When We Protested and The Lebanese Government Tried To Kill Us

At 6:00PM on August 22nd, 2015, around 10,000 Lebanese people gathered in Downtown Beirut to protest the country’s overwhelming garbage crisis and with it the corrupt political system that has allowed it to prosper unresolved over the past month, as it has allowed the country to disintegrate since its moment of inception.

I daresay it was the first time a Lebanese crowd gathered this substantially to protest in an apolitical way against a political system that’s affecting everyone. It was beautiful:

 

All pictures are taken by me unless noted otherwise.

All pictures are taken by me unless noted otherwise.

The crowd was immensely creative. They carried Lebanese flags devoid of the Cedar, a bunch of hilarious posters, and even Batman was there:

The people at the protest had one goal in mind: to tell anyone who’d hear us exactly how horrifying our political system has become, to the point where we’re drowning in garbage and no one cares. To the backdrop of “down with the system” chants, the following were roaming around:

And yet, despite the newly built gates to stop anyone from entering to the heart of Downtown Beirut where the very empty parliament resides, and despite the very heavily clad military presence, none of us thought the protest could turn bad.

We were just there, expressing our fundamental right for free speech, in a country that has long considered itself to be the beacon of free speech in the region. We were many, we were mighty. We were proud, we were excited. We chanted, we held our fists to the skies and shouted at a system that has tried to clench our hands and bring us down every single time. Around 6:30PM on August 22nd, 2015, we felt powerful.

Carte Blanche & Signal Jamming:

The crowds walked back from Riad el Solh square towards Martyrs’ Square. Naturally, every single opening that could lead to Nejmeh Square was closed off by armed personnel. The Lebanese Army was working hand in hand with the Internal Security Force (ISF) on closing off all the roads. As we passed them while walking back to Martyrs’ Square, we overheard a few saying they had a “carte blanche” for today. I didn’t give it much attention.

It was around that time that I first noticed my phone’s signal was getting jammed. My data connection kept dropping, and I failed to get my phone to connect to the 3G network even with restarts. I asked around, and I wasn’t the only one having that issue. There was a clear attempt to radio-silence the protest, but I didn’t give much attention to that either.

Gunshots Start:

The time was about 7:15PM. We were gathered around Martyrs’ Square chanting when the first bullets were fired. One round was followed by another, and then another. The armed personnel were firing, and shouting. A few moments later, they kept on increasing their perimeter, pushing protestors out of a region they had not secured before, beating them with batons until they cleared the area.

Children started crying. “Cowards,” there were many shouting. But if anyone thought that would be the end of it, we thought wrong. The most horrifying part of being shot at and beaten up isn’t that there were bullets being fired in the air, it’s the look of delight on that armed personnel’s face as he does it.

A “carte blanche” to keep order against protesters who did nothing but behave peacefully means many things. It means that you can decide that a peaceful protest is not one where you need to fire guns. It means you can decide not to beat up a woman who’s shouting at you. It means you can decide to be a civilized armed personnel, and not a savage.

Our country’s armed forces chose to be barbaric. They chose to be rabid dogs instead of being human beings.

Batman was the first to run.

How Tear Gas Feels Like:

We moved away from Martyrs’ Square and walked up Downtown Beirut. I daresay it was the most full that place was in ages, to the dismay of our government of course because this isn’t the crowd they wanted.

YouStink August 22 Protest - 9

On the way there, I saw a man with a cut across his scalp. I examined his wound. I told him what to do in order to clean in. There were two more like him on the way.

We gathered near the South entrance of Beirut Souks, the one facing the main entrance to Nejmeh Square. The crowds started chanting again. Bullets were fired in order to scare people, but the chants kept on growing louder.

A van for Beirut’s fire department then blazed its way through protesters. If we hadn’t made way, the van wouldn’t have had a problem in running us over. A moment later, they fired tear gas at us. If that first round of tear gas wasn’t enough, they fired a few more. One hit my friend in the head, another hit my knee before bouncing on the ground.

And we ran.

Tear Gas Beirut August 22 Protest YouStink

It didn’t start off as tears. It started as a constriction in my throat that tightened the more I tried not take a breath. It was so hard to hold it in when my lungs were aching for air.

