Lebanese Protesters Aim for Rare Unity Against Gridlocked Government – Ann Bernard/The New York Times

by Newsstand

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanese demonstrators, who have gathered by the thousands recently to protest towering garbage piles, corruption and political dysfunction, expected their biggest turnout yet on Saturday evening in downtown Beirut, as the authorities and activists alike vowed to avoid the clashes that marred earlier protests.

As protesters began gathering, many in the crowd were leery of the possibility of violence. Last weekend, security forces used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets as some protesters threw rocks. Hundreds were injured, and one person was left in a coma.

On Saturday, some protesters had emergency contact phone numbers written on their arms, in case demonstrations turned into clashes. The police and other security forces, however, kept a respectful distance behind barriers.

Among the protesters and their broad base of supporters, a sense of excitement and possibility was mounting.

Many see the movement as a rare chance to unite Lebanon, traditionally divided by religion and political faction, behind a cause not drummed up by any religious or political leader. Indeed, a sentiment common among a wide spectrum of protesters is disillusionment with the country’s entire political class, amid the longstanding failure of the state to provide basic services while leaders bicker over profits and patronage.

Announcing a set of demands on Martyrs’ Square — a symbolic area between the eastern and western districts of Beirut whose residents fought each other for much of the civil war a generation ago — organizers said their protest was against all the political leaders.

“Everybody means everybody,” said Assad Thebian, one of a small group of organizers who started protests a month ago over the collapse of garbage collection due to political disputes. They have named their movement “You Stink.”

The protests have quickly broadened, drawing a range of environmental, good-governance, labor and leftist groups, as well as growing interest from members of the public who say they have come without any prior affiliation. That has developed even as many Lebanese worry that the movement will be hijacked by political groups and try to decode hidden agendas among the protesters.

As the Saturday gathering coalesced, some groups chanted, “The people want the fall of the regime,” a typical rallying cry from the Arab revolts.

“No to sectarianism. This is a popular revolution” came from a loudspeaker on a truck.

Other protesters, however, underscored that they had no desire to topple the entire system and that they wanted only to press Lebanon’s Parliament and cabinet to resign.

Some at the march were unsure whether the protest had been effectively defined. Nizam Abou Khzam, a leader of the Lebanon Eco Movement, said his group supported the march but did not agree with some of the slogans bandied about because the aims were not realistic.

“We are not for toppling the regime, we are for reforms,” he said. “To be effective, we have to be logical.”

But Ali, an academic who declined to give his full name, said the mistake was in not taking enough risks.

“There should be more violence,” he said, adding that he did not want anyone to be hurt, but that it had been a mistake for organizers to pull back last Sunday after rumors circulated of infiltrators instigating violence.

One woman at the march, Ansar al-Andari, 32, drove an hour with her two young boys to attend. Her demands were straightforward. “Electricity, water and dignity,” she said. “And get these sectarian thieves out. We look at each other as enemies while they are filling their pockets. It’s not enough to sit home and complain.”

Nowhere to be seen were the flags of the different religious factions that govern Lebanon. That absence was what brought out many first-time protesters like Noor Abbas.

Ms. Abbas, 19, is from the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hezbollah is popular. She said she was persuaded to come when she saw earlier protests on television — but “no politicians.” She wore a pink head scarf; her friend wore a purple one. “I’m so hopeful. So happy. We want to change the system.”

The main political divides in Lebanon are between the March 14 movement, which came together to demand the end of Syria’s military presence in Lebanon in 2005 after the assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri, and the March 8 movement, which backed the Syrian government.

The main player of March 8 is Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group and political party. For March 14, it is the Future Movement, Hezbollah’s main Sunni rival. On Saturday, some protesters shouted, “14 and 8, they turned the country into a corner shop.”

From a loudspeaker came, “Part are with Saudi Arabia, part are with Iran,” referring respectively to patrons of March 14 and 8.

Chants of “Revolution” could be heard on Martyrs’ Square hours before the protest was to begin. Some protesters, mainly young adults and a few teenagers, had spent the night on wooden pallets or in nylon tents, in a jovial mood, practicing rhyming chants that expressed sympathy with all of Lebanon’s sects and areas and denounced all of its politicians.

It was striking that young people used that chant with such enthusiasm in 2015, more than four years after the Arab revolts began with similar calls in Tunisia, Syria, Libya and Egypt — countries now struggling with varying degrees of violence and disappointment. Most central to the Lebanese experience is the war next door in Syria, which has killed more than 200,000 people and driven millions from the country, according to human rights groups.

But unlike authoritarian Syria, Lebanon has a weak government that has long tolerated fractious political disputes. The young people on the square said they were optimistic that even though rival Lebanese factions back opposite sides in Syria, protests here would not lead to major violence — much less state collapse.

“The difference is, we don’t want to bring down our structure,” said Maria Keserwani, 27, a human resources manager. “We want our structure to stay, but we want it to improve.”

She was crammed into a small camping tent with a history teacher and several high school and college students, all fellow protesters from different sects who had become friends at the demonstrations. One companion declared, to cheers, “We want our regime to rise!”

Another, Elias Nassar, said, “Besides, Lebanon has lived through civil war, and we all know we don’t want that.”

The You Stink activists on Friday issued a specific set of demands that tried to thread the needle between those who want a broad overhaul of the system and those who want to keep the focus on more attainable goals.

The demands called for accountability of security forces’ use of violence against protesters; the resignation of the environment minister, Mohammad Machnouk, who has presided over a breakdown in garbage collection; the release of money owed by the government to municipalities to handle their trash; and parliamentary elections.

Political gridlock has left Lebanon without a president for over a year, and Parliament has extended its own mandate twice, delaying elections until 2017.

One protester came up to Mr. Thebian and complained that elections would simply produce another Parliament full of the same old political class. Also unclear in the demands was which electoral law would regulate the elections: the current one, which includes sectarian quotas, or a reformed one.

A system that divides top posts among Shiites, Sunnis and Christians predates the civil war, and it is seen as a way of ensuring coexistence.

Few are calling for the quota system to be scrapped wholesale any time soon. Most are seeking instead to dismantle the system of sectarian patronage that has grown up around it, and calling for accountability and transparency from the government.

Organizers and protesters have been hotly debating how to prevent political factions from exploiting the movement — or playing sectarian cards to divide it.

As protesters have been chanting against both March 14 and March 8, the parties and their allies have watched the demonstrations warily, all saying that people have the right to protest. It is politically impossible for them to contradict the anger over the lack of electricity, water, public transportation and other services.

Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, who is from March 14 and is no relation to the environment minister, declared on Friday that security forces had overstepped in using violence, but he tried to shift some of the blame to Nabih Berri, the Parliament speaker, who is connected to March 8.

“They are trying to play the usual game,” said Shadban Fakih, 27, a graphic designer who joined the protests. “What they don’t understand is that we are against all of them.”

When the violence surged on Sunday, some You Stink organizers initially blamed members of Mr. Berri’s party, Amal, suspecting them of acting as instigators to discredit the protesters.

But other protesters said that the accusers had jumped to conclusions and that many young, poor men from neighborhoods where Amal is popular had joined the protests for the same reasons as others. They also said that people from many walks of life had thrown stones in anger over police violence.

Now some organizers have changed their tone, saying that all are welcome and talking one on one with young men to persuade them to avoid violence.

“We have the right to be angry, but we will try to keep calm,” said Hadi Haidar, 18, a nursing student. “We’re going to try both ways, and the one that works, we’re going to use it.”

Lebanese Protesters Aim for Rare Unity Against Gridlocked Government – The New York Times