Standing on top of a truck blasting revolutionary music through the Lebanese city of Baalbek on Tuesday evening, 36-year-old Adel Dalati, a school supervisor, screamed encouraging words into a microphone to the crowd behind him: “You are free people! You are those that fear no-one! You are the real heroes!”
Standing below on the pavement, a coffee vendor smiled. “My heart grows bigger, honestly. We have not seen such unity in Lebanon’s history,” said 45-year old Mohamed Hujeiry.
Defying attempts by Hezbollah supporters to intimidate them with violence or indirect pressure, protesters have continued gathering in Baalbek to demand the ousting of their leaders, three weeks since a suggested tax increase sparked the country’s biggest demonstrations in decades in Lebanon.
Baalbek, in the south east of Lebanon, is a Hezbollah stronghold where peddlers sell yellow t-shirts labelled with the party’s green logo to tourists visiting its monumental Roman ruins. Giant portraits of the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, are everywhere.
It is also one of the country’s main poverty pockets, along with Tripoli in the North and Sidon in the South, where corruption and lack of basic services such as healthcare and education are more acutely felt than in the rest of the country.
But Hezbollah, a party that traditionally prides itself on helping the poor, has strongly pushed back against protests that have directly targeted the corruption of the ruling elite that has ruled the country since the end of the civil war in 1990.
The Shiite group, which built its legitimacy in the eyes of the Lebanese public through its armed resistance against the 18-year-long Israeli occupation of South Lebanon, has been represented in Parliament for 27 years and in successive consensus governments for 14 years.
Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has warned his followers that protesters are manipulated by political parties. Supporters of Hezbollah and its Shiite ally Amal attacked protest groups in Beirut, Tyre and Nabatieh.
As a result of Mr Nasrallah’s warnings and the ensuing violence, protests in the party’s strongholds have quietened down. Numbers have also diminished in areas outside of Hezbollah’s control as roadblocks are lifted and many Lebanese go back to work.
In Baalbek, a Shiite majority city, protesters were careful to not directly attack Hezbollah. Instead, they slammed all Lebanese political parties, accusing them of mismanagement, and called for them to resign.
One exception was 28-year old Hiba Al Chayah, who recounted how Hezbollah supporters fired gunshots in the air as they drove through the crowd during the first days of the protests, forcing them to relocate from the entrance of Baalbek to a square that faces the Roman ruins where traffic is less dense.
“People were afraid and stopped coming for a bit but now, thank God, they have come back,” she said, a few minutes before the march through Baalbek’s market took off.
“I am not afraid,” she laughed. “Shooting happens all the time in Baalbek. This is one of the reasons why we are protesting. We want the government to bring this area under the rule of law.”
Rejecting traditional divisions among sectarian lines, protesters saluted Lebanese cities that have taken part in protests since October 17, from Christian-majority Jal el Dib to Sunni Muslim Tripoli
Locals closely watched the dozen or so protesters marching through the city’s markets. Though joyful music was blaring, the atmosphere surrounding participants, who called loudly for others to join them, was sometimes tense.
A group of men standing on the pavement said they were there to protect protesters against “problems”. Asked what those could be, they declined to specify, answering instead that “all of Baalbek is with them”.
Most protesters were women, waving small Lebanese flags and carrying placards with slogans directed against Lebanese politicians including: “There is no trust, no negotiation. Resign!”.
Asked why the crowd was mostly female, one of the protesters said local thugs had beaten up male protesters, discouraging them from joining.
As she spoke, men crowded around her to listen to what she said to a foreign journalist. The woman, who asked not to be named, stopped speaking, hinting that the situation was dangerous for her.
The next day the same protester wrote in a text message: “Parties dominate our country and every party controls a region. Baalbek is subservient to one of them. Because of this, there is danger”. She did not mention Hezbollah.
One activist, Mohamed Dib Osman, said that his car was destroyed one night soon after protests started, but that he did not know who was behind the attack.
“Of course, there has been pressure from the parties in charge here. They told people on Whatsapp and Facebook not to go out, that [bad] things would happen” he told The National.
Asked if those parties were Hezbollah and Amal, he answered, “Hezbollah, Amal, all of them, including [the Prime Minister’s Sunni-majority] Future Movement. They are all corrupt.”
As the protest wound down, protesters lit their phones and sang the mournful anthem, My Homeland, which has rallied protesters all over the Arab world from Iraq to Palestine and Lebanon.
Jumping off the truck, Adel Dalati said he was proud that Baalbek was also part of the nation-wide protests.
“They say that in Baalbek people do not take to the streets, that people here just follow a party. We told them, today you will see our response. We will get bigger and bigger until we get our rights,” he said. “Today, we showed that Baalbek is united in its pain.”
Listening closely, a local restaurant-owner shot back: “if you dare cut the roads in front of my restaurant, I will kill you.”
The discussion quickly became heated as both men accused each other of not representing people’s demands.
The men eventually agreed that Baalbek’s protests were “the cleanest of them all”, shook hands, and quickly parted ways.