Dozens of demonstrators chanting insults at the country’s politicians stormed Beirut’s Bustros Palace on Saturday evening.
They converged outside the ochre building, which houses Lebanon's foreign affairs ministry, angered by the government's apparent culpability for the deadly blast in the city on Tuesday
Standing on the steps of the 19th century palace, protesters sang the Lebanese national anthem and greeted two soldiers who came to inspect the situation with whistles and pro-army chants.
“We decided to come here to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because this belongs to the public,” retired Brig Gen George Nader said, wearing a black T-shirt carrying the army’s insignia.
“What belongs to the Lebanese people must return to them.”
Behind him, two large red banners read: “Beirut is the capital of the revolution,” and “Beirut is a city without weapons,” in a reference to Hezbollah, the only Lebanese party allowed to keep arms at the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
Protesters chanted that President Michel Aoun and Hezbollah were “terrorists” and called Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri a “thug”
They sang a vulgar song about former foreign minister Gebran Bassil, who is also the president’s son-in-law.
Shortly after, protesters stormed the ministries for energy and water, environment and economy, and the Association of Lebanese Banks in the city centre.
Retired soldiers have been active in protests in Beirut since last October, when the Lebanese took the streets in their hundreds of thousands to denounce the corruption of their leaders.
The government is widely seen as responsible for the country’s worst economic crisis, which started last year. Protests petered out but anger after Tuesday’s blast has revived the movement for change.
Though Lebanese authorities said the explosion was due to the unsafe storage of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate for the past six years, contradictory rumours have circulated like wildfire.
Anti-Hezbollah Lebanese blame the Iran-backed group, which has denied any involvement. President Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, said the blast could have been caused by an “attack”.
Protests descend into ferment – and tragedy
Demonstrations were met with violence shortly after they started on Saturday afternoon. Local media reported that riot police fired live ammunition and several rounds of tear gas while protesters tried to break through barricades near Parliament, throwing rocks at the army and lighting small fires.
Dozens of people climbed into high-end offices and apartments damaged by the explosion, and into the city’s Mohammad Al Amine mosque, to gain a better view of Martyrs’ Square.
One policeman, Tawfic Douaihy, died after people it described as rioters attacked him in a badly damaged hotel building in central Beirut, Lebanese security forces said on Twitter.
A further 238 people were wounded during clashes with riot police, the Lebanese Red Cross said. Later in the evening, the Islamic Medical Association said 490 people were injured.
“We’re trying to get into Parliament to get our country back,” said protester Anthony Hobeich. “This Parliament is for the people, not for its corrupt members. After August 4, 2020, everything changed.”
“I want all politicians here in Lebanon to die,” Elie said, as he threw rocks at the army.
By early evening, the army had pushed protesters out of the ministries.
Earlier that afternoon, demonstrators hanged life-size effigies of politicians in makeshift nooses on Martyrs’ Square.
Banners read: “we’ll get justice from your necks”, “resign or the noose” and “time for accountability”.
But for a brief moment, protesters felt that they had taken control. “This is absolutely amazing,” one woman said as she walked through the entrance hall of Bustros Palace.
Another protester, Maha, visibly moved by the scene, said: “I’m so proud. The Lebanese people are united.
“We are occupying a corrupt power.”
Incursions on ministries planned not spontaneous
Louis, an activist and lawyer, told The National the storming of government buildings was planned 24 hours in advance.
“It’s a blitzkrieg. We came where they did not expect us,” he said. “It’s a quick and symbolic victory. I expect popular pressure to continue to increase until September 1, for the 100th anniversary of Greater Lebanon,” he said, referring to the state that preceded modern Lebanon.
Despite Tuesday’s violence, activists hope that members of the army and the police will sympathise with their cause and eventually join them.
With the devaluation of the Lebanese pound by about 80 per cent on the black market in the past year, a soldier’s salary is now worth only about Dh367 a month.
In a sign of potentially more divisions to come, firefighters refused to use water cannon on protesters on Saturday. Local television station Al Jadeed said they refused to take the order from the Internal Security Forces because they had lost 10 colleagues in the blast earlier this week.
In a statement, Beirut’s Governor Marwan Abboud said the city’s fire brigade was not allowed out unless it was “to extinguish a fire”.