Amal and Hezbollah supporters riot in Beirut after video criticising Shiite figures

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Through the swells of tear gas in downtown Beirut, the speakers of the main mosque in the nearby neighbourhood of Khandaq Al Ghamiq echoed a call for gangs of men fighting with police to leave the streets.

Hundreds of supporters of Lebanon’s two main Shiite parties, Amal and Hezbollah, fought in the streets of downtown with police and protesters after a video shared online showed a man insulting important Shiite figures.

At least three cars were set on fire, one reportedly after it drove into the groups of men, and police were pelted with stones and fireworks. Police responded with tear gas and water cannons.

Both the parties called on the men to go home and not to allow the anger to turn Lebanon’s current economic and political crisis sectarian. But the men remained.

Then the mosques of Khandaq Al Ghamiq, an area that sits just above downtown Beirut which has been the epicentre of the now two-month national protest movement against corruption and the government, crackled into life and added their calls for supporters to return home. Shiite clerics also took to the street to urge men to leave.

Destroyed cars are pictured in central Beirut on December 18, 2019 a day after young supporters of the country's two main Shiite parties tried to attack a anti-government protest camp in central Beirut. Lebanon's president yesterday postponed consultation to select a new prime minister after weeks of largely peaceful street protests descended into weekend violence. / AFP / ANWAR AMRO
Destroyed cars are pictured in central Beirut a day after young supporters of the country's two main Shiite parties tried to attack a anti-government protest camp in central Beirut. AFP

Civil Defence said they treated 43 people and took 23 to hospital.

The man in the video said he was from the Sunni majority Tripoli but senior religious figures in the northern town condemned the clip.

“We tell our people in the Shiite community that those who harm … are not from us and do not represent the Sunni sect, have nothing to do with the sect and do not express the Sunni opinion,” Sheikh Hasan Merheb, a senior sheikh from Dar Al Fatwa, told local TV channel Al Jadeed.

Protests sparked by the video also broke out in the south and the Bekaa Valley. In southern Nabatiyah, unidentified men burned down a protest camp and similar incidents were reported in other areas.

Monday was the third consecutive night of violence in the area around parliament and came hours after President Michel Aoun announced yet another delay to talks on naming a successor to Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned on October 29.

The country’s main Christian groups said they refused to back Mr Hariri and the caretaker prime minister’s office said in a statement that he is keen for national accord and would not be named to the post “without the participation of any of the large Christian blocs.”

While Mr Hariri remains the most likely candidate to be selected, increasing anger on the streets from protesters making it clear they will not accept him returning for a fourth term.

Protesters demand a Cabinet of independent technocrats and an independent head of government not affiliated with existing parties.

The postponement followed a violent weekend that saw the toughest crackdown on demonstrations in two months.

Lebanese security forces repeatedly fired tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse hundreds of protesters in downtown Beirut in the worst violence since demonstrations against the political elite erupted in mid-October.

Groups of political supporters chanting sectarian chants descended from Khandaq Al Ghamiq and fought with protesters yet again. Unlike on previous occasions when political supporters have overrun protest camps, protesters stood their ground throwing rocks and water bottles at the men.

Although the protests had united all sectarian and ethnic groups against the ruling elite, tensions had surfaced from the start between protesters and supporters of the Shiite groups Hezbollah and Amal, after the latter rejected criticism of its leaders.

However, the weekend’s fighting marks a significant departure since the protests began in early October as they have, until now, remained largely peaceful except for sporadic incidents.

The UN special coordinator for Lebanon, Jan Kubis, warned that because of the collapsing economy, such postponements are “a risky hazard both for the politicians but even more so” for the people.

Lebanon is enduring its worst economic and financial crisis in decades with a massive debt, widespread layoffs and unprecedented capital controls imposed by local banks amid a shortage in liquidity.

In a sign of the hardening mood and the frustration at the failure of politicians to meet demands of protesters, members of the audience hounded former Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora out of a Christmas concert at the American University of Beirut on Sunday evening.

Mr Siniora, an alumnus of the university, sat impassively on the front row as audience members erupted in chorus against him but eventually bowed to the pressure and left the concert hall with his bodyguards.

"How dare they have the nerve to come to a concert when they know that people hate them. How dare they?" Terese, a retired teacher, told Reuters. "We started chanting: revolution, revolution, Siniora get out ... He didn't budge."

A performance by composer and pianist Guy Manoukian was interrupted by the uproar from the audience though once Mr Siniora had left, the concert began in earnest.

