Elias Saade is taking his seat on a sofa in a typical Lebanese living room. In front of him is a coffee table with a vase of flowers set on it. A large red rug at his feet really ties the room together.
But there is something different about this living room: it is located in the middle of Beirut’s busiest highway.
As anti-government demonstrations in Lebanon enter their third week, road blocks such as this have emerged as a defining battleground and a key strategy for keeping pressure on the country’s political leaders, who continue to resist the kind of sweeping reforms demanded by protesters.
“This is the entrance to Beirut, it’s a very important road,” says Saade, a 37-year-old entrepreneur. “Our aim is simple: we are stopping the government from functioning properly until they listen to us.”
The last two weeks of protests in Lebanon have been historic in size and character. More than a million people came out on to the streets in a rare display of national unity. They have called for a complete overhaul of the country’s sectarian political system and an end to endemic corruption.
The demonstrations have rocked Lebanon’s political elite, forced the resignation of the country’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, and prompted promises of widespread reforms.
But protesters say those reforms do not go far enough. As time has dragged on, and the numbers of people on the streets have dwindled, they are adapting their tactics to keep up the pressure.
“We had to do something because they are trying to act as if nothing is happening,” says Paola Elsitt, 28, who is among a few dozen protesters blocking the main Beirut road.
“Half the population of Lebanon was on the streets asking for them to leave, asking for them to give us our basic rights, and they are still ignoring us. They need to hear us, and this is the only way right now: for us to block the roads and have complete civil disobedience.”
The road blocks have sprung up across the country – in cities along the main highway that runs along the Mediterranean coast, on small mountain roads, in towns and villages in the south and in the Bekaa Valley to the east.
On a drive north from the capital Beirut to Lebanon’s second city Tripoli earlier this week The Independent witnessed more than a dozen major barricades along the highway. Some were small blockages made of stones and crates, others were giant parties attended by hundreds of people with tents and music.
Some protesters have sardonically pointed out that roads in Lebanon are often blocked anyway, and often as a result of the very problems they’re demonstrating against: politicians’ convoys often shut down the entire city centre, and highways are often crippled by traffic due to a lack of infrastructure and public transport.
The proliferation of these barricades across the country has highlighted the truly national reach of the protests, a rarity in deeply divided Lebanon.
They have been effective in paralysing the country, too. In the last week, security forces have made it a priority to reopen all the roads, leading to scuffles with protesters. On Thursday, soldiers removed dumpsters, cars and tents blocking a highway linking Beirut to the north of Lebanon and unblocked the main ring road in the capital.
The road blocks have also angered some Lebanese citizens. They have been criticised for disproportionately affecting the country’s poorer citizens who cannot afford to be prevented from going to work.
Earlier this week, supporters of the Lebanese Hezbollah party and its ally, the Amal movement, attacked protesters who were blocking the main ring road in Beirut. A group of several hundred threw rocks and sticks at demonstrators and journalists, before storming through downtown and destroying a protest encampment.
In the aftermath of the attack, protesters simply returned to their road blocks. Since then, they have been involved in a cat-and-mouse game with security forces. But there are signs that they may be shifting their tactics again, says Tamirace Fakhoury, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.
“Blocking the roads is a contested strategy, for sure. A lot of people say this is not the right way to go about it. However, the question is what are the efficient tactics to disrupt the system? I think we are dealing with an intelligent protest movement,” she says.
“Now they are blocking the roads only at night. They do not want to paralyse economic life totally, so they are reframing and restrategising and using roadblocks differently.”
Professor Fakhoury says the road blocks were a necessary manoeuvre for a society in which most civil organisations have been co-opted by sectarian political parties.
“It has emerged as a very efficient protest technique in order to maintain and sustain the uprising that otherwise would fizzle out,” she says.
“Activists are learning from previous strategies have found that lobbying and campaigning and just protesting in squares that are isolated will not impact and not disrupt the system and will not make politicians hear them.”
The reforms announced so far by the government have not placated protesters. The combination of an acute economic crisis and decades of rampant corruption has pushed the country to the edge.
Lebanon has one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world due to years of mismanagement. Unemployment stands at close to 25 per cent, and tens of thousands of educated young people leave the country each year due to a lack of opportunity.
Now, for the first time, the sectarian political order that has governed this eastern Mediterranean nation since the end of the civil war in 1990 is facing a mass movement aimed at its overthrow.
Protesters responded to the resignation of the prime minister by chanting a refrain that has become popular during the demonstrations: “All of them means all of them,” a rallying cry for the removal of all the country’s political leaders.
At the barricades and in the squares, there is a sense that these protests have caused a kind of awakening among many Lebanese people.
“They are saying the economy will collapse because we are blocking the road,” says Saade. “They are trying to blame us for their own mess. But it’s the corrupt politicians, it’s the central bank governor, it’s because all of them stealing that we are here.
“In the past two weeks we have overcome sectarianism and we have created a new national identity. We made it here on the streets and we are not leaving the streets until we get accountability.”
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