It was then that I started coughing uncontrollably, each one followed by the next, making the ache in my throat worse, feeling like I was going to suffocate the more I coughed, the more I breathed, both of which I couldn’t control.

A few seconds later, my eyes started tearing and I was borderline blinded as I wobbled my way down from the main road as far as I can from the smoke. And they kept on firing. It felt like I was walking for endless meters, because my eyes wouldn’t let up and neither would my lungs.

I passed by a woman who had fainted on the side of the street. There was a little girl running away as well; she couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old.

The more I ran, the more I felt it was getting worse. I felt like I was going to faint a couple of times, but there was not time to think so I just kept going as my throat got tighter. I tried to use my shirt to bloc the gas, but I had no fluid on me to use as an insulator.

It started getting better when we reached CinemaCity. My friend fell to the ground and gasped for air. There was another woman lying at the side of the street, borderline unconscious being helped by her friends.

In case you’re wondering, this is how you look after being tear gassed by your government for protesting peacefully against its shit:

Tear Gas August 22 protest Beirut

The Classy Apathy Crowd:

Now that the crowds were dispersed, a few of us made our way through Beirut Souks. I walked by the cinema, and people were there. I walked by the shops and people were there. I walked by a local restaurant, and it had its doors shut because the people inside had gotten worried.

August 22 protest YouStink beirut

These people’s garbage is obviously not part of the Beiruti equation. It’s probably too classy. I couldn’t not take a picture of them. My aching lungs and throat demanded it.

It Gets Worse:

Meanwhile back in Martyrs’ Square, the crowds were gathering again. It was getting dark, the time was around 8PM.

With darkness falling, Lebanon’s armed forces found new strength in being able to do whatever they wanted without anyone knowing they did it. So they started firing bullets, both live ammo and rubber ones, at the protestors chanting against them. They hosed the protestors with water canons and fired tear gas again, but the protestors held their own.

It was then that Lebanese media took notice of what was happening in Downtown Beirut. Our tweets, Facebook posts, images and videos were aplenty, widely shared and immensely circulated. LBC and NewTV were the first on the scene, and even journalists were attacked:

When confronted, the armed forces – both army and ISF – told protestors that “they started it.”

The first serious injury of the night happened around that time. A teenager boy, aged around 14 or 15, got hit by a rubber bullet in his pelvic area.

August 22 Protest YouStink-

Picture via Joey Ayoub.

Then I started getting news from my colleagues that the ER at my hospital was beginning to receive injured protestors. Hotel Dieu was receiving them as well. The injuries, for the most part, were not severe, but some of those rubber bullets required surgical intervention:

 

After uploading a video showing the Lebanese Army – yes, that same one we’ve all been defending for years – attacking us barbarically, I had many people attack me for “wrongfully” tarnishing the army’s image. This is a picture that clearly shows the army attacking people:

Picture via Elie Farah.

Picture via Elie Farah.

What happened next involved more violence, wide-spread arrests of protestors who – again – did absolutely nothing violent. In pure propaganda attempt, the Lebanese ISF released pictures of its own members with bloody cheeks, eyes and bandaged heels to tell the world that the protestors were violent.

I had no idea water bottles and hands were a dangerous weapon to the country now while we were being attacked with batons, bullets, armors and military boots. The country isn’t only full of shit, it’s full of melodrama.

It Could’ve Been Worse:

I have to say, if the Lebanese media – hats off to LBC and NewTV – hadn’t covered the protest from around 8PM till after midnight, I’m sure the armed forces would have enjoyed both the radio and media silence to commit a true massacre in Downtown Beirut yesterday, but they couldn’t.

They couldn’t because the anchors of Lebanese channels that have, for the first time in years, provided the country with actual and decent news, made it their job to tell the whole country how the people protesting for their most fundamental rights in Beirut were getting beaten up only for speaking.

The couldn’t because there are still, much to my delight, media in this country that knows when to draw the line to an establishment that has, for years, enjoyed unchecked coverage.

