BEIRUT – Hundreds of people took to the streets across Lebanon on Saturday to commemorate the first anniversary of the start of the uprising that forced Saad Hariri to resign as prime minister.
A gathering in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, the symbolic center of the movement, drew just over 100 people, while dozens took part in a march around the capital.
“Fewer than 5,000 people” participated in anniversary events in Beirut and turnout nationwide was below 10,000, a military source told EFE on condition of anonymity.
The spark for the protests that began on Oct. 17, 2019, was a plan to impose taxes on WhatsApp and other messaging apps, but demonstrators quickly turned to a broader denunciation of pervasive corruption and of the ruling class in a nation with one of the world’s highest levels of economic inequality.
Though Hariri stepped down on Oct. 29, demonstrators remained on the streets, albeit in sharply reduced numbers, until the COVID-19 pandemic intervened.
Protests revived in the wake of the massive Aug. 4 explosion in the Port of Beirut that killed 202 people, injured 6,500 others and left some 300,000 capital residents homeless.
But it has been difficult to sustain the movement due to the combination of coronavirus and the struggle faced by ordinary Beirutis as they to try to rebuild after the detonation of thousands of tons of explosive material stored for years in unsafe conditions.
The protesters on Saturday in Martyrs’ Square waved Lebanese flags amid stands set up by vendors peddling uprising-themed merchandise.
“We want these corrupt leaders to leave power and leave the country so we can live as citizens who are proud of their nation,” 41-year-old Raja told EFE, invoking the chief demand of the movement.
Mohamed Serhan said that he came out on Saturday to “renew the specific idea that the October 17 revolution still continues and has not stopped.”
Among the “achievements” over the last 12 months he cited the toppling of the governments led by Hariri and his successor, Hassan Diab, who resigned following the port explosion, though he remains in power as caretaker prime minister.
Serhan also pointed to the emergence of a “young and individual” leadership and a growth in the number of people involved in politics.
He acknowledged, however, that the movement has yet to succeed in ousting the entire ruling class and emigration is on the rise, with some Lebanese so desperate to get out that they risk traveling on smuggling boats that Serhan calls “the ships of death.”
Some people traveled from the northern city of Tripoli to join a march that began at Martyrs’ Square and included stops at government offices and other public institutions before concluding at one of the entrances to the port.
There, in front of the statue of the Lebanese Emigrant, erected in 2002 in honor of Lebanon’s vast diaspora, they lit a large torch at just after 6:00 pm, the time of the Aug. 4 explosion in the port.