BEIRUT, Lebanon — Riot police used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to clear a large protest camp in the heart of the Lebanese capital on Saturday, sparking clashes with demonstrators that wounded scores of people and turned Beirut’s commercial center into a battle zone.
The violence, with tents set on fire and protesters targeting the police with stones and fireworks, was the most intense since mass protests against corruption and mismanagement by the country’s political elite erupted three months ago.
Despite continued demonstrations and worsening violence, Lebanon’s politicians have proven unable to take meaningful steps to assuage the protesters’ anger or stop the country’s swift slide toward an economic crisis.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri, facing the mass protests, resigned on Oct. 29. His designated successor has failed to form a government while the Lebanese pound, which has been pegged to the American dollar for decades, has been rapidly losing value on the black market, fueling the protesters’ economic grievances.
“Why else would we come to protest? Because there is no work and people are hungry,” said protester Miraz al-Jundi, 35, wearing an industrial face mask and standing amid clouds of tear gas. Nearby, young men hurled stones at the security forces and a woman fell to the asphalt, choking.
“If the authorities don’t respond, there will be more violence,” he said.
Saturday’s protest, under the banner “We will not pay the price,” was meant to unite people from across Lebanon against the most recent effort to form a new government, by Hassan Diab, an engineering professor and former education minister who was designated premier on Dec. 19.
The protesters accuse the leaders in Lebanon’s sect-based political system of widespread corruption that has left Lebanon with poor infrastructure, few services and a sinking economy.
Calling for their ouster with the slogan “All of them means all of them,” the protesters have called for their replacement by a government of experts who can address the small Mediterranean country’s many crises. They see Mr. Diab as a product of the system they seek to overturn.
“We want to bring down the government. We want a state that respects us,” said Khalid al-Naimi, 23, a bus driver who had joined the clashes. But like many of the protesters, when asked who he wanted to take charge if the current system were toppled, he offered only vague suggestions.
“We want people who understand,” he said. “Engineers, doctors, people who have nothing to do with politics.”
Saturday began with protesters from around Lebanon flooding into Beirut to join marches toward the Parliament building. After they gathered there, clashes broke out, with protesters throwing stones and shooting fireworks and the security forces firing tear gas.
The confrontation spread as the security forces cleared a protest camp in Beirut’s central square, where a number of tents were set on fire. By evening, they were locked in back and forth clashes on a main commercial street in front of the Le Gray hotel, one of the city’s finest.
Protesters lit dumpsters on fire and hurled stones as riot police launched volleys of tear gas and fired water cannons. The booms of fireworks ricocheted off skyscrapers and ambulances screamed by, ferrying off the wounded.
More than 65 people were hospitalized and more than 100 were treated on sight, George Kittaneh, the head of the Lebanese Red Cross, said in a phone call with LBC, a local television station.
Lebanon’s interior minister, Raya El Hassan, criticized the protesters for attacking security forces.
“I always asserted the right to protest, but for the protests to turn into a blatant assault on the security forces, on public and private property, is condemned and not acceptable at all,” Ms. El Hassan wrote on Twitter.
The Internal Security Forces said some of its officers had been wounded by protesters throwing tiles they had broken off walls in a shopping district.
Violence had been building over the last week, as protesters, furious that banks have imposed unofficial capital controls and refused to let customers withdraw dollars, shattered the windows of bank branches and broke security cameras. Human right groups have criticized the security forces for dealing violently with demonstrators.
While many protesters say they long for political change, they have been driven to act by the country’s precarious economic situation.
Near the clashes, Raed al-Arja, 50, said he had been laid off from his job as a truck driver in December and had little hope of finding a new job. So on Saturday, he had come with his wife, their two children and some other relatives by bus from northern Lebanon to join the protest.
“The politicians don’t get it, so we came to make it clear that the Lebanese people don’t want them,” he said. “They lied to us. They told us they would fix the country, but we realized that the ones who destroyed the country can’t fix it.”
He carried a Lebanese flag and his daughter, Rayan, 15, and son, Abdel-Hamid, 13, both wore hard hats, yellow rain jackets, and face masks to protect them from tear gas and flying rocks.
Despite the violence, he had felt it was important from them to protest, he said.
“Our generation got tricked,” he said. “We followed the leaders. Now we are going to the streets to teach the youth to demand their rights.”