Protesters climb the barricades blocking off the government area of downtown Beirut, Nov. 19, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)
Protesters climb the barricades blocking off the government area of downtown Beirut, Nov. 19, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)

BEIRUT - Lebanese soldiers lined the razor wire barricades surrounding central downtown Beirut on Tuesday afternoon, quietly watching as protesters sang, chanted and shouted "All of them means all of them!"

Behind the barricades were government offices, including Lebanon's Parliament building.  Earlier in the day, a planned legislative session was aborted, after demonstrators surrounded the area, preventing some lawmakers from entering.

The legislative session was supposed to address proposed new laws some protesters say do not address their demands. For more than a month, rallies have been held every day in Lebanon against government corruption and financial crisis. Protesters are calling for jobs, electricity, health care and security, and for the entire political class to step down.

Shots were heard Tuesday morning, as an MP's security guard reportedly fired into the air to try to disperse the crowd. By afternoon, people were celebrating.

Many of the boards closing up this abandoned building have been torn down and graffiti, including writing that says "revolution" and "all of them means all of them," now covers the walls, in Beirut, Nov. 19, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)
Many of the boards closing up this abandoned building have been torn down and graffiti, including writing that says "revolution" and "all of them means all of them," now covers the walls, in Beirut, Nov. 19, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)

Down the street from the razor wire, protesters ripped into a boarded-up building covered in graffiti with writing including "Beirut has spoken." The wall has grown symbolic of the anger in Lebanon as protesters bang on it with rocks and sticks each night.  

Inside, the broken down walls were spray-painted with the word "thowra," which means in Arabic, "revolution."

Financial crisis

Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri stepped down in late October in response to the protests, and lawmakers say another candidate who would be acceptable to all sides of the deeply divided political system has not emerged.

Hariri is still the most likely candidate, according to MP Alain Aoun of the Free Patriotic Movement, a party that along with its allies makes up the largest voting block in Lebanon's parliament.  

"We have to stop the degradation and stabilize the system," said Aoun in his Beirut office. "And this cannot start before forming a government."

Officials say upheaval in the streets is prolonging Lebanon's financial crisis and could quickly dissolve into a security crisis, in Beirut, Nov. 17, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)
Officials say upheaval in the streets is prolonging Lebanon's financial crisis and could quickly dissolve into a security crisis, in Beirut, Nov. 17, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)

A few blocks away, in Martyr's Square, Mohammad Ali, 28, wore a scarf that says "Lebanon" and a hat embroidered with the country's iconic Cedar Tree. Around him were the tents of protesters who sleep in the square. A few meters away, there was a giant white fist statue and a memorial for an activist who died in a protest.

"The people want this change. They will not back off until they have it," Ali explained.

"And if Sa'ad comes back, why did we do all this?" added his friend, Nadeem, 36.

But besides security concerns, Lebanon's financial crisis continues unabated with banks reopening Tuesday after agreeing to strict withdrawal limits for costumers. Although the banks have been closed for much of the protests, many people have withdrawn money or sent it to foreign bank accounts, according to Aoun.

"Our banking system needs help," he said. "This why it is very important to get a government that might be helpful."

Security crisis

Protests have been relatively peaceful over the past month, with a few sporadic clashes, but the longer they go on, the greater the danger of a security crisis.  

Every day for more than a month, demonstrators have been in the streets expressing their anger and celebrating what they call their "revolution" in Beirut, Lebanon, Nov. 17, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)
Every day for more than a month, demonstrators have been in the streets expressing their anger and celebrating what they call their "revolution" in Beirut, Lebanon, Nov. 17, 2019. (Heather Murdock/VOA)

The Lebanese government is set up with pre-determined amounts of power given to the country's main sects, leaving the country vulnerable to outbreaks of violence, according to John Entelis, a professor of political science and Middle East studies at Fordham University.

"The country is by nature a boiling pot," he said.

And at the protests, even some of the most devoted demonstrators said they worry the celebrations could quickly turn into conflict.  

"We are afraid every single hour," said Nazih Khalaf, a 43-year-old father of one, who camps in a cluster of tents near the barricaded entrance to central downtown. "We may lose if we stay here. But then again, if we leave, for sure we will lose."
 

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