Emotions have been running high after the Saturday protest, and the Sunday one was both heartwarming and heartbreaking, with Monday helping us see what is happening now after the dust had settled.
After the harrowing day and night on Saturday, it was a given that Sunday would happen. I arrived there shortly after 12:00PM, and I saw my friends in Tol3et Ree7etkon grappling with what to do about rumors and incidents that claimed individuals with a clear agenda of turning the protest violent, were organizing themselves in Riad El Solh, in an attempt to change the mood and nature of the peaceful protest.
At 5:00PM though, it was clear that a lot of people had heeded the call to the streets. Thousands upon thousands of men, women and children, undeterred by the police brutality the previous night, were arriving, even ahead of the scheduled 6:00PM rally. This overwhelming number of people which packed Riad El Solh square and the street leading to Martyr’s Square, restored confidence that the protest would not be taken into the more violent direction.
It was beautiful. Tens of thousands of people, from every age, town and city across Lebanon, carrying only the Lebanese flag, with smiles on their faces and hope in the tones of their chants. It reminded me of the protests I used to go to 10 years ago, where it was hope and excitement that took us to the street, not hopelessness and desperation.
By 8:30PM, the mood started to sour, and even though attempts were made to back away from the security perimeter by the overwhelming majority of protesters, attempts to breach the security line finally made the security forces come down on the protest by force, after a day of self-restraint amid the countless provocations, even one attempt at putting together a molotov cocktail to throw at the police, which was quickly stopped by other protesters, and resulted in a scuffle between the person trying to throw the molotov cocktail, and the one who stopped him.
Suddenly, the water canons were unleashed and the riot police started advancing into the crowd, beaten back by some protesters, while others fled to the rear. It’s important to note that not even the journalists near the front were spared from the police batons and tear gas, such as what happened to my dear friend Dalal Mawad as she was covering live for LBC. Unlike Saturday though, the protesters resisted the police advance, which made the police fire excessive amounts of tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at the protesters, who held their ground for as long as possible. Fires were started, and the scene became even more chaotic, with standoffs and clashes between protesters and police were happening in every street connected to Riad El Solh. After almost 20 minutes of back-and-forth between the police and protesters, live rounds could be heard.
At this point, is when I decided it was time to leave, and I was honestly exhausted from the past two days. We watched the riot scenes on TV, and that’s when I started to think more about what happened, after the effects of the tear gas was gone.
What Needs To Be Fixed
Reception was horrible in the square (Thanks Touch and Alfa!), so it was very hard to get the word out between the protesters, such as the “end time” of the protest at around 8:00-8:30PM. Even moving around was tough, with so many people at the protest. The sound system was also a bit late, which made coordinating and getting the message out harder.
So, better communication methods are a must, and one of the Tel3et Ree7etkon organizers assured me they are working on that for Saturday.
Also, a clearer set of demands, which I will get into at the end of this post.
After the violence the night before, the Tel3ort Ree7etkon group postponed their 6:00PM demonstration, but decided later in the day to resume it at 7:30PM. However, that did not stop many from being in Riad El Solh anyway, especially after the erection of the highly controversial cement wall, that is reminiscent of the apartheid wall south of our borders. A wall which quickly became a canvas for street art that mocks the government’s erection of the wall, as well as the shaming of the political parties and blocks in power.
A little further down the Shere3 El Masaref (The Banks Street), there were the stairs and the Ancient Roman Baths which lead up to the Serail. There was no wall there, but layers of barbed wire with riot police in between. That is where I saw an interesting development in this mostly spontaneous movement:
A group of protesters had taken the initiative and created a human shield between the riot police and the protesters that wanted to try and breach the security perimeter by force. The protesters in the middle, were trying to stop the provocation of the riot police by the protesters, while also trying to stop the police from trying to break up the protest violently (assuming the police would appreciate their brave and level-headed stance).
However, the group that was ok with violence at this point, was not entirely the same as Sunday night’s groups. For one, the overtly sectarian intentions were not there, and I noticed a lot of people I personally am friends with on both sides of the protest, from the same sects. It became clearer that the pro-violence revolution side saw this as a class discrimination issue, fed up with the government’s shortcomings. Add to that the rage at police brutality the previous weekend and anger with the government and parliament for the gridlock and robbing the people of their right to vote, and you will get justified wrath at the government and police, and might make violence and rioting an acceptable reaction or revolt. My point is trying to say that not everyone who might want to resort to violence is sent on a mission by some politician. Most are genuinely that furious, and rightfully so.
The non-violent side also made a tough choice. After being brutalized by the police over several occasions, they decided to be the barrier between the police and the rest of the protesters. An unenviable position that puts them face to face with people they are agreement with on most things, just not on the means to the end. And on the other side by the people who might open fire and start beating them at any second.
However, the scene remained relatively peaceful. Activists from both sides would calm down the protesters that got too riled up at times and tried to push through the lines of the human shield group. It was a very good way of keeping the peace of the protest, while ensuring it didn’t escalate like it had the past two nights. The rage was evident, but the resolve to not let it turn completely chaotic was also there.
My Personal Opinion
I know lots of you think I am directly involved with #YouStink #YouReek, but truth is I’m just another protester trying as hard as possible to cover the events in Riad El Solh, with my own set of hopes and demands. The #YouStink team are all dear friends of mine, and I trust them and am proud of everything they did. However, my approach is far less optimistic and far more pragmatic.
I don’t want to change the system, not right now at least. Looking around us, we saw that agreement on removing bad politicians is not enough to make meaningful change. Most of the Arab countries that rose up, are either at war, ruled by Islamist extremists or a military dictatorship. All three options are a million times worse than the gridlock we have now. I think we should focus on more attainable goals, such as the garbage crisis, an issue we can win, and win fast. And after we have, we move on to other basic rights we are robbed of, starting with the water, electricity and Internet crises, and moving on eventually to proper parliamentary elections under a fair, non-sectarian law. That is my position, in addition to punishing those that fired at us on Saturday night.
We all utterly despise the ruling politicians, with their inability to vote for a President for more than a year, their spineless government and their illegitimate parliament that is only good for gutting good laws and extending for itself. If there is one thing all Lebanese agree on, is that the system needs to change, but the alternatives are vastly different, and I am worried about what system might rise from the ashes of this current one, buckling under its own corruption and violence under the pressure of the people, who have weathered every attempt to dismiss their movement and try to tarnish its message and image.
We should tone down our emotional reaction, and think of a level-headed way to get to our main demand: the garbage crisis, which, despite everything, the government has selected companies WORSE THAN SUKLEEEN, and who will CHARGE US MORE AND DOUBLE what Sukleen did, only this time, it’s divided into 6 parts, so each despicable za3eem can get a piece of the pie.
Garbage crisis first, then we get to the other issues that are plaguing us. We need a victory, and this one is within reach. The system is falling on its own, we just need to make sure we make our lives better in the process.
Prepare for Saturday
Check the Tol3et Ree7etkon page, which is the main source of information from the organizers. Prepare for Saturday, it needs to be huge, and we should focus on the garbage issue before the bigger titles that are almost impossible to achieve at this moment with the vile and violent creatures occupying what our taxes pay for. One step at a time, together, beyond sectarianism, is how we will get to the Lebanon we want, or at least improve our lives in the country we love and hate at the same time.