TRIPOLI, LEBANON — "See this?" said Jalal, 21, emptying the pockets of his pants while his two friends open their wallets. Between them were mobile phones and cigarette lighters, but no money. "This is what it means to be a young man in Lebanon," he said.
The men were demonstrating at one of the many roadblocks erected during the wave of protests that has swept across Lebanon for nearly a month. The protests reignited this week, amid government attempts to address public grievances that were seen as, at best, inadequate and, at worst, insulting.
The blockade cut the main road to Tripoli, Lebanon's second city, which locals call "the heart of the revolution." Smoke smoldered from tires burned overnight in protest as the men pushed aside a giant piece of sewage pipe.
They were letting motorcycles and military through, but cars and trucks were re-routed.
"Blocking the road puts pressure on the government," said Rabia Zain, a protester in mirrored glasses and a white T-shirt. "We are defending our country."
Demonstrators said corruption is behind most of the problems they are demanding to be addressed. Lebanon is growing increasingly poor, while lacking basic services like electricity and trash pick-up. Even hospitals are seen as corrupt, according to protesters.
"I had to beg leaders when my son needed to go the hospital," said Mazen al-Hajj, who has been on the streets for nearly a month. "Even then they didn't help."
On Thursday, the back roads in Tripoli were also cut after former finance minister Mohammad Safadi emerged as the expected pick for prime minister. Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri resigned on Oct. 29 and officials have since been struggling to try to re-form a government.
Many protesters see Safadi as another "establishment" leader when they are demanding radical change, including a complete replacement of government officials.
"We don't want old faces, or even those related to old faces," said Ahmad, a waiter at a Tripoli restaurant who walked for almost an hour to get to work Thursday. "We will get something new. But it will take a long time."
Demand for technocrats
Inside the city, locals in Nour Square prayed after a sheikh spoke about the demonstrations, saying protest is a duty.
"Kulon yaani kulon," one man muttered in Arabic as the sheikh explained the protesters' vision of a government of technocrat leaders replacing the current system.
It means "All of them means all of them," implying the entire Lebanese leadership should step down.
Ahmed Raga, the sheikh, also called for immediate elections, saying the upheaval would get worse if action was not taken.
"Our demonstrations are now peaceful," he said. "If we don't get results, we will take further action. We will shut down government buildings. We won't pay taxes."
On Tuesday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said a government formed of technocrat leaders — meaning experts that are non-political — would be impractical. Even a reformed government needs politicians, he said.
He also urged protesters to go home, sparking outrage across the country.
Later in the week, after the death of a protester further infuriated demonstrators, Aoun said the government was making progress in re-grouping and the protesters' demands "will be followed up and will be the top priority of the new government."
At his shop in Beirut later on Friday, Michel, a 60-year-old barber, said he has been skeptical about the sincerity of the protests from the beginning, and he is among those still supporting the government.
"These protests were planned months ago by people who want to take power," he said.
The Tripoli protesters' version of a unity government of technocrats, he said, does not include Hezbollah, the country's largest military force and arguably most powerful political party.
Tripoli is a mostly Sunni Muslim city, while Hezbollah leads Lebanese Shi'ites. Lebanon's governmental system is essentially a power-share between Christians, Sunnis and Shi'ites, developed as the country's 15-year civil war between the factions ended in 1990.
In Tripoli, protesters said they were happy to include Shi'ites in government, but not Hezbollah.
"It will never happen," Michel said, referring to a government without Hezbollah. "If they do change the government, it will just be the same thing with different faces."