BEIRUT — Overnight confrontations between supporters and opponents of Lebanon’s president — mostly fistfights and stone throwing — erupted in cities and towns across the country, injuring dozens of people, and 16 people were detained for their involvement, the Lebanese Red Cross and the army said Wednesday.
The nationwide uprising against the country’s ruling elite has remained overwhelmingly peaceful since it began Oct. 17, but as the political deadlock for forming a new government drags on, tempers have risen. President Michel Aoun has yet to hold consultations with parliamentary blocs on choosing a new prime minister after the government resigned a month ago.
Outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was Aoun’s and the militant Hezbollah’s favorite to lead a new Cabinet, withdrew his candidacy for the premiership, saying he hoped to clear the way for a solution to the political impasse after over 40 days of protests. Protesters have resorted to road closures and other tactics to pressure politicians into responding to their demands for a new government.
The prolonged deadlock is awakening sectarian and political rivalries, with scuffles breaking out in areas that were deadly front lines during the country’s 1975-90 civil war.
The most recent violence first began Sunday night after supporters of the two main Shiite groups, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, attacked protesters on Beirut’s Ring Road. That thoroughfare had in the past connected predominantly Muslim neighborhoods in the city’s west with Christian areas in the east.
Intense clashes took place Tuesday night between people in the Shiite suburb of Chiyah and the adjacent Christian area of Ein Rummaneh, where stones were hurled between supporters of Hezbollah and rival groups supporting the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces. A shooting in Ein Rummaneh in April 1975 triggered the 15-year civil war that killed nearly 150,000 people.
Also on Tuesday night, supporters and opponents of Aoun engaged in fistfights and stone throwing in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest, injuring 24 people; seven were hospitalized.
In the mountain town of Bikfaya, 10 people were injured, including five who were hospitalized, after scuffles and stone throwing between Aoun’s supporters and supporters of the right-wing Christian Lebanese Phalange Party, according to the Red Cross. The violence broke out after a convoy of dozens of vehicles carrying Aoun supporters drove into the town, which has been historically a Phalange stronghold.
“What happened yesterday was a mobile strife that intentionally tried to provoke our people,” said Phalange leader and legislator Samy Gemayel. “We warn our people that there are attempts to attack their revolution, which should remain peaceful.”
Hezbollah and Amal supporters also attacked protesters in the northeastern city of Baalbek and the southern port city of Tyre.
Police and troops deployed in the areas of the clashes and got the situation under control hours after the violence broke out.
The Lebanese army said in a statement that 16 people involved in the violence were detained, adding that 33 troops were injured in Tripoli after soldiers were hit with stones and molotov cocktails. It added that 10 other soldiers were injured as they separated crowds in Chiyah and Ein Rummaneh, while eight were injured in Bikfaya.
“Army units returned conditions to normal in all areas and the detainees are being questioned,” the army said.
Hariri had resigned on Oct. 29 in response to the mass protests ignited by new taxes and a severe financial crisis. His resignation met a key demand of the protesters but plunged the country into uncertainty, with no clear path to resolving its economic and political problems.
Hariri had insisted on heading a government of technocrats, while his opponents, including Hezbollah, want a Cabinet made up of both experts and politicians.
For weeks, the Lebanese security forces have taken pains to protect anti-government protesters, in stark contrast to Iraq, where police have killed more than 340 people over the past month in a bloody response to similar protests.