Running street clashes between riot police and anti-government activists in Downtown Beirut Wednesday overshadowed a fresh round of National Dialogue, casting gloom over all-party talks aimed at resolving the 16-month presidential crisis and ending paralysis in Parliament and the government. In a sign reflecting chaos permeating protests staged by civil society groups since last month against the government over its failure to resolve the ongoing trash crisis, supporters of Speaker Nabih Berri reportedly attacked tents of hunger strikers outside the Environment Ministry, wounding a number of activists.
And in a blow to the inter-Lebanese talks, MP Michel Aoun, who did not attend Wednesday’s session, is likely to boycott the dialogue because he considers it to be futile, parliamentary sources in the Free Patriotic Movement said.
Following a day of clashes with riot police who used batons to beat back protesters attempting to break through barbed wire fences and barricades erected at entrances to Nijmeh Square where the rival March 8 and March 14 leaders were meeting, hundreds of activists gathered in Riad al-Solh Square Wednesday evening to demand the release of protesters detained by security forces.
At least 20 protesters were injured and some 38 activists, including key organizers in the “You Stink” group, were detained during the scuffles.
Military Prosecutor Judge Saqr Saqr has released all detainees, the National News Agency reported.
The arrests came after riot police had dispersed protesters using batons outside the An-Nahar newspaper building, dragging a number of them by their hair and kicking them while on the ground.
Lebanese Red Cross chief Georges Kettaneh said LRC medics treated 11 of the injured on the spot and moved 11 others to four different hospitals in Beirut, the NNA reported.
Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk accused some protesters of seeking to provoke security forces with the aim of causing bloodshed.
“Some demonstrators were looking for someone to beat them because they wanted [to see] blood in the street,” Machnouk said in a TV interview Wednesday night, adding that riot police did not use excessive force against the demonstrators, although “some protesters spit at the faces of security forces and insulted them.”
Machnouk played down the growing size of the anti-government civil society groups. “We know the size of the [popular] movements. It is very limited,” he said.
A number of demonstrators were also wounded by a group of men who identified themselves as supporters of Berri in an attack on the tents of hunger strikers outside the Environment Ministry.
However, Berri’s Amal Movement issued a statement denying any of its members were involved in the clashes outside the Environment Ministry.
The “You Stink” group, which has staged anti-government street rallies since last month against corruption and the failure to resolve the garbage crisis, had called for a mass protest in downtown Beirut Wednesday to obstruct the National Dialogue, dismissing the talks as “useless.” What started as demonstrations against garbage piling up in the streets of Beirut and Mount Lebanon because of government’s dysfunction is turning into Lebanon’s largest protest movement in years, posing a tough challenge to the entire political class, long accused of being corrupt and inefficient.
Berri, who chaired the dialogue session, the second in one week, underlined the “importance of National Dialogue, especially in these difficult circumstances Lebanon is experiencing.”
“There is no solution except through dialogue,” he told the rival leaders.
A source close to Berri played down the impact of Aoun’s boycott on the talks and the violence that has accompanied it since it was launched last week.
The source said he expected progress to be made in the next sessions in the presidential deadlock, the first and main topic on the dialogue agenda.
A statement issued after the dialogue session that lasted three and a half hours said the participants supported the Cabinet’s decisions to tackle basic problems. Berri scheduled a new dialogue session for Tuesday Sept. 22.
“The participants continued discussion of the agenda based on what was discussed at the last session. Political and constitutional approaches were made on how to achieve a breakthrough in the presidency issue and other topics and trying to build on common ground in talks and expand them at the next session,” Adnan Daher, secretary-general of Parliament, said in the statement.
Aoun did not attend the dialogue session and was represented by his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, and MP Ibrahim Kanaan.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, the head of the parliamentary Future bloc, called for the election of a consensus president as the only way to end the presidential stalemate. In a speech addressing the dialogue session, Siniora ruled out candidates belonging to the March 8 and March 14 camps.
“It has become clear that a president cannot be elected from any of the March 14 or March 8 groups because this will practically lead to one group defeating the other, and subsequently lead to one group feeling defeat and the other feeling victory,” Siniora said. “Lebanon and the Lebanese cannot tolerate this matter which does not conform with Lebanon’s [coexistence] formula. Therefore, we must realize that, in light of the current situation, we should find a presidential candidate who can be a consensual candidate and who can reassure all the parties in Lebanon.”
MP Mohammad Raad, who represented Hezbollah in the National Dialogue, said the rival factions are left with two choices. “A possible solution [to the presidential crisis] is through an agreement on one of two things: Either an agreement on [the election] of a president – and this does not appear to be attainable soon – or an agreement on a law to hold elections through which we reorganize Parliament and the governments that would be formed and appear before Parliament,” Raad said during a memorial ceremony in the southern town of Nabatieh.
The March 8 and March 14 leaders are divided over topics on the dialogue agenda. While the Future Movement and its March 14 allies insist on the election of a president first, Aoun, backed by Hezbollah, demands a new electoral law and parliamentary polls to be followed by the election of a head of state.
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