Lebanese protesters dug in behind roadblocks they had set up in and outside the capital Saturday, lying in the street and chanting "peaceful, peaceful" to resist as security forces struggled to drag them out of the way.
The campaign of civil disobedience was aimed at reinforcing their calls for the government to step down as nationwide protests entered their 10th day. The demonstrations were sparked by proposals for new taxes, including one on Whatsapp voice calls and messaging services that came on the heels of recently passed austerity measures. The protests escalated into a call for the overthrow of the post-civil war political system, seen by many as corrupt and incompetent.
There was some pushing, shoving and screaming as police tried to drag protesters away by the arms and legs, but there were no reports of arrests or injuries. On one road, an armored personnel carrier came within several meters (yards) of a group of protesters lying in the road before turning back.
The protests have paralyzed the country, which is already grappling with a severe fiscal crisis that demonstrators blame on political elites who have ruled since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war. Banks, universities and schools have been closed since last week.
The demonstrations are some of the largest in the nation's history, and have brought together Lebanese from various religious sects and political affiliations, with many protesters directing their anger at their own representatives. Chanting "all means all," the protesters have simultaneously indicted the entire political system and tried to head off any sectarianism.
On Friday, the military warned that roadblocks were a violation of the law. Also, the leader of the Hezbollah militant group, the most powerful armed force in the country, called on the protesters to open the roads and ordered his supporters to leave the rallies after they brawled with rival protesters.
Saturday's attempts to protect the road blocks appeared to be in defiance of calls to end the demonstrators' acts of civil disobedience, seen as an essential part of the pressure for the government to step down.
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By the afternoon, the protests in public squares were smaller and more diffuse as demonstrators rallied to defend the barricades and roadblocks some of them had set up.
On one major thoroughfare in downtown Beirut, security forces and protesters engaged in a cat and mouse game. After the security forces dragged the protesters off the asphalt, the demonstrators returned to present them with flowers. Then they sat in the road, blocking a main route between the city's east and west.
"The people want to bring down the regime," the protesters chanted, reprising the main slogan of the Arab Spring uprisings that swept the Middle East in 2011.
"We are no bandits," one man cried as demonstrators were being dragged away. "We have rights and are asking for them."
"We are with you, young men!" a female protester shouted as a soldier tried to break up the crowd.
On the coastal highway north of Beirut, a large crowd of residents sat on the ground as others stood in a line as a military bulldozer approached, forcing it to turn back. To the south, Lebanese soldiers removed chairs and tents set up in the middle of an intersection linking Beirut to the presidential palace on a hill overlooking the city.
In each incident security forces appeared reluctant to forcibly confront the protesters. But Hezbollah's criticism of the demonstrations raised concerns about a possible backlash.
In a speech Friday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah cast doubt on the spontaneous nature of the protests, saying foreign powers and rival political groups were exploiting the rallies to go after his group, which is closely allied with Iran. Shortly before he spoke, Hezbollah supporters fought with protesters who had criticized Nasrallah in the epicenter of the protests in central Beirut.
Amnesty International, meanwhile, said that blocking the roads was part of the protesters' efforts to make their voices heard and called on authorities to protect the rallies against violence from political opponents.
Rima, a 29-year-old protester in downtown Beirut who declined to give her last name for security reasons, was manning one of the roadblocks, allowing in ambulances and motorcycles. She said the protesters have not been violent.
"This is an uprising of a people who have been suffering for the last 30 years and can no longer tolerate their lies, theft and hypocrisy," she said of Lebanon's political class.