Hezbollah Loyalists Attack Beirut Protesters as Crisis Deepens

(Bloomberg) -- Supporters of Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies attacked anti-government protesters gathered in Beirut for the past two weeks, raising pressure on Prime Minister Saad Hariri to step down.

Hariri said on Twitter he would make a televised address to the nation at 4 p.m. local time, as his rivals in the coalition government sought to persuade him not to resign.

Live television footage showed groups of young men throwing rocks at protesters who had blocked a major Beirut intersection and beating them up with sticks and fists. Gangs then descended on the main protest area in the capital tearing down tents and setting fire to them. Some of the men could be heard saying they would not allow their political leaders -- Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and his ally parliament speaker Nabih Berri -- to be criticized or insulted.

Their show of violence is a turning point in Lebanon’s uprising, which had transcended for the first time the sectarian and party divisions that tend to dominate Lebanese politics.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have taken to the streets across the country since Oct. 17, demanding the ouster of a ruling class they say has lined its pockets from the public purse while neglecting services and living standards.

The government presented an emergency reform package last week that sought to address some of the grievances by laying out plans to rescue the country’s finances and set up an anti-graft committee. But it was rejected by demonstrators who said they would accept nothing less than the resignation of the government and other key officials.

The stakes are high for Lebanon, which straddles the region’s geopolitical fault-lines and has often been a proxy battleground for the Middle East’s broader conflicts. The 15-year civil war ended in 1990 but still haunts a country where the warlords became the rulers and have remained in power ever since.

Hezbollah, a Shi’a Muslim movement with both political and military wings, performed well in the last elections and is part of the largest coalition in parliament and in the government, where it had a opposed measures that would increase taxes on low-income families that form a large section of its support base.

Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, was traditionally backed by Saudi Arabia, but the kingdom has withheld its support in recent years due to concern over Hezbollah’s growing influence over the government.

Though Hariri has repeatedly signaled that he is willing to resign or make significant changes to the cabinet, Nasrallah has opposed a change in the government, saying a vacuum would lead to chaos.

One fear is that if Hariri and his allies resign, Lebanon could end up with a government even more dominated by Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and some European and other countries, making it harder to attract investment and aid. Hezbollah has seen its income dwindle as the U.S. sanctions some of its members as well as its main backer, Iran.

Nasrallah has accused the protesters of being funded by unspecified foreign agencies and embassies, and warned that the standoff could lead to civil war if they did not end their road closures. Those accusations were widely repeated by the men who overran the protest camp, denouncing demonstrators as drug addicts with loose morals.

“Look at what they did. They destroyed everything but we will put everything back up,” said a protester, who was filming the debris and declined to give his name.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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