Who were the “infiltrators” at Beirut’s #YouStink protests?
3 Septembrie 2015
At least 20 people were injured Sunday in Beirut during a second day of clashes between police and protesters angry about the Lebanese government
When the clashes started on Saturday they were nowhere to be seen. While the teargas grenades fell on the street in Riadh al-Solh Square in front of the Lebanese government and the water cannons sprayed the human wall of the #YouStink movement, the protesters saw only familiar faces around them. This was, after all, Lebanon: everybody knows everyone.
At least 20 people were injured Sunday in Beirut during a second day of clashes between police and protesters angry about the Lebanese government's failure to remove rubbish from streets, medics said. (AFP/STR)
“It was just us, the activists. We were very confused, running around,” protestor Yasmina told NOW. Yasmina spent the weekend in downtown Beirut protesting against the trash crisis. The alleged infiltrators started showing up at around midnight on Saturday, when the protests had calmed down and activists were trying to regroup in Riad al-Solh Square. The protesters of the #YouStink movement had a sit-in similar to the Ukrainian Orange revolution in mind: a tent village in Beirut’s administrative center.
“Suddenly they were there. We wanted to bring tents and sleep there,” said Tina, another protestor. “But they had tents of their own — three to six tents, and they were sitting there, having arghileh. Then, at around 2:00 am, while I was walking home, I saw a group of them planning to throw some garbage bags at the police. I don’t know where they had gotten the bags. I didn’t see what happened next, but I think they gave up on the idea.”
These men were at the heart of the clashes with the security forces in central Beirut last Sunday. The #YouStink protest had been drowned in tear gas and rubber bullets on Saturday night. The social movement that organized the demonstration called for a calm and peaceful sit-in, condemning the harsh crackdown by security forces. On Sunday night, however, after Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s speech, masked young men showed up and attempted to remove the barbwire fence between the police and the demonstrators, provoking the security forces into a clash.
Journalists at the scene called them “infiltrators.” The National News Agency correspondent on the scene said, “Infiltrators among the demonstrators in Central Beirut are throwing Molotov cocktails at security forces.” Some of the protesters called them “uncivilized thugs” from the Shiyah and Khandaq al-Ghamiq neighborhoods of Beirut, accusing Amal Movement of sending its supporters to discredit the #YouStink movement.
A tale of two crowds
The protests had been peaceful until the infiltrators showed up — a compact and shirtless group that pushed through the crowd to make their way towards the security forces. Many of them wore the sword of Ali around their necks and had “313” [the 313 followers of Imam Mahdi, who in Shia Islam are prophesied to aid him when he rises again] tattooed on their arms and backs. “It was obvious that they were up to something,” Yasmina said. The #YouStink protesters stood aside and let them pass.
Jean Pierre, another #YouStink protester, told NOW that the infiltrators seemed well organized and determined to cause trouble. “They arrived at around 7:30 pm, all young, many were teenagers. Half of them had their faces covered with a T-shirt or colored scarf,” he said. “They pushed away the people who had been there before. They were sticking together as one group; they did not interact with us, the protesters. They were like a monolith, very close to each other. They looked like they were heading to a battlefield.”
“They were taking over,” Yasmina said. “They were different than us; we knew they were not the people who were there with us getting beaten up on Saturday. We stayed away, moved to the other side and left them to do whatever they were doing.”
Jean Pierre, however, witnessed something more and it worried him. The new protestors were chanting “down with the system” and cursing profusely. He said one of the boys in the group the shouted, apparently by accident, “God, Nasrallah and all Dahiyeh.” “The rest of the group yelled at him to shut up. This slogan was not supposed to be chanted there.”
Agitators and infiltrators, or simply a mixed movement?
Some #YouStink activists said that the young men causing trouble at the protest were angered by slogans against Amal Movement leader Nabih Berri, and actually threatened demonstrators who chanted against him. Their insignia, their tattoos, and the graffiti they left behind, such as “Mahdi is coming 313,” are characteristic of Amal Movement supporters. A protester downtown on Sunday also said they had sprayed slogans like “Independence. Thief. Beirut is ours” and “A thug died. Your turn is coming” on pictures of former Sunni Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Emir Faqih, a #YouStink organizer, told An-Nahar he and his colleagues had watched the infiltrators closely and that they seemed to be Amal Movement supporters.
The Amal Movement dismissed “media claims” that “members of the movement tried to spark a riot” as “devoid of truth” and a “blatant attempt to incite to sedition.”
Chasing common ground
Eli, another #YouStink protestor, said that many people were wrong to believe that only the so-called infiltrators had fought with the police, adding that the agitators did not stay in the square for long. “They showed up several times. In the afternoon, at around five or six, they came and chanted something related to football and then left quickly. They came back at 7.30 banging plastic bottles on the asphalt and started the clash with the security forces. But they only stayed for half an hour and then disappeared. The clashes were continued by the #YouStink protesters, just like on Saturday,” he said.
He also said that not all the young men who wore the sword of Ali necklaces and had 313 tattoos were part of the agitators or infiltrators. “There were many people from Shiyah and Khandaq al-Ghamiq who were there with us on both days. They are part of the movement; they’re not infiltrators.”
Yasmina also said that after the clash started “everybody got very excited” and the two groups merged. “At a certain point, we weren’t sure anymore who was fighting the security forces.”
The #YouStink campaign faced a deadlock after the clashes on Sunday. On Monday afternoon, at a press conference, the movement called for new protests on Saturday, 29 August, at 6:00 pm. However, many activists continued to protest in Riad al-Solh on Monday and Tuesday. Some of the #YouStink protesters also accusedtheir fellow demonstrators of sectarianism and of labeling some of the movement members as “uncivilized thugs” because they came from poor neighborhoods.
“I think we should embrace everything and everyone and find a common ground,” said Yasmina. “We’re not going away and they are not going away. We need to sit together and see what everybody’s demands are.”
Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609
Myra Abdallah contributed reporting
This work originally appeared in Now.
de Ana Maria Luca (Beirut, Liban)