Anhar Kochneva: Lebanon cannot live and work quietly for already two weeks

About the causes and consequences of demonstrations in Lebanon — Anhar Kochneva's op-ed column

Lebanons Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation after two weeks of unprecedented anti-government protests that paralyzed the country. Mass demonstrations began on October 17, protesters in addition to the resignation of Hariri demanded to hold early elections in the country. Protesters blocked the main roads of major cities and highways. Banks, universities and schools were closed in the country. On the streets, there were clashes with police, who used tear gas against demonstrators. Read more about the events in Lebanon in the op-ed column written for Realnoe Vremya by currently living in this country journalist Anhar Kochneva.

The reason for discontent was the unwillingness of the authorities to protect people from forest fires

Lebanon has not been able to live and work in peace for two weeks. The rioters and rowdies who took to the streets and main roads of the country deprived the inhabitants of one of the important components of human rights — the right to freedom of movement.

Formally, the reason for the surge of discontent was the almost complete unwillingness of the authorities to protect people from the terrible forest fires that were raging for three days near my house (the firewall did not reach it about 100 metres, having stumbled on a construction site where there was nothing to burn). As it turned out later, officials did not even think to keep in working order the fire-fighting helicopters bought by sponsors-businessmen, which at the time when the country urgently needed them just could not be used (they had to use the aircraft of Greece, Cyprus and Jordan). As well as a sharp increase in taxes for the population approved by the government. As a result, people appeared in the squares in a number of Lebanese cities demanding the resignation of the government and action be taken against corrupt officials stealing state funds.

Already on the first night of the events (Thursday, October 17) in the traditional place of all kinds of protest rallies in the historic centre of Beirut, where the country's parliament building and the building in which the government sits is located, protesters staged provocations in order to provoke a response from the security forces. The following night, in this and other areas, according to Lebanon's ministry of interior and municipalities, 52 policemen and soldiers were injured by stones, rebar, etc. The demonstrators also suffered: according to the Red Cross, more than 600 people went to hospitals and mobile medical posts. They were mostly injured in a crush, as well as by stones of their own associates (they did not reach the police). They were also those who inhaled too much tear gas, which the police had to apply against wanton hooligans.

Rallies more and more began to resemble youth parties

In the following days, the situation in the centre returned to normal. The rallies more and more began to resemble youth get-togethers with entertainment organized for the audience (concerts), distribution of water and treats (it is still unclear at whose expense this banquet was). However, this picture of waving flags, painting cedars (symbol of countries) on various parts of bodies and so on — it is, as they would call, for the outside user. Like EU observers, who in their statement expressed concern only about the violation of the rights of demonstrators. And who did not even mention the lawlessness that these protesters staged for all other residents of the country.

Lebanon is a mountainous country. Mountains occupy almost all of its territory, except for a small strip of land along the coast and the high valley of the Bekaa, which is located between two ridges of mountains. Most of the population lives in the mountains. Many daily travel from home to work on the highway located along the coast. Which the protesters decided to block. Allegedly to annoy the government and force it to resign. For already two weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have been deprived of the opportunity to live their lives fully. They can't get to work. They cannot receive the necessary goods and products. In some areas, filling stations are not working: it has become a difficult task to bring a new batch of gasoline. For two weeks, children have not been attending schools, universities are not working. Banks are being closed, their managements have already warned that the employees of financial institutions who cannot get to work will not be able to transfer funds to salary cards of citizens.

Due to the constant blocking of important roads, tourists in the country cannot get to some attractions. They have to spend more time than usual on excursions and transportation. A few days earlier, it had been possible to get without any problems only to the mountains where the Druze live (one of the branches of Ismailism) because they do not block roads, do not hooligan, and all the protests in their execution are purely peaceful. Or to the areas inhabited by Shiites (the south of Lebanon): after the appeal of the leader of the Hezbollah party to the population with a request not to complicate life for people, in the places where Shiites live, there has been established order. However, even in the first days of unrest in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre, the rioters managed to burn down a state hotel, believing in rumours that it belongs to the family of one of the Lebanese politicians of the first echelon — the speaker of the Lebanese parliament. Now the situation has normalized, in Tyre, as in other cities, the number of people at protests has decreased significantly.

Those who are not satisfied with the resignation of Hariri have also begun to organize protests

Most leaders of Lebanese political parties have also urged their supporters to protest peacefully without exacerbating the already difficult economic situation in the country. In the meantime, those Lebanese who work for themselves or receive payment for the work performed or some transactions (taxi drivers, trade workers, etc.) do not know what and how they will feed their families and pay for housing in the near future. Those with fixed salaries will almost certainly be short of money. On the black market, the exchange rate of the national currency has significantly decreased — merchants need cash dollars, which cannot be obtained in banks closed now, and speculators are taking advantage of it.

The only ones who continue to support the idea of blocking roads are the Lebanese right-wing Christian parties. The army has already issued several warnings about the need not to break the law when holding protests. And that it will be forced to use force to unlock the roads necessary for people. Periodically, this promise is fulfilled. The resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri also added fuel to the fire: those who are not satisfied with this resignation, in turn, have also begun to organize protests. The complexity of the situation is that there are a huge number of different political forces in Lebanon, and the adoption of almost any important decisions is faced with the need for the consent of all or most of the parties concerned.

Time will tell how long the current situation will last and where it will lead.

By Anhar Kochneva, photo courtesy of the author