Mr Siniora later sent a tweet saying history would prove that he had always worked in Lebanon's interests though he may have made some mistakes.

Before serving as prime minister from 2005 to 2008, Mr Siniora was a long-time finance minister. He was questioned last month by a state prosecutor over how $11 billion in government funds was spent while he was in power.

His office has said the spending was entirely legal.

Lebanese riot policemen run from firecrackers fired by the supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal Movement groups. AP

A member of the Lebanese riot police looks on after clashes with supporters of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups on December 14, 2019, in central Beirut. AFP

Lebanese riot police react to fireworks thrown by supporters of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups during clashes on December 14, 2019 in central Beirut. AFP

Supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal Movement groups, background, launch firecrackers at riot policemen as they try to attack anti-government protesters. AP

Lebanon has been facing its worst economic crisis in decades, amid nationwide protests that began on October 17 against the ruling political class that demonstrators accuse of mismanagement and corruption. AP

A supporter of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups gestures towards riot police. AFP

Supporters of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups (background) throw fireworks towards Lebanese riot police during clashes on December 14, 2019, in central Beirut. AFP

A supporter of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal Movement groups holds firecrackers to fire it at the riot police. AP

A supporter of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal Movement groups stands in the smoke of tear gas and reacts to the riot police in downtown Beirut. AP

Lebanese riot police react to fireworks thrown by supporters of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups. AFP

Lebanese riot policemen react to firecrackers that were fired by the supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal Movement groups. AP

Lebanese riot policemen react to firecrackers that fired by the supporters of the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal Movement groups. AP

Riot police officers arrest an anti-government protesters trying to enter parliament square in downtown Beirut. AP

Lebanon has been facing its worst economic crisis in decades, amid nationwide protests that began on October 17 against the ruling political class which demonstrators accuse of mismanagement and corruption. AP

A riot police officer fires tear gas from a launcher against anti-government protesters trying to enter parliament square in downtown Beirut. AP

Protesters wave the Lebanese flag in front of riot police during clashes in central Beirut. EPA

Protesters flee tear gas after they threw stones at riot police during clashes in central Beirut. EPA

A riot police officer stands next of a Christmas tree during a protest. AP

A riot police officer fires rubber bullets towards anti-government protesters. AP

Civil defence workers treat injured protesters who were beaten by riot police. AP

Riot policemen run after anti-government protesters trying to enter the parliament square. AP

An anti-government protester holds stones, as he flashes victory signs during a protest near the parliament square. AP

Lebanese demonstrators hurl rocks at riot police during clashes in the capital Beirut on December 14, 2019. AFP

Lebanese riot police prepare to fire teargas canisters during clashes with anti-government demonstrators in the capital Beirut on December 14, 2019. AFP

Riot police detain an anti-government demonstrator during clashes in the capital Beirut on December 14, 2019. AFP

Lebanese demonstrators hurl tear-gas canisters back at riot police during clashes in the capital Beirut on December 14, 2019. AFP

Lebanese demonstrators hurl tear-gas canisters back at riot police during clashes in the capital Beirut on December 14, 2019. AFP

Lebanese demonstrators hurl tear-gas canisters back at riot police during clashes in the capital Beirut on December 14, 2019. AFP

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Show of irreverence towards senior figures such as Mr Siniora who have long commanded respect has broken taboos in Lebanon, setting the current wave of demonstrations apart from previous dissent.

The presence of Mr Siniora, a former banker and one of the country's wealthy elite, showed indifference to the suffering of many people, some concert-goers said.

"Politicians should understand that they have become distanced from the people," said Maestro Barkev Taslakian, conductor of Al Fayhaa Choir.

Many Lebanese politicians have avoided public gatherings for fear of being targeted by angry protesters. One audience member said it was a blatant provocation for of a leading member of the establishment to attend the concert.

"They cannot ignore what's happening and attend and then pretend that actually they are not to blame," said entrepreneur Bahe Ghobril.

Mr Hariri had asked the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for help developing a reform plan to address the economic crisis.

Moody’s Investors Service said that without technical support from the IMF, World Bank and international donors, it was increasingly likely that Lebanon could see “a scenario of extreme macroeconomic instability in which a debt restructuring occurs with an abrupt destabilization of the currency peg resulting in very large losses for private investors.”

Its currency has been pegged at 1,507 Lebanese pounds to the dollar since 1997, but in recent weeks it has reached more than 2,000 in the black market. Lebanon’s debt stands at $87 billion or 150 percent of GDP.

Updated: December 17, 2019 12:19 PM

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