BEIRUT/TRIPOLI/SAIDA — Shortly after 6:07 p.m., a time that stands still for victims of the devastating Beirut port explosion, protesters lit a “thawra torch” that symbolically bridged the Oct. 17, 2019, uprising with the Aug. 4 crime of negligence.
Saturday’s somber display in Beirut brought protesters from around the country, including from Tripoli, Saida, Sur and the Bekaa, for a series of rallies and marches to mark the one-year anniversary of the uprising. While smaller than the protests that kicked off a year prior, the anger was just as palpable.
Since last October, living conditions have worsened as the financial crisis claimed life savings, the lira tanked and businesses shuttered, while the COVID-19 pandemic has left over 500 dead and threatened an overwhelmed health sector.
The Aug. 4 blast has overshadowed all of this, prompting the hundreds gathered in Martyrs’ Square in the early afternoon to set off on marches that would take them past the central sites of the year-old uprising: the banking lobby, the Ring Bridge, the central bank and Parliament, before returning to the scene of the crime, a port still in ruins.
As in the initial weeks of the demonstrations in October last year, the march was joined by protesters from all walks of life — families with young children, elderly men and women, and those prepared for a fight, equipped with gas masks, helmets and thick gloves.
The slogans were familiar: “All of them means all of them”; “The people want the toppling of the regime”; “Down with the rule of the bank”; and many others targeting Lebanon’s sectarian political leaders one by one.
Near Parliament, a new activist group appeared for the first time, the self-described Thawra Shield, consisting of hundreds of volunteers donning matching vests who aimed to prevent rioting.
One of their organizers, Joe Nasrallah, explained his group’s goal: to encourage people to feel safe to come to protests without violence. He argued that although the uprising might not have achieved its political goals, it can remain sustainable if people keep returning to the street.
As protesters passed the entrance to Parliament in the late afternoon, most decided to continue on to the Beirut port, where the giant metal “thawra torch” sculpture was lit and a moment of silence was held for the more than 200 people who lost their lives in the catastrophic explosion of Aug. 4.
However, some protesters remained in front of the tall metal barricades that block access to Nijmeh Square, home to Parliament. A brief scuffle broke out after a young man went to throw a rock over the barricade, but was prevented from doing so by yellow-vested members of the Thawra Shield group. One man, an apparent leader of the group, blew a whistle, calling for backup to prevent the small scuffle from descending into a brawl.
“This is why I haven’t been protesting recently — it just descends into chaos,” a volunteer with the group, who did not provide his name, said while resting against the wall of the mosque next to the entrance to Parliament.
Not all the protesters were on board with Thawra Shield’s sentiment. An argument broke out over tactics after a pair of protesters began kicking at a glass concierge box at the entrance to the Beirut Souks, a former playground for Lebanon’s well-to-do.
“What are you doing? How does this help us bring down the regime?” one young female protester screamed, to no avail. Moments later, the glass panels shattered and a protester began handing out copies of a glossy advertising brochure.
As if out of nowhere, tear gas canisters started raining down as riot police, backed up by soldiers, moved in, eventually pushing protesters back toward Martyrs’ Square before the demonstrations came to an end.
To the north in Tripoli, Nour Square was nearly empty Saturday afternoon, with several busloads of activists having gone to join the protests in Beirut. The square had been the site of some of the largest ongoing protests at the height of the uprising.
The mood of those who were in the square Saturday was largely pessimistic.
"The situation has never been this bad. There is nothing left. Everything is expensive and everything is hard to get," said a taxi driver who gave his name as Nabil, who was waiting on the side of the square. "The revolution didn't succeed."
"What do you mean it didn't succeed?" interjected Mohammed Taleb, standing next to him outside the cab. "It brought down two governments. There's no minister who dares to go and eat in a restaurant."
A group of a few dozen protesters gathered in the square in the evening. A young man who refused to give his name said he had wanted to join the group going to Beirut but was afraid of being stopped at a checkpoint on the way.
He said he had been arrested during a night of riots in Tripoli and stayed in detention for more than a month, during which he said he had been subjected to torture, before being released.
"Why all this injustice, why are all the sons of Tripoli always oppressed?" he said. "We were raised on blood, on problems, on drugs."
He and the other young men said their main objective now is to leave Lebanon, by any route available.
"We would accept to go to Syria, to the Syria that oppressed us for 30 years, we would accept to go and live there," he said. "We've come to hate our country, to hate the soil we're standing on."
Desperation has become more palpable since the uprising began a year ago.
“I can’t find medicine anymore, which I can barely afford,” Mansour, a disabled protester in Saida, said as tears began to well up in his eyes. “I need my medications to live; all I am asking for is to live a normal life, that’s all I want,” he added.
A small group of protesters had gathered in Saida’s Elia intersection in the evening, amid a heavy security presence, demanding basic necessities such as employment, health care and bread.
“Every time people head to the streets to claim their rights, the authorities deploy the army. Why? Because we are asking for our rights?” Mansour said.
Ahmad, a retired merchant, said, “People are tired, they gave up, they lost hope for a better life. This system was built on sectarianism in a very dangerous way, which is really hard to break. We need to keep on going; it will take several years to be able to challenge this system.”
A small group of demonstrators left Elia to march through the city, imploring residents to come down to the streets and protest for their rights. They chanted against Lebanon’s political leaders, especially Saad Hariri, who hails from the city. Their calls, however, were not answered: Few if any joined their march.
Hariri, who resigned as prime minister during the first weeks of the uprising, has made a stunning return to political life, becoming the front-runner to lead the next government.
Yet his current popularity among the political class has not translated into widespread support from the street. Protesters in Beirut clearly expressed their opposition to his return, chanting, “Saad, Saad, Saad, don’t dream of coming back,” as they marched toward the central bank Saturday.
While Hariri resigned his government on Oct. 29, and another cabinet has come and gone, other officials remain entrenched in power.
In Beirut, Abdel-Latif, a 20-year old unemployed man who said he has hit the streets since protests first erupted last year, said that even if Hariri comes back, it won’t make a difference.
“The problem is with the whole political class. Look at what they did at the port,” he said.
Albin Szakola and Emily Lewis reported from Beirut, Abby Sewell from Tripoli, and Omar Tamo from Saida.
BEIRUT/TRIPOLI/SAIDA — Shortly after 6:07 p.m., a time that stands still for victims of the devastating Beirut port explosion, protesters lit a “thawra torch” that symbolically bridged the Oct. 17, 2019, uprising with the Aug. 4 crime of negligence.Saturday’s somber display in Beirut brought protesters from around the country, including from Tripoli, Saida, Sur and the Bekaa, for a...