Tension mounts in Lebanese capital over Hariri’s probable return to power

Former prime minister’s supporters burn down symbol of anti-government protests in downtown Beirut

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Tension was high in Beirut on Wednesday evening as anti-government protesters were intimidated by scores of young men supporting former prime minister Saad Hariri, who is expected to be nominated as premier again on Thursday.

About 40 protesters who gathered in late afternoon in downtown Beirut planned to march to Mr Hariri’s house to protest against his return to power, demonstrator Cherine Zein said.

But his supporters organised a counter-protest, forcing the demonstrators to stay downtown. The army and riot police intervened to separate the two groups.

Resident Ali was sitting with friends smoking shisha on Martyrs' Square when he saw "about 150 young men" arrive on motorbikes and burn down a giant cut-out fist that had become a symbol of Lebanon's anti-government movement.

“They insulted the revolution and parked the motorbikes in the middle of the road," Ali said.

"One of them had a bottle of fuel that he poured on the fist and they set it alight.

"I tried to stop them but they attacked me. They were chanting 'God, Hariri and Tarik Jdideh'."

Tarik Jdideh is a neighbourhood of Beirut that is famous for supporting Mr Hariri’s political party, the Future Movement.

By 7pm Mr Hariri’s supporters, who also broke a giant phoenix built by Lebanese artist Hayat Nazer in late 2019 in Martyrs' Square, had left downtown Beirut.

The Internal Security Forces said it arrested four people and was conducting an investigation into the incident.

Mr Hariri is the only candidate for prime minister and is expected to be chosen by parliamentary blocs during binding consultations on Thursday.

Caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab stepped down after a devastating explosion in Beirut’s port that killed at least 190 people on August 4.

After the incident at Martyrs' Square, Mr Hariri’s Future Movement denied any involvement and urged its followers “adhere to the highest levels of restraint".

Early on Wednesday evening, a small group of protesters escorted by riot police and soldiers marched towards Mr Hariri’s house.

They sang “Rise up Beirut,” and chanted “Solidere is dirty, dirty, and Hariri is the same”.

Solidere is a private development company that rebuilt downtown Beirut after the 1975-1990 civil war and was founded by Mr hariri's assassinated father and former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Protesters have criticised Solidere in the past for only catering to the rich.

“We don’t want Hariri to come back. He is part of this corruption,” said Ms Zein, echoing widespread anger at the corruption of successive Lebanese governments.

“It’s going to take time but we’ll keep fighting.”

Ali said the burnt fist in Martyrs' Square would be replaced.

“My eight-year-old son called me crying," he said. "He said, ‘Look Papa, the fist is burning'. But tomorrow we’ll build another one.

It was first burnt down by an unknown man on a motorbike in late November, after it had been attacked by supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, two Iran-backed political parties that criticised the anti-government movement.

The fist was immediately rebuilt but the protest movement has significantly weakened since.

Mr Hariri repeatedly supported the protests since his resignation on October 29, 2019, nearly two weeks after the anti-government movement started.

Protesters called for the resignation of the entire political class, but Mr Hariri was the only politician to step down.

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