Lebanese Protesters Call for Elections, Clash With Hezbollah Supporters

Hezbollah leader Nasrallah says demonstrations have been exploited by international and regional powers who are also against his party, calls for dialogue instead

Lebanese riot policemen separates between anti-government protesters, left, and Hezbollah supporters, right during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019.
Hassan Ammar,AP

Groups of people chanting in solidarity with the country's powerful Shi'ite Hezbollah group pushed into a peaceful demonstration on Friday in Beirut, briefly scuffling with protesters and prompting riot police to intervene.

Dressed in plain black t-shirts common to Shi'ite Hezbollah and Amal movement supporters, the men shouted "We heed your call, Nasrallah," in reference to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

Similar scuffles broke out on Thursday night at the same site in central Beirut. Following the scuffles more riot police with masks and batons were dispatched to the square to defuse the situation, which appeared to be growing more tense.

Some people began lobbing stones and sticks, threatening to quickly turn the so far peaceful protests violent.

A street vendor is seen outside a closed Bankmed branch in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, October 25, 2019.
\ ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS/ REUTERS

"Nasrallah is more honorable than all of them," they chanted about government leaders accused of corruption by the protesters. "Riad Salameh is a thief," they shouted, in reference to the central bank governor.

But Nasrallah has called on his supporters to leave anti-government protests to avoid friction and seek dialogue instead.

Nasrallah said the protests in Lebanon are no longer spontaneous and popular but have become politicized. He said political rivals who are critical of his group's political line are manipulating the protests. He said the protests have been exploited by international and regional powers who are also against his party.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah is facing widening U..S sanctions amid tension between Washington and Tehran.

Demonstrators gather during ongoing anti-government protests in Tripoli, Lebanon October 24, 2019.
\ OMAR IBRAHIM/ REUTERS

Nasrallah said he is worried the country would return to a civil war, conjuring fear of the country's war that lasted 15 years and ended in 1990.

Nationwide protests fueled by deteriorating economic conditions have swept Lebanon since last week, with protesters calling for the ouster of a ruling elite they say have driven the economy to collapse through corruption and mismanagement.

Hundreds of Lebanese protesters set up tents, blocking traffic in main thoroughfares and sleeping in public squares on Friday to enforce a civil disobedience campaign and keep up the pressure on the government to step down.

Banks, universities and schools remained closed on the ninth day of nationwide protests, triggered by new proposed taxes that followed public spending cuts.

Anti-government protesters block the main highway linking east and west Beirut by tents, stones and bricks during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, October 25, 2019. 
Hassan Ammar,AP

Protesters briefly closed the highway linking the southern city of Sidon to Beirut, burning tires and blocking traffic. The army later removed the tires and reopened the road.

On the highway linking eastern and western Beirut, protesters set up tents, some sleeping on the road, to block traffic. They allowed only ambulances and army vehicles through.

Protesters waved banners that read: "You have put up with the state, bear with us for a couple of days," to motorists who arrived at a blocked road linking eastern Beirut to its southern suburbs.

Despite government promises of reforms, the leaderless protesters have dug in, saying the country's incumbent officials are corrupt and must go.

"We will accept nothing less than the resignation of the government, the president, dissolving the parliament and holding early parliamentarian elections," said Mohammad Mazloum, an engineer who has been protesting since the protests began on October 17.

Mazloum said he spent the night in the tent set up on one of the highways.

The unprecedented mass protests come amid a deepening economic crisis in Lebanon. They have united Lebanese against the country's sectarian-based leaders, who have ruled since the end of Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.

Lebanon is one of the world's most indebted nations, with public debt over 150 percent of the gross domestic product. The protesters accuse the politicians of amassing wealth even as the country gets poorer.

He said he and fellow protesters from various cities and sects have been putting their heads together to come up with new, alternative names to the incumbent politicians.

The country's top politicians have addressed the protesters, telling them they have heard their complaints. Prime Minister Saad Hariri presented a reform program which was only passed in the Cabinet after street pressure. President Michel Aoun asked the protesters to send representatives for talks with him.

The leader of the powerful Hezbollah group, which dominated the national unity government, said the resignation of the Cabinet would plunge Lebanon into political feuding.