Reporter’s Notebook: Beirut Protesters Slam Government Corruption, Mourn Protester

“Welcome to the revolution,” my colleague says as we round the corner into Beirut’s Martyr’s Square on Wednesday evening. Tents are crowded with groups discussing corruption, governance and civil society, and a deep rumbling sound in the distance grows louder. They are part of an anti-corruption protest movement in Lebanon that has been holding rallies every day for nearly a month.

“Corn on the cob?” my colleague suggests. Also for sale on the side of the streets are traditional cakes, bottles of water, and Lebanese flags and banners. At first glance, we appear to be entering a festival.

But soon we can quite literally hear the depth of the anger being expressed here.

This fist statue in Martyr’s Square says “Revolution.” Below it are the remnants of tents burned by counterprotesters in the early days of the demonstrations, pictured in Beirut on Nov. 14, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)

We walk toward the rumbling and see dozens of men and women pounding on walls littered with graffiti slogans like, “Beirut has spoken,” and, “All of them means all of them.” The rumbling of the fists pounding on the wall is now a roar, accompanied by the people banging on pots and pans and the occasional crack of someone slamming the wall with a bike or a foot.

The banging then fades as more and more people join a chanting procession, a symbolic funeral for Alaa Abu Fakhr, a man who died on Tuesday after an officer fired on protesters blocking a road. Abu Fakhr has quickly become an icon of the protest movement, with a billboard of his face already erected over Martyr’s Square.

A few blocks away, piles of razor wire manned by soldiers block roads leading to the parliament building. Shops are closed and many have been broken into and ransacked.

In the square, flickering candles mark a quiet vigil for the death of Abu Fakhr, as marchers continue to chant and sing. And towering above it all is a black-and-white fist bearing a single word: “Revolution.”

Demonstrators gather in the evenings by a wall of graffiti near the Parliament to pound their fists, rocks and sticks on the wall, venting their anger with noise, pictured in Beirut on Nov. 14, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)

Protest camp

On Thursday morning, the square is quiet with mostly only the permanent protesters in attendance. Tents are erected and we see dozens of young men and women preparing for another day of a sit-in, which for many has lasted nearly as long as the four-week-old protests.

“This revolution taught me about spiritual things,” says Farah, 28, as she rubs paint off an artist’s table. The surrounding stone walls and bases of statues are now covered in murals. “I was introverted. Now I’m more open.”

Some young men approach and say it is true, the excitement and the camaraderie are part of the protest camp. But the men say this is not their main reason for staying there. They stay out of anger, they say. They are angry at a system that has left educated young people jobless, the poor hopeless, and basic government services like trash pickup and electricity severely lacking.

The government has responded to the protests with promises of some reform, and Prime Minister Sa’ad al-Hariri stepped down on Oct. 29 in response to the demonstrations. Officials also have called for an end to the street unrest, however, saying it puts Lebanon in a “very dangerous situation.”

Ayman Debiane, 22, has been living in the protest camp for nearly four weeks, saying corruption in Lebanon is keeping young people out of work and impoverishing the people, pictured in Beirut on Nov. 14, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)

Because the 2018 elections were so flawed, many young people want to hold them again, says Ayman Debiane, a 22-year-old who works in film production and is now living in the protest camp. Debiane said he found that after he dipped his finger in a special type of ink to signify he had voted, he could wash it right off.

“I know people who voted several times,” he says. “If you start with the ink, how do you think the regime will be?”

Crisis response?

Down the street in a quiet dress shop in Gemmazye, a trendy party district, 70-year-old Mouneera Sa’ad says she hopes the protests will end soon, but she said she understands the frustration on the streets. Corruption may be what is driving a lot of the anger, she notes, but increasing poverty is at the heart of the problem.

Mouneera Sa’ad’s dress shop has nearly been run out of business by the nearby demonstrations, but she says she understands the anger. Pictured in Beirut on Nov. 14, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)

“Everyone is poorer, except politicians,” she says. “I see people eating out of the trash cans now. Even during the war it wasn’t this bad.”

The Lebanese civil war lasted from 1975 to 1990 and led to 120,000 deaths. Peace accords from that war led to the development of the government system many protesters want to see ended. The slogan, “All of them means all of them,” refers to calls to remove every politician from his or her position in the country.

In the meantime, Sa’ad says her shop has been nearly empty for the past four weeks and she is close to going out of business.

Nadira Fawas, the president of the Lebanese Gymnastics Federation joins the demonstrations daily, saying she wants a country in which her children can afford to stay home, pictured in Beirut on Nov. 14, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)

A few blocks away we meet Nadira Fawas, the president of the Lebanese Gymnastics Federation. She is wearing a Lebanese flag scarf over her suit, as she walks to Martyr’s Square to join the daily demonstration.

“We have had enough,” she says. “Lebanon is a beautiful country but my children had to leave the country to work. I don’t want to see them on Skype. I want to see them here.”