October 30, 2019 / 2:01 PM / 20 days ago

Lebanon's protesters turn on their leaders, breaking taboos

NABATIYEH, Lebanon, Oct 30 (Reuters) - In the protests sweeping Lebanon, nothing is sacred.

Political leaders, who a few weeks ago enjoyed the loyal support of core followers despite worsening economic conditions, are now the target of many of those people’s ire.

That show of irreverence towards senior figures who have long commanded respect has broken taboos, setting these demonstrations apart from previous waves of dissent.

Saad al-Hariri stepped down as prime minister on Tuesday in the face of mass protests fuelled by resentment against the ruling elite, whom people blame for the dire state of the economy.

The son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, Gebran Bassil, who is also foreign minister, has become a figure of ridicule among many on the streets of the capital Beirut.

Hezbollah, the heavily armed Shi’ite group widely recognised as the most powerful force in the country, has not been spared. Chants against its leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah would have been unthinkable last month. Now they are common.

In Nabatiyeh, a mainly Shi’ite town in the south of the country, protesters have set their sights on Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, one of Lebanon’s most powerful politicians whose Amal Movement dominates the area.

“I have come down to protest to bring down Berri who is a symbol of corruption,” said Koussay Charara, a Shi’ite teacher who was one of thousands of people occupying the town square and surrounding streets.

When hundreds of protesters chanted against Berri in one of the town’s main streets, residents say they were attacked by groups of baton-wielding mobs believed to be supporters of Amal and its ally Hezbollah.

At least eight people were hurt, some of whom were hospitalised.

In other places in Nabatiyeh and elsewhere in the south, posters of Berri that adorned government buildings were damaged by angry demonstrators.

The politician himself has sided with protesters, telling MPs from his party last week that the crowds had achieved some of the changes that Amal itself had been demanding for decades.

A source within Amal said the tens of thousands of people taking to the streets had made legitimate demands for greater transparency, accountability and action against corruption.

“The Amal movement and its leader were not surprised by the social explosion that took place,” he said.

That explosion is pitting people once aligned in a single faction against each other, adding to the sense of chaos in Lebanese towns and cities.

In Nabatiyeh, those backing Berri chanted their support.

“With our blood and lives we offer ourselves as a sacrifice for you Nabih,” they shouted.

New posters appeared of the smiling politician, accompanied by the words “We are With You”.

NORTH AND SOUTH IN TURMOIL

Some Amal and Hezbollah supporters wearing black clothes and carrying sticks and pipes attacked and destroyed the anti-government protest camp in Beirut, believing the protesters were tarnishing their leader Nasrallah.

It was the most serious strife in the capital since 2008, when Hezbollah fighters seized control in a brief eruption of armed conflict with Lebanese adversaries loyal to Hariri and his allies.

Analysts are taking particular note of dissent in the south of Lebanon, because of the political dominance long enjoyed there by Amal and Hezbollah.

“There are more daring voices in the south. Demonstrations were breaking the previous taboos in politics,” said Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

The north has not been spared either.

In the mostly Sunni Muslim city of Tripoli, one of Lebanon’s poorest, protesters turned on their leaders by burning tyres near a villa owned by former Sunni prime minister Najib Mikati.

“You are one of them!” they chanted, referring to the political elite they despise.

Ali Omar, a Sunni university teacher, said that a brief walk around Tripoli was more than enough proof that parliamentarians and Sunni leaders had done nothing for the city over the years.

“Go look in the city and see the unemployment rate, look at the electricity ... go to the social security offices, look at the roads with their potholes, at the oppression.”

Tripoli has seen some of the biggest, liveliest demonstrations of the past two weeks. People have gathered daily in the city square, chanting and dancing deep into the night.

Omar said people were sick of spending their lives asking for favours or begging officials for their basic rights.

“Where are all these taxes going? Into their bank accounts,” he said. “For 30 years we’ve been screaming ... that half the youth are unemployed. What do we have to do for you to hear us?” (Editing by Tom Perry, Samia Nakhoul and Mike Collett-White)

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