Fumes and civic sense as Beirut protesters vent their anger

Stench of fires pervades Lebanon capital as some residents try to clear up damage

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The air in Beirut was heavy with an acrid burning smell on Saturday morning and the tarmac on the streets scorched black from the fires lit during two days of anti-government protests.

On Martyrs’ Square in the city centre, the facades of high-end – but unfinished – private property developments have been smashed in. Someone has scrawled “revolution” on a column. The buildings occupy what was many years ago a palm tree-lined plaza. More recently, it has symbolised the denial of public space to the average Lebanese citizen.

Elsewhere, charred pomegranates fall from a burnt rubbish tip. The road leading to the offices of Prime Minister Saad Hariri are closed off by guards and barbed wire. Beirut's main thoroughfares remain blocked by burning tyres, their black smoke rising above the rooftops.

Lebanese demonstrators wave the national flag on barbed wire protecting the government headquarters, known as the Grand Serail in central Beirut, as hundreds continued to gather in Lebanon on October 19, 2019 for a third day of protests against tax increases and alleged official corruption after the security forces made dozens of arrests. Thousands of protesters outraged by corruption and proposed tax hikes burned tyres and blocked major highways in Lebanon on Friday, prompting the premier to give his government partners three days to support a reform drive. / AFP / Anwar AMRO

Despite rubber bullets, tear gas and dozens of arrests of dozens the previous night, the protests entered their third day. Yet amid the soot and debris, demonstrators decried the damage to shops and businesses and said they wanted to continue peacefully. Dozens of people donned surgical face masks and rubber gloves to help clear the debris on Martyrs’ Square as a pickup truck from Ramco, which operates waste disposal services for Beirut, pulled up.

The mood was jubilant, and the protesters gathered to a background symphony of pop music, cries of “revolution,” and the honking of mopeds – more suited than cars to dodging the broken glass and upturned bins that are scattered across the city streets.

“I feel very proud to be Lebanese right now, being here with all these people fighting for the same cause,” said Jad, 25, from behind his mask.

“We’re all coming here for a safe protest, for our rights, but there are some people who come here just to wreak havoc, and we’re trying to clear up after them. We’re just trying to clean our streets, so we can protest.”

But the frustration with the political elite that spurred the protests is ever present.

Several demonstrators held up signs demanding “the return of stolen money”, referring to state corruption and the black hole into which Lebanese citizens’ taxes seem to fall while basic services such as electricity and water supply remain substandard.

The people protesting say they will continue to take to the streets, while others not participating prepare themselves. A taxi driver donned a face mask, kept handy on his dashboard, against the soot from burning debris as he drove towards a flashpoint on the airport road. The 60-year-old – who declined to give his name but boasted of two brothers dying in battle for the militant group Hezbollah – grumbled about the previous evening’s damage.

“OK, protest, but burning tyres and destroying property is not on,” he said.

People clear debris from a road leading to the airport during a protest against dire economic conditions in Beirut’s southern suburbs on October 19, 2019. Thousands of protesters outraged by corruption and proposed tax hikes burned tyres and blocked major highways in Lebanon on Friday, prompting the premier to give his government partners three days to support a reform drive. / AFP / IBRAHIM AMRO

Across Lebanon, a willingness to publicly criticise powerful figures is becoming increasingly clear. This is one of the elements differentiating these protests from previous popular movements. In Lebanon, where sectarian divides dictate everything from parliamentary seats to job offers and where people live, bad-mouthing one's own za'im – leader – has for a long time been a no-no. Not anymore, it seems.

Sitting on a plastic chair outside a workman’s cafe in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Mahdi Ghosn, a 30-year-old airport employee, said he would continue to demonstrate.

Picking up his phone, he pointed to a friend’s Facebook post criticising Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for lacking solidarity with the protest movement. “What have I got to be scared of?" he replied when asked if he was worried about criticising the powerful Shiite leader.

“He’s a human being, just like us. He’s not God.”