BEIRUT: The smells of grilled cheese and cooked corn waft over the protesters in the Lebanese capital — with daily crowds filling the capital’s main squares, the movement has been a boon for street vendors.
Ibrahim is a plasterer by trade, but when he saw crowds flocking by the tens of thousands to Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square to protest against government corruption and incompetence, he knew it was not an opportunity to be missed.
One day, he’s selling “kaak,” a round, savory Lebanese bread covered in sesame seeds. The next, it’s corn on the cob or small trays of lupin beans dressed with cumin and lemon juice.
“It’s better than being out of work,” the stocky 27-year-old said.
Times have been tough for many months, he said, with the country hit by an economic crisis that has not spared the construction sector.
“For us, the revolution represents a new livelihood, and at the same time we are protesting with the people,” Ibrahim said.
On good days, he earns between $35 and $40 with his food cart.
Forced to abandon his education before age 18, he has been taking care of his sick mother since his father passed away.
“She has no social security or pension, I spend my life paying for doctors and medicines,” he said.
A short distance away, the square resounds to the rallying cries of the protest movement which has rocked Lebanon since October 17: “Revolution! Revolution!” and “the people want the fall of the regime.”
A new group of protesters march past and Ibrahim quickly gets back to business, grabbing his cart from the car park where he had hidden it.
When the demonstrations swell, police do not bother with street vendors, Ibrahim said.
But when rallying points empty out, security forces confiscate vendors’ goods and remind them that their activities are illegal.
A little further on, several protesters have gathered around a cart serving punnets of corn and beans that its owner has dubbed the “revolution wagon.”
Normally, Emad Hassan Saad plies his business on the corniche, Beirut’s seaside promenade.
“We sell more here because there are more people,” the 29-year-old said.
He has brought on three friends to help him out. The first peels lemons, the second chops them and the third pulls ears of corn from a pot of boiling water.
“The rallies are a job opportunity for these young people, even if it’s only temporary,” Dana Zayyat, 21, said, munching on lupin beans.
Her friend Jana Kharzal agrees. “This revolution has allowed young people who are poor to work, those who don’t have the chance to study or to rent a shop.”
Youth unemployment is chronic in Lebanon, with more than 30 percent out of work, while almost a third of Lebanon’s population lives in poverty.
Some vendors complain of the treatment they receive at the hands of security forces, even at their usual selling spots like the corniche, popular with Sunday strollers.
One of their number, who did not want to give his name, said he had had to pay dozens of fines the equivalent of $300, or 20 day’s take.
Despite the risks, the manager of a hookah rental service took his chances and set up shop among the protesters.
He gets to work in the evenings, when the demonstrations swell and police attention is elsewhere.
Fifteen or so of his water pipes are lined up near a concrete wall in a car park in Martyrs’ Square, where his employees are busy serving customers.
He’ll leave “when the political class leaves,” he says between draws on a hookah.
Not far away, a frail elderly woman offers red roses for sale to passers-by from where she is seated on the ground, despite the late hour.
A brown scarf encircles her weathered face and when protesters ask why she is out so late, she answers that she has no choice.
“This country pushes the poor into the grave,” she says in a weak voice.
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