Police used rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters in Downtown Beirut organized by the YouReek campaign Saturday, wounding at least 75 demonstrators in one of the most violent rallies the country has witnessed in years.
Dozens of others were detained at the protest, which was called on to denounce the government's failure to solve the garbage crisis.
Police say that 35 members of its force were also wounded, including a number who were in critical condition, but the figure was widely seen as exaggerated.
Among the 75 wounded protesters, 15 were hospitalized and 60 were treated on site, according to medics.
Police announced in a statement around 11 p.m. that all protesters had been freed upon Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk's orders.
Machnouk later wrote on Twitter that "everyone who gave orders to shoot, and every police officer who shot at the protesters would be held accountable." The protesters had demanded that police who shot at protesters be arrested.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam announced he would hold a news conference at 11 a.m. Sunday to discuss the incident.
The clashes started around 7 p.m., about one hour after the demonstration began at Riad al-Solh Square, when riot police attacked protesters with batons and water cannons to try to prevent them from reaching the nearby Nejmeh Square.
"I could not believe they would act with this brutal behavior," Nour, a protester who brought her two children to the rally, told The Daily Star. "There were no violent acts or tendencies by the protesters, and people were there with their families in a very peaceful climate."
"My two children were about to suffocate, I've never witnessed such trauma."
Al-Jadeed and LBCI TV channels broadcast live footage showing their reporters being hit by riot police, prompting LBCI anchor Dima Sadek to denounce police action on air and declare solidarity with her colleagues and the demonstrators. Al-Jadeed's correspondent at the scene was hit by a chair that she said was thrown by police.
The clashes have been ongoing since they erupted, and have spread to the nearby Martyrs Square and other streets in Downtown Beirut and its periphery.
But after each police attack, the demonstrators regrouped and returned to Riad al-Solh Square, where they faced off with riot police.
After nightfall, protesters erected two tents at Riad al-Solh, announcing they would not leave until their demand that the government resigns is met. Several shouted slogans calling for Machnouk to resign over the attack.
Machnouk in a statement said he was out of the country but told security forces to stop firing on protesters. He said he promised the garbage crisis would be resolved at next week's Cabinet meeting.
Roughly 3,000-4,000 people poured into the square from different Lebanese regions carrying Lebanese flags and banners condemning the country’s politicians.
"The people want the downfall of the government," and "revolution, revolution!" were among the slogans chanted by the demonstrators, one of whom carried a sign showing Lebanese politicians with the caption: "some trash should not be recycled."
The protesters originally intended to march to Nejmeh Square, where the Parliament building is located, but the security forces had blocked access to it.
YouReek spokesperson Assaad Thebian told reporters that his organization had contacted Army chief Gen. Jean Kahwagi to ask for permission to enter Nejmeh Square prior to the outbreak of violence. Thebian said Kahwagi told him the military police follow the orders of Parliament's authorities, not the military.
The large-scale mobilization Saturday came after riot police used water cannons and baton to attack protesters from the same campaign in a demonstration Wednesday.
A number of celebrities also joined Saturday's demonstration, including Lebanese singer Mouin Shreif, who was lifted by protesters on their shoulders as he sang the Lebanese national anthem.
The protest was also accompanied by a campaign on social media under the hashtag #YouStink.
The movement, which started as a social media campaign demanding a sustainable solution to the garbage crisis, has adopted more political demands like the resignation of Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk and the holding of parliamentary elections.
The country’s Parliament extended its own term twice, in 2013 and 2014, which also sparked protests by civil society activists. The last parliamentary elections were held in 2009.
By Nizar Hassan
Copyright © 2022, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.