the south, said Mr Hariri’s plan, which included a 50 per cent cut in ministers’ salaries and a promise of no new taxes, was “like an injection of morphine, to put the people to sleep”.

They have refused to sleep, however, for six days and nights. They chant the slogan of the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions: “The people want the fall of the regime,” and call for the entire cabinet resign, shouting, “All means all!”

In Martyrs’ Square, a man waving a flag perches on the top of the statue commemorating the sacrifice of 21 Arab nationalists hanged by the Ottoman governor in May 1916, while a drone overhead photographs the throng. Dogs stroll beside their owners, children cling to the hands of their parents. A saddled white horse waits patiently to give rides.

Vendors sell flags, bottled water, steamed corn on the cob and sandwiches. Music blares from boom boxes. Young men link arms and dance round and round. Friends meet, hug, and kiss cheeks. But all stand to attention to sing the national anthem.

Deadly serious

The protesters are deadly serious. They not only want the politicians who have mismanaged the state to stand down, but also insist on an end to the sectarian powersharing regime imposed by colonial power France before independence in 1943.

Activists have stretched along a footpath a long roll of paper on which hundreds of Lebanese have written comments and their names in Arabic, French and English. Wajdi al-Ghraib, who is attending his first demonstration ever, says the petition will be submitted to the United Nations.

People are joining the protests, he says, to “restore Lebanon’s dignity”. My friend Leila (74), is visiting the protest for the first time, with her daughter and grandson, who have been every day. They write their names on the paper in red ink. The new revolutionaries are from all walks of life and faiths: Christians, Muslims and Druze. “We worship the same God,” says Ghraib.

People come to the protests walking, chatting and laughing, with flags fluttering. Businessman Sherif says, “Before the demonstrations everyone was tense. Because of the economic and political situation, people could quarrel in the streets. Once they went to the squares, it was like a balloon burst, all the tension was gone. Now everybody is there, from everywhere.”

A poster carried by a young woman addresses the politicians: “You’ll never have the comfort of our silence again.”

Roads blocked

A new protest site in front of Lebanon’s central bank blocks Hamra, the main thoroughfare of west Beirut. Revolutionaries want the bankers to take action against the corrupt political class who have collected higher and higher taxes but have not invested in the provision of electricity, potable water, schools, hospitals and roads.

Traffic jams form in narrow streets and alleyways as main roads are blocked. Hariri, the prime minister, promised to open roads, schools and banks on Tuesday but they remained closed. A young man on Hamra wonders how long the authorities will tolerate the protests, dubbed the “WhatsApp revolution”.

While Lebanese media called the government’s reform plan “unprecedented” and “ambitious”, protesters dismiss it as too little, too late. Former environment minister Mohamed Mashnouk states: “Our situation now is very bad [although] we have known very well in advance how the the situation has deteriorated to the point of buying time.”

“Buying time” is out of time. The protesters are determined to carry on for as long as it takes to force corrupt ministers to resign.

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