Shame on FutureTV and Al-Manar for pretending that nothing was happening in Downtown Beirut, but at least now they agree on something. And I guess they didn’t bring in the fighter jets, so we can’t say that were *too* brutal.

Lebanon’s Politicians Start To Kiss Our Ass:

Because they needed to capitalize on us getting beaten up and almost killed in Downtown Beirut, Lebanon’s politicians – of all kinds and shapes – figured it made absolute sense to condemn the actions of a government of which they are ALL part.

First was Nabil Nicolas, the same one who posted a picture of his leader in the heart of Mary the other day (link) announcing that he condemned what was happening. Then came Elias Abi Saab, who is part of the government itself, also condemning what was happening.

Neither quit their position of course, because why would you do anything worthwhile if you can simply throw a few words of garbage here and there and save face? It’s so easy to condemn in words and so hard to do so in action.

Then came Gebran Bassil in a beautiful tweet about the political establishment of which not only is he part but in which he is now ascending. Mr. Bassil needed someone to tell him yesterday who was at fault for what was happening in Downtown Beirut, and the answer came promptly:

 

August 22 Protest Gebran Bassil Tweet

It was Walid Jumblat’s turn next to shower us with his hypocrisy. He was supportive of the movement, and he said that yes, he stank as well. But because there are no alternatives, he effectively told everyone that we were stuck with them and there was nothing we can do. Deal with it.

Nouhad el Machnouk, our minister of interior affairs, was on vacation. So naturally because he was outside the country, he couldn’t have ordered the armed forces to do what they did, he said. He only ordered them to use rubber bullets and tear gas canisters as they do in ALL civilized countries, he said.

Mr. Machnouk probably still thought that the Lebanese people have the collective IQ of a fish and that when we were getting beaten up by his forces we wouldn’t be able to see through all the bullshit, but we can.

If only Mr. Machnouk had imported something other than rubber bullets and tear gas from civilized countries. Maybe he will now as he unfortunately is forced to cut his vacation short?

Lebanon Is A Dictatorshit:

If you had any doubt that this country was not a democracy, yesterday was your overwhelming proof that this is not a dictatorship, no it’s a dictatorshit.

We were doing nothing wrong. Protesting against a system that’s so corrupt it can’t handle garbage is not wrong. Chanting against a government that has been nothing but dysfunctional since its moment of birth is not wrong. And yet, we were attacked. And yet, they tried to kill us. And yet, many of us are in hospitals now because our country is run by an establishment whose only goal in life is to self-persevere.

The use of riot police against us was a political decision. The carte blanche they were given was entirely pre-meditated. Those in power thought that flexing their muscles would silence the many voices in the country that are fed up with their lies, with their corruption. But they thought wrong.

The Lebanese establishment is only invested in one thing and one thing only: to maintain itself against all odds, against all logic and reason. Garbage in the streets? Who cares as long as I can get a few bucks off of it. More than $20 billion spent on electricity that gets cut 12 hours a day? Yes, that money funded my vacation well. No elections for two years in a row? The taste of power is grand.

Our political establishment is a parasite: it feeds off of us in order to grow stronger and keep itself in power. It sacrifices us to make sure it runs unchecked. It throws its armed personnel under the bus to make sure that nothing comes its way.

We were protesting for our basic and most fundamental rights and they tried to kill us. This is worse than when the Syrian regime did the same or maybe worse to protestors back in the days. Back then, it was a foreign presence trying to silence you. Today, it’s your own country’s people trying to kill you.

Not only did the Lebanese political establishment tell every single Lebanese that they effectively did not matter, but they tried to sugar coat it by breaking their own ranks and pointing fingers at each other; not only do they stink, they reek.

But Beirut Was The Most Beautiful It’s Been In Ages Yesterday:

The day after, I’m the most proud I’ve been in years. I’m proud of every single man, woman and child that went down yesterday to protest. I genuinely love every single one of those 10,000 people that gathered around in Beirut yesterday, even the smokers.

I’m proud of the people of Tripoli who went down to Beirut late at night to protest even when no one protested for them when their city was being burned again and again. I’m proud they were not deterred at the Madfoun checkpoint which was blocked by the army at 1:40AM to stop them.

