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Lebanon’s demonstrators give a grim, angry message by burning tires.

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Lebanon's demonstrators give a grim, angry message by burning tires.
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Lebanon's demonstrators give a grim, angry message by burning tires.

 

 

Anti-government demonstrators in Lebanon are burning tires to block main roads, releasing thick palls of smoke that rise above the capital Beirut and other parts of the region, expressing both frustration and helplessness.

The strategy has become synonymous with a new wave of protests against an intransigent political elite that seems to be doing little as the world descends into political and economic chaos. Lebanon is in the midst of the worst economic crisis in recent times, compounded by pandemic constraints and an overburdened health-care system.

“Our rage is released by the flames. It calms our hearts,” said Mounir Hujairi, a 23-year-old protester from Baalbek in northeastern Lebanon, who splits his time between low-paying day jobs and demonstrations.

At makeshift roadblocks that cut off traffic across Beirut and between towns, tire soot and smoke blacken the faces of demonstrators wearing anti-virus masks. The protesters’ perseverance and frequent tire burnings demonstrate how intractable the country’s problems have become.

Late in 2019, anti-government protests erupted in Lebanon. After nearly 30 years of being indexed to the dollar, the local currency has plummeted since then. Salaries have remained unchanged as inflation has risen. People lost their jobs, and almost half of the population fell into poverty.

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s political structure, which is founded on sectarianism, is stuck. For fear of losing their clout or support base, politicians have declined to compromise on forming a government or making tough financial decisions.

Lebanese have watched as members of the ruling class blame each other for the crisis, as they have been exhausted, afraid, and restricted by the coronavirus.

The currency reached a new low last week, trading on the black market for 11,000 pounds to the dollar, down from the official 1,500, igniting a new round of protests.

“The only way to find a solution is to go to the streets,” said Hujairi, who has been participating in protests since October 2019. “Those whose streets — or the streets of their political parties — are blocked will understandably be enraged.”

The roadblocks are a desperate attempt to reclaim the national outrage that erupted in 2019, when the government was forced to resign, sparking a brief period of euphoria and optimism that reform could be achieved.

The national mood has shifted to one of terror. Officials have warned of anarchy, and some have claimed that political parties are using the demonstrations to incite violence or gain concessions from rivals.

Many people believe that social tensions have risen to levels not seen since the civil war began in April 1975. Tires were burned as a cheap way to create roadblocks between warring groups for the next 15 years of conflict.

Tire fires are difficult to extinguish and can last for hours, attracting attention and holding competitors at bay.

In the Palestinian territories, Iraq, and Sudan, this strategy has been used.

Palestinians have been burning tires in demonstrations against Israeli occupation since their first rebellion in 1987. Young men organized “tire crews” that rode around the small coastal strip in motorcycle rickshaws collecting tires for burning during protests against an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade of Gaza three decades later. The thick black smoke helped to conceal the faces of those who threw stones at Israeli forces.

Because of the high pollution levels, open tire fires, which were once used to power kilns in some nations, have been banned in most of the world.

In the 1980s, several countries adopted the practice of burning tires as a method of protest, according to Sahar Mandour, a Lebanon researcher with Amnesty International. However, because of the environmental effects, it has fallen out of favor.

“Time passed, and the universe went on….” Lebanon, on the other hand, did not,” she explained. “Because we have the same parties and leaders, we have the same tools.”

Hujairi says that he and his friends burn 100 to 150 tires every day. He denied reports that political parties distribute used and punctured tires by saying they procure them from waste dumps.

In response to criticism, Hujairi said, “A little black smoke won’t hurt.” “We have no means of getting to the homes of politicians.”

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