Lebanon News

Deja vu: Lebanon to return to protest shutdown

Protesters sit in tents outside the EDL building in Beirut, Nov. 11, 2019. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Lebanon appears set to return to full-scale paralysis Tuesday, with calls for banks, schools and universities to close, and protesters vowing to block roads nationwide. Thousands of protesters Monday filled squares and streets across the country on the 26th day of the mass uprising against corruption and the ruling elite, gathering in cities from north to south, including Tripoli, Tyre and Nabatieh.

Hundreds remained camped out in front of Electricite du Liban’s Beirut headquarters Monday evening, many having slept in tents the night before. Around the perimeter of the Mar Mikhael building, protesters hung a black fabric screen, lit candles and held discussions on the future of the country.

Those who had woken up outside EDL Monday vowed to block the streets surrounding the building for 24 hours, to symbolize the state-run company’s failure to provide 24-hour power. Protesters said that after completing a full day in front of EDL’s headquarters, they would target another EDL building Tuesday.

The electricity sector is at the core of the state’s financial crisis, hemorrhaging up to $2 billion annually. Yet round-the-clock electricity remains stubbornly elusive.

Beirut suffers power cuts of an average three hours per day, a figure that rises to 12 hours outside the capital. To bridge this electricity deficit, Lebanon relies on expensive and highly polluting diesel generators.

“They’ve made a lot of promises, but we’ve seen nothing,” a protester lying in a hammock told local media early Monday morning.

Tensions were expected to come to a head Tuesday with protesters calling for Lebanese to take action to prevent a legislative session scheduled to take place in Parliament. But Speaker Nabih Berri announced Monday afternoon that the session had been postponed for security reasons.

Berri’s announcement follows growing opposition to the session, with critics asserting that it is unconstitutional and fails to respond to the demands of protesters.

Mariam Abdallah, 18, told The Daily Star that the decision was not a positive one. “We want things to happen as quickly as possible. The country doesn’t have time. We’re on the brink of economic collapse. We want them to leave ... They postponed this for their own benefit,” she said.

“This has nothing to do with security. The decision to cancel the session is purely political. Next week, pressure from protesters will probably decrease and that’s what these politicians are banking on. That’s why they’re postponing this, for their own benefit and to buy time,” said Waleed, a university student.

Protesters Monday evening said that they were committed to closing roads Tuesday, and the country is set to return to the shutdown that dominated for the first two weeks of protests.

The Association of Banks in Lebanon announced that banks would remain closed, following the announcement of a strike by staff members. Caretaker Education Minister Akram Chehayeb also said that schools, universities and educational institutions should suspend classes Tuesday. He said he had made the decision “in the interest of preserving students’ safety, and with respect to their rights to democratic expression.”

Demonstrations picked up in front of the Central Bank’s Beirut headquarters as the day progressed.

There, protesters tried to break down a hoarding that prevented access to the building and enter the courtyard calling “Thief, thief, Riad Salameh is a thief” in reference to the Central Bank’s governor.

In Tripoli’s Al-Nour Square, protesters massed in their thousands once again Monday evening. Thousands more gathered in the Bekaa town of Chtoura, waving flags and singing protest songs.

Numbers in Beirut were low to begin with, but a crowd began to build in Martyrs’ Square by 6 p.m., congregating around a giant print-out of the Lebanese flag, on which protesters wrote messages of support and revolution. The nearby Riad al-Solh Square saw a few hundred gather, dancing the traditional dabke in front of the Grand Serail, the seat of the Lebanese government.

Students massed in front of Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, blocking the entrance and forcing all classes to stop for the day.

In Sidon, 30 fishing boats were launched from the port in a demonstration for the rights of fishermen and to support regulation of the fishing sector to preserve fisheries.

The nationwide uprising has seen hundreds of thousands take to the streets since Oct. 17, in protest against state corruption and official incompetence in dealing with the country’s dire economic situation.

Protesters demanded the resignation of the government - a demand that was met on Oct. 29, when Saad Hariri stepped down from his post as premier, bringing down the government with him. Demonstrators have also demanded the immediate formation of a technocratic government, early parliamentary elections and the early end of President Michel Aoun’s term, in addition to holding corrupt officials accountable and the return of “looted public funds.” - Additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 12, 2019, on page 2.

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