An anti-government protester throws back tear gas at riot policemen with a tennis racket in Beirut, Lebanon on June 6, 2020. (Photo: Al-Jazeera via AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
An anti-government protester throws back tear gas at riot policemen with a tennis racket in Beirut, Lebanon on June 6, 2020. (Photo: Al-Jazeera via AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Lebanon’s security forces will only get more violent, protesters say

October 17 has become a date known to Lebanese citizens and expats everywhere. What was once a momentous and spontaneous outcry from citizens soon came to a birth a political revolution. 

The first few days following the beginning of Lebanon’s anti-government revolution electrified the hearts of many with a multitude of emotions, the most prominent being a newfound hope for the country. Yet those days seem like a distant memory, swept away after eight months have gone by with no demands being met.

As the days etched forward, frustration and hopelessness returned to the lives of Lebanese citizens and residents. Witnesses of the 2015 protests, the Arab Spring, and political movements across the world understood that the protests could not resume in their peaceful state. If any effective change was to be brought about, violence was to be expected, and at some point, accepted and passed.

It wasn’t long before tear gas began to rain down on protestors. The militant strategy was popularized during 2015 and would resume its course five years on. In the days immediately following October 17, protestors went down to the squares, got tear gassed, and came back prepared the following days. 

Backpack necessities then included tear gas masks, shawls if the prior was unavailable, goggles and onions. But this was only a prelude for a harsher reality to come.

No amount of preparation would be enough. Violence only escalated from there on out. Internal security forces were quickly termed servants of the political elite rather than of the country, and for the sake of continuity of the revolution, protestors had to accept that violence against them would be the norm. 

Tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons in protests

The first true violent encounter between Internal Security Forces and demonstrators were during the first few days of the revolution.

“I think the closest thing I experienced to a ‘violent encounter’ happened during the first two nights,” says Samir Skayni, an avid activist throughout the revolution. “Internal Security Forces were not prepared, and they had yet to put up barbed wires or cement blocks [to hold back protestors].”

“The first row of protestors, myself included, were subject to direct beatings using batons, even though it was clear that they were not yet equipped properly.”

Another incident in early November 2019 saw Alaa Abou Fakher shot by an army convoy in Khalde, south of Beirut, as they attempted to open a blocked road. The shooting took place in front of Abou Fakher’s wife and son, who were seen mourning at the scene in a painfully viral video. He later died of his injuries at the hospital.

Abou Fakher’s images now hang across the country, as he has come to be known as the martyr of the revolution.

On the night of November 9, riot police detained activist Bachir Nakhal and 11 other randomly-selected protesters. They were transported to a police station, where they spent the night. 

Nakhal recounts the coldness of the cell. He and the other detainees were stripped of their jackets and boots, and forced into a ventilated room without any covers.

At around 3 AM, policemen broke into the cell for the sole purpose of mocking the detainees on camera –a clear abuse of power by government officials. 

Following protests in the near vicinity of the parliament located in Downtown Beirut during December 2019, parliamentary guards attacked protestors. The officials kicked and beat them with batons.

A few days after that, protests in the same area were dispersed by Internal Security Forces, whose officers continued to fire tear gas at demonstrators. By this point, tear gas had become the norm in the protests.

A mere month after that, Lebanon’s riot police violently beat and arrested a large sum of peaceful protestors and media workers during demonstrations facing the El-Helou police station. The demonstrators were demanding the release of 57 arrested protestors when riot police charged into the crowd, commencing a night of random beating and arresting.

When protestors came to demand an explanation for the police’s behavior, Interior Minister Raya el-Hassan cited exhaustion amongst their ranks as a key factor for the attack. This statement would later be mocked by citizens and media alike.

Following this demonstration, Human Rights Watch condemned the police violence being practiced in Lebanon. They ordered the Interior Ministry to hold law enforcement officers accountable and pushed for an independent investigation. Both did not happen, and the police violence resumed.

Riot police also frequently used rubber bullets, notably in December 2019 and January 2020. International guidelines state that the bullets should only be both used at a distance of 10m and aimed exclusively at the legs.

This was not the case in Lebanon. Riot police shot the bullets at close proximity, costing two young men their eyesight. Both young men ended up losing an eye but despite their injuries, they expressed their insistence on resuming protests as soon as they were capable. At least 300 protesters were injured in Lebanon’s “Week of Anger” in mid-January, a result of rubber bullets, water cannons, and tear gas.

“Mentally, I was not extremely bothered by these events, because I insisted on taking part in the demonstrations every day. However, I had several nightmares following some protests,” says Skayni.

“In these nightmares, I regularly saw Internal Security Forces chasing us in an attempt to arrest us. In one, they even killed me, but I kept on participating in these demonstrations to this day. Why? Because I understood that our actions would be met with violence. At the end of the day, the ruling class will not surrender without a fight, because it is the same class that caused a civil war.”

When Lebanon entered lockdown in mid-March 2020, protests across some regions were temporarily suspended to avoid a mass outbreak of coronavirus. Lockdown measures included putting the grand majority of economic activity on hold across the country, without a proper contingency plan, and a curfew beginning at 7 PM.

Later that month, after curfew hours had begun, riot police took to Downtown Beirut to dismantle the protestors’ last remaining tents –after many had already been burned down by supporters of political parties. The demonstrators occupying the tents were forced to leave in what was a clear crackdown on the protests amidst the pandemic. 

By April 2020, many protestors across the country could no longer afford to wait out COVID-19 at home. They cried out that “if coronavirus doesn’t kill us, hunger will.” The economic crisis is the worst the country has ever witnessed, forcing many into unemployment and hunger.

After 8 months of protests, banks continue to enforce illegal capital control, limiting the amount of cash withdrawals and allowing them only in the local currency, when customers could previously withdraw USD at their leisure. 

