Protesters Say 'Real Independence' Close as Lebanon Turns 76
Lebanon marked 76 years of self-rule Friday, with protesters kicking off festivities nationwide instead of a military parade to mark what they say is a first year of "real independence".
An unprecedented protest movement has gripped the small Mediterranean country since October 17, demanding the complete overhaul of politicians deemed inept and corrupt.
In west Beirut, protesters staged a small musical parade, banging percussion instruments, singing traditional songs and dancing.
"There are loads of marches but this one is the craziest. I hope this independence day will be a turning point," said Leila, a woman carrying cymbals in both hands.
"Previously, the politicians had been treading on our heads. Our pockets are still empty but we've have found a new dignity," she told AFP, before zipping back into the crowd.
A man carried his child on his shoulders, while a another woman joined in the rhythm, using a spoon and metal coffee pot.
On November 22, 1943, Lebanon achieved independence after 23 years under a French mandate, following a wave of demonstrations that brought together the country's Christians and Muslims.
But the country was ripped apart in the 1975-1990 civil war.
Two more foreign powers occupied the tiny multi-confessional country -- Israel from 1978 to 2000, and Syria from 1976 to 2005.
A post-war accord sought to share out power between Lebanon's various religious communities, but the country remained deeply divided along sectarian lines.
- 'Organic' independence -
The demonstrations since last month have brought together people from different religious and political backgrounds, and given them hope of sweeping out a system they say is broken.
"It's the first time Lebanese from all religious communities have protested en masse without a political party calling for it, and against all parties," said 21-year-old university student Tamara.
"That's real independence -- one that's organic".
Wajed, 26, said this year's independence day was different.
"We want to emancipate ourselves from the corrupt people governing us," he told AFP, his beard shaved short and a cap on his head.
"After the French left, others occupied us," he said, alluding to Lebanese politicians, some of whose families have been in power ever since.
Faced with such anger from the street, President Michel Aoun again called for dialogue, saying in a televised address it was "the only pertinent path to solving the crisis".
In a sign of increased confidence among activists, television cameras on Friday followed hundreds of protesters marching in a lush green valley south of Beirut to protest against the planned construction of a dam there.
Activists say the structure in Bisri would flood farms growing everything from strawberries to pomegranates, as well as a centuries-old church and possible Roman ruins.
They also fear the consequences of it being built on a seismic faultline.
- Revised anthem -
A traditional annual military parade along the seafront was cancelled and replaced by a smaller event in front of dignitaries at the defence ministry.
Wajed said the change was just the latest "victory" for protesters.
The street movement brought down the government last month, though a new cabinet has yet to be formed.
On Sunday, an independent candidate was elected head of the Bar Association, and two days later demonstrators prevented a parliament vote on a controversial amnesty law.
Two people have so far been killed during the protests, a far cry from the hundreds dead in similar demonstrations in Iraq.
Lebanese of all ages maintain hope they can draw the country out of endless political deadlocks and revive its crumbling economy.
A revised version of the national anthem is making the rounds online to celebrate Lebanese women, many of whom have played a central role in the recent protests.
On social media, activists have urged fellow demonstrators to wave high "the light of independence" after nightfall -- with a candle, lighter or the torch on mobile phones.
Members of Lebanon's huge diaspora have also been heading home to take part.
Tracy Saad, 23, said she would fly in from the Netherlands to "celebrate independence from the warlords and their sectarian regime", referring to politicians who were warlords during the civil war.
A total of about 600 people were expected to travel in from the Gulf, Europe, North America and from as far afield as Australia.