You people turned Beirut into a city that’s worth being plastered across the world yesterday because you were amazing, courageous and wonderful. You got people all across the country to see the government for what it truly was: a rotten establishment that reeks of decay.

The day after, you are all heroes, with your cuts and scars and bruises and teary eyes. The government fears you. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have reacted this way. In a few years, when you have children in a country that’s hopefully become civilized enough for us to bring children into, you will sit down and tell them how you changed things. It’s a beautiful story to tell, believe me.

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19 thoughts on “When We Protested and The Lebanese Government Tried To Kill Us

  1. Pingback: When We Protested and The Lebanese Government Tried To Kill Us | RESTLESS IN DREAMS

  2. Thank you Elie for this.

    I left shortly after they started shooting live bullets at people. First time I’m tear gassed. First time I’m in a crowd getting shot at. Danger is exhilarating when you’re in the crowd. It pushes you forward, makes you want to stay, makes you want to resist and disobey. After I got home, I felt so void. All of this is absurd. Absurd, I thought. It just doesn’t make sense. I wonder if after today, all that would be gone or if it is really the beginning of something. I want it to be the beginning of something but I’m a little scared too.

    I disagree with you when you say that our movement, our protests are apolitical. It is important to understand that everything is political. When I say political, I don’t mean to refer to the political parties who constitute our government. I mean to say that politics is the process through which people are influenced and power and resources are distributed amongst society. Today, we are contesting inequality, corruption, repression and we are asking for our rights: a chance at a fair life in Lebanon, against forced migration, social justice, bread, social dignity.

    Politics is also important because it helps us understand what our government is: a mafiocracy made out of recycled warlords who made their money out of the economy of the Lebanese civil war. We also need to understand that there’s a close knit relationship between the political power and the economic power. The state yesterday as repressive as it was, was protecting the interests of both establishments. This is a crucial point.

    Our movement asks questions which is the right place to start. We are not yet providing answers and this is completely ok. This is how movements start. However, we have to be very careful because our questions are creating a much needed change in the political culture of our country.

    Saying this is apolitical and stepping away from thinking about potential answers is dangerous and self-defeating. If we (people who support this movement, citizens ( a concept that has been usurped by those in power!) students, professionals, workers, etc..) do not start constructing this alternative, if we do not organise ourselves, the power in place will reconstitute itself.

    Reply
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  5. I’m not sure it was exactly peaceful on the protesters side, I saw a pretty angry mob, all that was lacking was the torches and pitchforks. This is what Ghandi says : First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
    Had people remained calm and diplomatic, this would have been our victory already.

    Reply
  6. I am British, I live in the UK and travel regularly to the Middle East and North Africa on business … Beirut is my favourite city apart from the city of my birth, Edinburgh. To have seen the earlier posts about this issue unfolding quite simply breaks my heart and now, having read in such detail about the Lebanese Government’s … my broken heart is further broken.

    If the Lebanese government are sufficiently cohesive to order (and fund !!) the anti-demonstration forces to act with the indiscrimination, brutality and apparent impunity they did, why do they not act with such commitment to resolve the massive, growing and increasingly hazardous garbage issue … ?? Frankly, they all should hang their heads in utter shame, as should the forces deployed to ‘handle’ the demonstration.

    If there is funding to squash a demonstration in the horrific way it was, why is there no funding to help address the growing health hazard of mounting garbage ??

    I travel frequently to Cairo, indeed I am there now, a city I love also despite it being so over-crowded, noisy, smelly and congested. There are times when I have been stuck in traffic around Hamra when I have drawn comparisons between Cairo and Beirut. As many who have visited Cairo will attest, it is a city comprising a population FAR larger than the infrastructure and services can cope with but has to the best of my knowledge never EVER let a problem such as this arise.

    Shame on your politicians for ordering and funding the disgraceful violence effected against Beirutis … shame on the forces deployed for their brutality and violence … all power to demonstrators !!

    Were it not for the risks involved in doing so, I would ask you to continue to hold your heads high … you are all in my thoughts and prayers.

    Reply
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