Demonstrators took to Tripoli one evening in late April 2020 to express their anger and frustration at the crisis, breaking and entering into banks, and burning many others. In a violent confrontation with riot police, live ammunition was fired at a group of protestors, injuring around 30 and killing one.

Over the coming days, protestors took to the streets in different areas of the country to express solidarity with the city and its fallen victims. Riot police again took to violent means, with one video circulating on social media platforms showing two officers standing atop a roof, throwing rocks down at the demonstrators.

A police state takes on many faces

While police violence came to light under the revolution, it does not stop there. RAMCO workers took to protesting on company grounds in late April against policies pertaining to their unpaid and cut salaries and lack of vacation days. Called in by the company to stabilize the situation, riot police met the 400 protesters with violent beatings.

Read also: How Kafala dehumanizes and takes power away from migrant workers

On Wednesday, May 20, a video began circulating of an army officer physically assaulting a doctor. It is alleged that the doctor was attempting to treat a patient who had sustained bullet injuries as a result of live ammunition fired from the officer’s ranks, which prompted riot police to demand that the man not be treated.

A heated debate broke out between the two, and upon hearing the doctor’s refusal, two officers began to physically attack the doctor. 

It seems that while violence was normalized as a part of protest proceedings, army and police officials have begun to adopt it as a part of daily life. As security officials increasingly turn against the people, a police state is slowly taking hold across the country.

“Issuing arrest warrants for journalists, using torture methods, firing live ammunition, fighting with lawyers, ‘kidnapping’ protestors instead of arresting them, and finally arresting activists all point towards us entering into a police state,” says Skayni.

“It is still in its primary stages, but with the decline of the crisis in the near future, we will witness much more than this.”

The financial and economic crisis is the worst of its kind in recent Lebanese history, which means the country now has more cause to protest than ever. Since late last year, more than 800 food and beverage businesses permanently shut down as the local currency freefalls against the dollar.

With unemployment skyrocketing and 45 percent of the country now living under the poverty line, Skayni predicts that the only solution left is for citizens to self-organize protests and mobilize movements.

Demonstrations have recently begun to pick-up once more, with citizens taking to the streets to protest the politicians who have turned deaf ears to their requests.

According to Skayni, the coming stages of the revolution will witness more violent encounters as some social classes begin to feel the heat of the economic, political and social crises.

“I believe we’ll see new movements emerge in different areas in a light and wholesome way, without the need for invitations from the protest groups, like what happened with the recent Hay el Sellom protests,” says Skayni.

Police violence, while popularized in Lebanon during the October 17 revolution, is not a local phenomenon. Citizens across the world continue to face violence instigated by members of the police force.

In the United States, George Floyd was killed at the hand of a police officer who choked him for almost 9 minutes while he pleaded that he “can’t breathe.” His death incited nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism.

As Skayni notes, “the conversation around violence and the police state is not limited to official security forces.”

In Lebanon, a police state takes on many faces: While some sides choose to wear official uniforms, others choose political party colours and flags.

The continuity of political parties in Lebanon is threatened by the revolution, as protestors seek to uproot current politicians who have impoverished the country and drained it of its livelihood.

Political parties were some of the first to instigate violence in the protests, tearing down tents set up in Downtown Beirut, attacking protestors with batons and metal rods, and harassing them on social media platforms.

“It’s true that arrests are dangerous, but the threats our friends received in Kfar Remmen from members of the Haraket Amal party are even more dangerous,” says Skayni.

Official security forces have become popularized as defenders of the ruling class, because they continue to stand in the way of Lebanon’s revolution despite the fact that they too suffer under the current crisis.

It is worth noting that official security forces are paid in the local currency, including their pension, at the official exchange rate of LL 1,500 per 1 dollar. This rate has more than tripled in value over the past few months, meaning that salaries and savings in Lebanese liras now hold a quarter of their value.

The ruling class itself is still majorly dominated and swayed by the central players of the Lebanese civil war, whose battles famously crippled the country for 15 years and damaged it irreparably. Following the end of the civil war and the implementation of the Taif agreement, the government and parliament were divided amongst the existing sects, placing many of these central players as leading politicians.

“Even though there are many cases of police brutality and the ruling class pushing for its agenda through the use of the military and police, I believe the situation is more complex than simply branding our state as a police one,” says Nakhal.

“The ruling class makes use of several tools in our oppression, from the sectarian rhetoric that fuels horizontal divisions, to violence through militias and the threat of civil wars, to the illegal measures being taken by banks.”

In 2020, these parties have yet to disappear, and have made it so blatantly clear during the last few months. Lebanon is slowly heading towards more troubling times, as confrontations with the official security forces and political parties become eminent.

“There will be a lot more violence. People are starving and a lot of pressure is building up that will end up exploding, and things might get out of hands,” says Nakhal.

Almost two weeks ago, a convoy of protestors were attacked around Ain el Tineh, Beirut, near the residence of Nabih Berri. According to testimonies from demonstrators, the attack was done primarily by members of Haraket Amal.

As of now, none of these members were detained and are rumoured to be protected from law enforcement under Nabih Berri, and this is far from the end.

In the coming months, Lebanon may witness radical changes across the country. On Sunday, May 31, protestor Hussein Kanj was detained outside of the Baabda presidential palace. Groups mobilized during the evening to demand his immediate release, but were met with yet another violent confrontation from riot police near parliament.

Just last Saturday, protesters were met with tear gas and rubber bullets from security forces after clashes erupted between opposers and supporters of Hezbollah.

The only hope for citizens in light of the tone-deaf government and lack of aid is to stand together in solidarity, effectively organize their movements, and brace themselves for the months to come.