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Clashes break out on ninth day of protests in Lebanon

Protesters denounce Nasrallah speech, which alluded to 'hidden leadership' behind demonstrations
Riot police intervene in Beirut's Riad al-Solh Square to separate Hezbollah supporters from anti-government protesters on 25 October (MEE/Kareem Chehayeb)
By Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut

On the ninth day of demonstrations that have shaken Lebanon, scuffles broke out across the country between Lebanese security forces, anti-government protesters and opponents of the demonstrations. 

In the eastern town of Al Fakiha, protesters faced off with Hezbollah supporters on Friday, and riot police had to intervene after cars were smashed in the unrest, local media outlets reported. 

In a televised speech in the afternoon, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said he opposes calls for the resignation of President Michel Aoun, the dissolution of the cabinet, or early elections - all demands made by many protesters.

Although he said he understands the anger on the streets, the Hezbollah leader cast doubt over the aims of the protests, suggesting that they are being funded by foreign powers.

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"The country is going through a very delicate and sensitive situation, everyone has to speak calmly and respectfully," he said, shortly after Hezbollah supporters assaulted protesters in downtown Beirut.

While nominally expressing support for the protest movement - which has denounced the sectarianism and corruption of Lebanon's political system amid a severe economic crisis - Nasrallah nonetheless warned protesters "not to allow political forces to ride the wave of the movement".

'The country is going through a very delicate and sensitive situation, everyone has to speak calmly and respectfully'

- Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah chief

"There is a hidden undeclared leadership that has not revealed itself for reasons that I will not mention," Nasrallah said.

"Those who are funding the protest movement, are they funding it in the interest of Lebanon or not?"

"We are scared that someone will take the country into another civil war," he added.

A number of other Lebanese political figures and their supporters have implied that the protest movement is being supported by outside powers, allegations demonstrators have vehemently denied.

Echoing a statement by Aoun on Thursday, Nasrallah called on protesters to "pick representatives to agree on terms together, then have a dialogue with the president with the pressure coming from the streets".

He went on to chastise demonstrators' rejection of reforms proposed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri earlier this week, saying that it was "wrong for protesters to belittle [these] achievements".

The Hezbollah chief said the government was "determined to implement these reforms within their respective deadlines", and that parliament was set to discuss laws against corruption.

Nasrallah made no direct mention of the violence by Hezbollah supporters in the southern city of Nabatieh on Thursday and in downtown Beirut on Friday.

Instead, he said: "One of the most negative elements of the movement is the use of insults hurled at specific individuals."

Violent altercations at Riad al-Solh

Earlier on Friday, clashes erupted at Riad al-Solh Square in Beirut after a group of Hezbollah supporters attacked protesters chanting slogans against Nasrallah.

Several demonstrators were wounded in the altercation and riot police intervened to separate the two groups.

Pro-Hezbollah demonstrators chanted "we heed your call Nasrallah", while protesters called for the downfall of the government.

Following Nasrallah's speech, police expelled Hezbollah supporters from the square.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah forces closed the entrances to the capital's southern suburbs - also known as Dahiyeh - where the party has a strong presence.

Pro-Hezbollah motorcades were reported in the city of Sour, as well as in other areas in southern Lebanon.

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A Hezbollah official told local media that the party denounced the violence in Riad al-Solh Square, adding that it violated the values of the party.

Yet Nasrallah's silence on the actions of his supporters angered protesters.

"He kept referring to one conspiracy theory after another and tried to absolve himself from any responsibility for what his supporters are doing to the protesters," one demonstrator told MEE, calling the speech "one big scare tactic".

"The speech officially puts Hezbollah's stance on the side of the government," activist Nizar Hassan told MEE. "He keeps mentioning the word vacuum when discussing the downfall of the government to scare people."

Hassan said he feared that Nasrallah's speech might have a negative impact on the momentum of the protests.

"People could be more hesitant to join the protests [after the speech] because they saw it perceived as a threat, rather than the impact of people power," he said, adding that this was likely a sign that Hezbollah was "trying to maintain its credentials as the only group for the deprived and the needy".

In a speech six days ago, Nasrallah expressed support for the protesters, but said they had the "wrong timing".

"Listen to my advice," he said on Saturday. "You’re wasting your time, exhausting yourselves and the country, and wasting the country's time."

Roadblocks in Furn al-Shebbak

Also on Friday, standoffs turned violent in the southern Beirut neighbourhood of Furn al-Shebbak, where protesters had set up a highway roadblock.

"The highway is closed but there is a small detour that takes two minutes," Nadine, a protester there, told Middle East Eye. "[We did this] to support the general strike and the demands of the protest."

She added that officers belonging to the Lebanese Army, Internal Security Forces and intelligence agency were present at the scene. 

A video obtained by MEE showed two Lebanese soldiers attacking an individual on a motorcycle in the middle of the road. One soldier was grabbing him while the other threw punches. 

Whard, another protester there, said the army attacked demonstrators "indiscriminately" after they pulled the man aside to safety. 

"The army would come and shove us and tell us to clear the road," he said. "We were letting the police, army, and ambulances through - it's not in our interest to obstruct them."

In a statement, the army said that a video purporting to show a soldier attacking a woman in that same neighbourhood, which went viral on social media, was misleading.

The army alleged that the woman had attacked the wife and child of a soldier with hot coffee.

At least two protesters have been arrested so far. 

Aoun meets with central bank chief

Meanwhile, Aoun met with Central Bank Governor Riad Salame, who has been under fire for the country's dire economic situation, earlier on Friday to discuss the current security and economic crisis.

The president spoke on Thursday in his first address since the protests broke out.

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In his brief speech, which appeared to be pre-recorded, Aoun called on protesters not to block roads and expressed a willingness to speak to them.

He lauded Hariri's proposed reforms, which the Lebanese cabinet agreed upon Monday, and urged protesters to pressure the government to introduce anti-corruption laws that he had proposed as an MP years ago.

"Regimes don't change from [the] squares," Aoun said. "They change through reforms by constitutional tools."

State Minister of Presidential Affairs Salim Jreissati later on Thursday evening told local media that the president was waiting for protesters to select representatives to meet him to present their demands.

Still, the protesters proceeded to set up more tents across Riad Solh and Martyrs' squares in downtown Beirut on Friday, some telling MEE that they were adamant to continue with the movement.

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