• Tuesday, Nov 12, 2019
  • Last Update : 01:41 am

Lebanon cabinet fast-tracks reforms but protests rage on

  • Published at 04:12 pm October 21st, 2019
Lebanon-protest
A demonstrator holds a banner during an anti-government protest in downtown Beirut, Lebanon October 20, 2019 Reuters

Prime Minister Saad Hariri seemed aware that the measures he announced - which include a deal on the 2020 budget and significant reforms that seemed unlikely only a week ago - would not quench the people's thirst for change

Lebanon's teetering government approved an economic rescue plan on Monday but the last-ditch move was met with deep distrust from a swelling protest movement seeking the removal of the entire political class.

A proposed tax on mobile messaging applications last week sparked a spontaneous, cross-sectarian mobilisation that has brought Lebanon to a standstill and united the people against its hereditary, ruling elite.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri seemed aware that the measures he announced - which include a deal on the 2020 budget and significant reforms that seemed unlikely only a week ago - would not quench the people's thirst for change.

"These decisions are not designed as a trade-off. They are not to ask you to stop expressing your anger. That is your decision to make," Hariri, himself a prime minister's son, said in a televised press conference.

Euphoric crowds had partied deep into the night on Sunday, leaving all political and sectarian paraphernalia at home to gather under the national cedar flag, dance to impromptu concerts and chant often hilarious anti-establishment slogans.

They were back in front the houses of government and on the main Martyrs' Square on Monday to listen to Hariri's announcement, which was broadcast on loudspeakers.

The crowd erupted into shouts of "revolution, revolution" when Hariri finished his address. 

"We want the fall of the regime," they went on.

"This is all just smoke and mirrors. How do we know these reforms will be implemented," said Chantal, a 40-year-old who joined the protest with her little daughter and a Lebanese flag painted on her cheek.

'Day of destiny'

Hariri detailed some of the measures taken by his fractious cabinet, including a programme of privatisations, a decision to scrap new tax hikes and salary cuts for ministers and lawmakers.

Lebanon's embattled political leaders have warned that the government's resignation at this time would only deepen the crisis gripping the small Mediterranean country.

Hariri also said he supported the idea of early elections, a key demand among the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have taken to Lebanon's streets since Thursday.

President Michel Aoun, who had been conspicuously silent since the start of the demonstrations, suggested at the beginning of the cabinet meeting that banking secrecy should be lifted for high-ranking officials. 

Lebanon has strict rules over bank account privacy that critics say makes the country susceptible to money laundering.

Aoun's son-in-law and ally, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, has been a particular figure of anger among protesters.

To many demonstrators, the reforms Hariri announced smacked of a desperate attempt by a corrupt elite to cling to their jobs, and there was little sign Monday that the mobilisation was weakening.

"It is a day of destiny for us. All our hard work and efforts in previous days and years were to get us to this moment," Roni al-Asaad, a 32-year-old activist in central Beirut, said.

"If they could have implemented these reforms before, why haven't they? And why should we believe them today?"

What was initially dubbed the "WhatsApp revolution" morphed into a mass non-partisan push for a total overhaul of a sectarian power system still run mostly by civil war-era warlords, three decades after the end of the country's conflict.