Protesters prevent access to institutions
BEIRUT: Thousands of students took to the streets across Lebanon yesterday to demand a better future as anti-government protests now entering their fourth week continued to spread. Pupils carrying their schoolbags picked up the baton from thousands of women who ignited the main protest site in Beirut on Wednesday evening by banging pots and pans to demand their rights. In Tripoli, where mobilization has been relentless since the protests erupted on Oct 17, demonstrators planned to take down the giant portraits of politicians plastered all over the city’s buildings.
Grievances initially focused on poor infrastructure and abysmal public services quickly grew into an unprecedented nationwide push to drive out an elite protesters say has ruled the country like a cartel for decades. Thousands of university and high school students streamed into the streets of Beirut and other towns to boost the protests. “All of them, all of them are thieves,” chanted one pupil, perched on the shoulders of a schoolmate outside the education ministry.
Setting off colored flares and waving Lebanese flags, students blocked off traffic to demand the wholesale removal of the current political class and its sectarian-based power-sharing system. “What if we had a young, educated, ethical and competent political leadership?” was the question asked on one placard.
“We go to school, we work hard and in the end we pick up diplomas so we can just hang around and stay at home doing nothing,” said Marwa Abdel Rahman, 16. Youth unemployment stands at more than 30 percent in Lebanon, from which many young people were seeking to emigrate until last month’s rallies created a rare moment of national hope and unity in a country often characterized by its divisions. What started as a spontaneous, apolitical and leaderless popular movement, is becoming increasingly organized, with activists coming together to synchronize marches and stunts across the country.
After blocking off roads for days, protesters have switched to preventing access to institutions seen as the most egregious examples of mismanagement and corruption. Students in Tripoli blocked employees from clocking in for work at the telecommunications ministry building. “We want to keep up the pressure on our corrupt political leaders, who are not addressing our demands,” said Samir Mustafa, an unemployed 29-year-old.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri tendered his government’s resignation on October 29 in response to pressure from the street. The cabinet has stayed on in a caretaker capacity but efforts to form a new line-up seem to be stalling, with each faction in the outgoing coalition arrangement seeking to salvage some influence. “They want to name a prime minister from the old guard, from the corrupt class,” Mustafa ranted. “We will continue to block banks and key administrations until the president and the parliament fall,” he said.
The World Bank on Wednesday warned that the failure to quickly form a government that meets protesters’ demands could lead to an even sharper economic downturn. President Michel Aoun is reported to remain bent on keeping Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, his son-in-law and arguably the most reviled politician among the protesters, in a key position. For his part parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a veteran player whose supporters tried to disrupt the protests last month, has not publicly commented at all on the protests sweeping the country.
In a country where weapons are widespread and leading political parties routinely resort to hired thugs, the protests – and attempts by the security forces to quell them – have been remarkably bloodless. On Wednesday night, thousands of women staged a candle-lit rally on Martyrs Square, banging pots and pans with wooden spoons to set downtown Beirut abuzz.
The commotion, broadcast live on several television channels, turned contagious and for several minutes residents could be heard across the city chiming in from home with their own utensils. “Revolution is a woman,” read one of the banners in the crowd, which launched into a rousing rendition of the national anthem, adapting the lyrics to include women. – AFP