Lebanon marks first anniversary of protest movement

Lebanon marks the first anniversary on Saturday of a non-sectarian protest movement that has rocked the political elite but has yet to achieve its goal of sweeping reform.

Lebanese activists erect a metalic monument on October 16, 2020, with 'October 17' written on it in Arabic, a day ahead of the one year anniversary of the beginning of a nationwide anti-government protest movement, in front of the devastated port of the capital Beirut where a massive explosion took place more than two months ago. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)

Three prime ministers have resigned since the movement started but the country's barons, many of them warlords from the 1975-90 civil war, remain firmly in power despite international as well as domestic pressure for change. 

Demonstrators plan to march from the main Beirut protest camp towards the port -- the site of a devastating August 4 explosion, which has been widely blamed on the alleged corruption and incompetence of the hereditary elite.

There they will hold a candlelit vigil near ground zero at 6:07 pm (1507 GMT), the precise time when a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate fertiliser exploded, killing more than 200 people and devastating swathes of the capital.

Activists have installed a statue at the site to mark the anniversary of their October 17 "revolution".

"We still don't recognise" our political leaders as legitimate, said one prominent protester, who gave her name only as Melissa.

"We are still on the street... standing together in the face of a corrupt government," the 42-year-old said. 

The immediate trigger for last year's protests was a government move to tax Whatsapp calls, but they swiftly swelled into a nationwide movement demanding an end to the system of confessional power-sharing it says has rewarded corruption and incompetence.

The country's deepest economic downturn since the civil war has led to growing unemployment, poverty and hunger, pushing many activists to look for better opportunities abroad. 

A spiralling coronavirus outbreak since February prompted a ban on public gatherings but even without protesters on the streets public resentment has grown.

The explosion at Beirut port prompted the protest movement to shift most of its energy to relief operations to fill in for what it sees as an absent state. 

The protest movement and its supporters are eager to show the virus has not snuffed out their cause.

"Year two of the Thawra," read the main headline in the French-language daily L'Orient-Le Jour, using the Arabic word for 'revolution' which for most Lebanese has become synonymous with the protest movement.

In the northern city of Tripoli, which saw some of the most vibrant protests last year, activists started gathering on Friday night.

"We salute our revolution, which we believe is still continuing and will not die until we achieve our demands," said 37-year-old protester Taha Ratl.

"We want all of them to quit."