Beirut is reeling from its worst day of violence in nearly a hundred days of protests after a night of clashes between security forces and demonstrators left more than 200 people wounded and scores arrested.
The anger boiled over in a popularly declared “week of rage”, as some protesters in the capital abandoned the peaceful strategy that has largely characterised the nationwide protests against Lebanon’s political elites that broke out in mid-October and forced the resignation of the government.
“There’s no other way. It’s been almost a hundred days,” an unnamed female protester told Al Jazeera TV on Saturday. “Nobody’s listening . . . We are ruled by criminals.”
On Saturday, security forces used tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets as protesters threw rocks and fireworks, causing the highest number of casualties since the start of the protests. The Lebanese Red Cross said it recorded 220 injured people, while a public prosecutor on Sunday ordered the release of 34 who were arrested.
With reports of police assaulting protesters flooding social media, Raya el-Hassan, caretaker interior minister, defended the security forces on Saturday, saying that demonstrations had become a “blatant attack” on them.
Protesters are bitterly frustrated by inaction from Lebanese authorities despite the months of popular discontent, as a worsening economic downturn claims thousands of jobs and informal capital controls imposed by commercial banks restrict people’s access to their savings.
Hassan Diab, appointed as prime minister designate a month ago, has yet to corral Lebanon’s squabbling political factions into choosing a cabinet to tackle the mounting crises.
On Saturday afternoon, some protesters briefly occupied a controversial shopping mall precinct in the city’s downtown before clashes escalated. Tents set up by activists in a central square were burnt before security forces used water cannon and volleys of tear gas to clear protesters off streets in Beirut’s upscale downtown neighbourhood.
Many protesters were wrapped in checkered scarves and wore DIY protection against the fumes — a combination of construction helmets, goggles and ventilator masks that echo the way Hong Kong protesters protect themselves against the police.
By nightfall some protesters had run to shelter from the police in a large mosque on the main square, which rang with the boom from the cannons firing tear gas canisters and the crackle of fireworks from the protesters fighting back. At least three young men with bandaged heads were visible.
Amid reports that a tear gas canister was fired at a protester’s head, Aya Majzoub, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Lebanon, said in a tweet on Sunday that “riot police showed a blatant disregard for their human rights obligations”.
Protesters were still expected to gather in Beirut on Sunday despite heavy rain.