BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hundreds of Lebanese protesters took to the streets on Saturday to voice outrage over the government’s handling of a deep economic crisis, with security forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse rock-throwing demonstrators.
The first big protests since the government rolled back coronavirus lockdown measures come as Beirut negotiates an International Monetary Fund package it hopes will secure billions of dollars in financing to prop up its collapsing economy.
Protesters burned garbage bins and ransacked a furniture shop in the capital’s upscale shopping district, smashing its storefront and hauling out a couch to block a road.
Security forces responded by firing rounds of tear gas, footage from Lebanese broadcasters showed.
Sectarian tensions appeared to flare even as the protests died down, with gunfire heard in some Beirut neighbourhoods and a tense standoff in a Christian-Shi’ite area associated with the start of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, prompting security forces to deploy in large numbers, according to Lebanese media.
Political and religious leaders across sectarian lines warned against the danger of sectarian violence.
“The Prime Minister condemns and denounces in the strongest terms, all sectarian slogans … and calls on all Lebanese and their political and spiritual leaders to exercise awareness and wisdom and cooperate with the army and security services,” Prime Minister Hassan Diab wrote on Twitter.
Among the demands of some protesters on Saturday was the disarming of powerful Shi’ite paramilitary group Hezbollah.
“As long as there are militias that are stronger than the state, then it (the government) will not be able to fight corruption,” said John Moukarzel, a real estate company owner.
Diab took office in January with the support of the Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies after the previous government was toppled by the protests that erupted last October.
Lebanon’s economic woes have reached new depths in recent months. The pound currency has lost more than half of its value on the parallel market, prices have soared, and companies dealing with the double blow of the coronavirus have axed jobs.
“You can sense that everyone is tired and the situation is very hard, especially the economy, so you can sense that people no longer want to be festive (in their protests). People are just angry,” said protester Marie-nour Hojaimy, a lawyer.
(Additional reporting by Ayat Basma; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Helen Popper and Daniel Wallis)