protests

Beirut in times of Coronavirus: the revolution re-invents itself... on four wheels

Against the general amnesty law, corruption, embezzlement of public funds, the rise of the dollar and of the food prices , the demonstrators denounce the government for failing to introduce "any kind of reform."

Car protests in the area of UNESCO. Photo Joao Sousa

The Martyrs Square in Beirut's downtown, a focal point of anti-government protests in recent months, has been deserted for weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic. But on Tuesday April 21, hundreds of nostalgic demonstrators supporting the October 17 Revolution defied confinement order and gathered in front of the al-Amin mosque in central Beirut to protest the depreciation of the Lebanese pound, the politicization of justice, the absence of reforms, proper government response to the win health and economic crises and an amnesty law discussed by the parliament at a session held at the UNESCO Palace.

Most importantly, the demonstrators came to say loudly and in a joyous cacophony that the October revolution is not dead, is coming alive again and will continue to fight hunger, corruption, and embezzlement of public whether there is coronavirus or not.

The protestors initially took to the streets in their cars, each carrying two passengers wearing face masks and gloves, and toured the streets of the capital, passing by the UNESCO Palace. Since gatherings and interaction are strongly discouraged, the protesters were required to respect social distancing and sanitary measures. Instructions were to be shouted over megaphones.

But before the convoy headed off, many of them ignored all instructions and were seen hugging each other and expressing their joy at meeting up again while others sat on the ground in a group to block the traffic. Excited young Beirutis rode their mopeds, two on each without masks or helmets, angrily shouting slogans against the government's "inertia and corruption," while chanting for the revolution "Thawra, Thawra" and singing their famous "Héla ho… " that targeted some politicians.


The dollar is at 3,300 LL!

"Today, we are back into the streets in our cars, while respecting social distancing rules," said Haytham Hakim, who presented himself as one of the movement’s organizers. Hakim explained that they are protesting again because the government has proven to be "incapable of ensuring judicial independence", because "we want to build a nation" and because "within few months, the dollar has reached 3,300 LL and the local currency lost more than 55% of its value." Meanwhile, the government "has not come up with any solution to protect the population."

The authorities are facing many criticisms. The Covid-19 spread is an added reason for the demonstrators to vent their anger, much louder than the deafening patriotic songs. “The coronavirus is killing us. And if it continues, we are going to starve. We cannot afford to eat. So, we must keep the pressure on the authorities," said Hassan, a young protester from Baalbek, who accused the government of "starving the population, pardoning terrorists, and promoting clientelism" during food aid distributions. A lawyer, who wished not to be identified, asked "why nothing has been done so far" concerning in particular the long-awaited reforms, judicial appointments, the economic and social crisis. She went as far as "doubting the integrity of those in power."

By gathering in the streets, don't they fear to be contaminated with the coronavirus? "The impact of the coronavirus is less dangerous than the political class which has ransacked our nation," said Nabil Tabbara, member of the "Revolutionaries of Beirut" group. Jamal Halawani, a leftist activist, emphasized that he can no longer bear the current situation. “We have to learn to live with the virus. We refuse any haircut or capital control, and we demand that small depositors be protected," he said, wondering what happened to all the promises to return stolen and squandered public funds.


The same humiliation for 30 years

On her scooter, Diala Yafi patiently awaits for the convoy to set off. She has just distributed some forty masks "to the young people of Tarik Jdideh, who have nothing to protect themselves. It is important to preserve the good reputation of the revolution," she said. Wearing a helmet and a black mask, she said she joined the protests so that her children have a better future. "The people have a duty to react to the rising dollar."

Alongside the national flag, each car has displayed slogans and demands such as denouncing the embezzlement of public funds, rejecting the proposed amnesty law and reminding that the Lebanese pound worth nothing anymore. In another car, Chantal Agobian affirmed that the coronavirus will not stop her. "We have been living the same humiliation for 30 years. That is enough," she said angrily.

On the frontlines, retired Lebanese soldiers strongly denounced the "dirty tricks" of the authorities to pass a general amnesty law. They fear that those responsible for criminal acts against the Lebanese army will benefit from such a measure, despite exceptions enclosed in the law. "We are firmly opposed to a general amnesty because we do not trust the present authorities," said General Joseph Asmar, who, on the other hand, called for "a fair justice for all."

The convoy finally set off, carrying high and proud the colors of the national flag. Car horns resonated in the heart of Beirut.... as if to remind everyone that even in times of coronavirus, the revolution intends to reinvent itself.


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 22nd of April)



The Martyrs Square in Beirut's downtown, a focal point of anti-government protests in recent months, has been deserted for weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic. But on Tuesday April 21, hundreds of nostalgic demonstrators supporting the October 17 Revolution defied confinement order and gathered in front of the al-Amin mosque in central Beirut to protest the depreciation of the Lebanese pound,...

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