Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced snap elections after a huge crowd of thousands gathered in downtown Beirut Saturday, confronting security forces and taking over government buildings and the Banking Association. Angry about the criminal government negligence that led to the destruction of Beirut’s port and part of the city by ammonium nitrate stores, they occupied the offices of the ministry of the economy, the ministry of energy, the ministry of the environment, and the foreign ministry. The protesters declared the foreign ministry the “Headquarters of the Revolution.” They called the rally “the day of judgment,” reading out the names of those killed in the explosion.
Embed from Getty Images
BEIRUT, LEBANON – AUGUST 08: People gather at an anti-government protest on August 8, 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon. The Lebanese capital is reeling from this week’s massive explosion that killed at least 150 people, wounded thousands, and destroyed wide swaths of the city. Residents are demanding accountability for the blast, whose suspected cause was 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate stored for years at the city’s port. (Photo by Daniel Carde/Getty Images).
Security forces began firing tear gas canisters even before much of a crowd had gathered Saturday afternoon. They also deployed rubber bullets and then even live fire. Many protesters were peaceful, but some set fires and threw rocks at the police. One hospital’s Sunday morning tally said that some 490 protesters were injured, 90 of them seriously enough to go to hospital. The General Directorate of security forces denied that the officer who was killed was a victim of gunfire.
The Banking Association Bldg. suffered damage and was set on fire. The crowds chanted, “May the regime of the banks fall, fall.” Police entered the building from a back door and were able to expel the protesters and put out the fire.
The protesters who occupied government ministries rifled through documents housed there and some read them out on their social media. Others wanted to toss them off the top of the building. Later in the day the Lebanese Army came to the foreign ministry building and demanded that the protesters leave. After some back and forth, most did, though some insisted on staying. The Army also tried to have the protesters at the ministries of Water and of the Environment depart, but met more resistance from them. After all that, an enormous crowd of thousands gathered that evening in the downtown area to call for the fall of the regime.
At Martyrs’ Square, where the Ottoman government had hanged nationalists over a century ago, the protesters set up mock gallows, displaying pictures of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and other government figures, calling for them to be hanged.
The US embassy, representing a Trump administration that sent Federal agents to Portland to assault and spirit away protesters who tried to invade government buildings, sent out a message of support for what it called the peaceful protesters. The current Lebanese government includes the party-militia Hezbollah, which Washington hates, so the State Department is happy to see these protests. Note also that Trump has never expressed support for the anti-Putin protests that have roiled the Russian far east in recent weeks.
The crowds belonged to the same anti-corruption youth movement that had regularly filled the streets last October. They are also said to include retired army veterans. The protests subsided after the advent of the novel coronavirus. The youth protesters want an end to the sectarian system of apportioning votes that governs Lebanon, and helps entrench a small number of old elite families who claim to represent their religious community, whether it be Maronite Christians, Druze, Twelver Shiites or Sunnis. Since new elections are from the point of view of the protesters simply a way of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, they are highly unlikely to be mollified by Diab’s announcement.
The prime minister said he would take his proposal for elections to the parliament on Tuesday, in hopes that new polls would produce a fresh political elite. In a parliamentary system such as Lebanon’s, where a small number of ethnic parties dominate, elections typically return the same old families to power, however.
Lebanon is $80 billion in debt and its private banks are teetering on the edge of insolvency after the government used them as its piggy bank. The value of the currency has collapsed, making imported food very expensive for people. Half the country is living in poverty, and some people are skipping meals. The corruption of government officials is responsible for much of the crisis.