• Friday, Nov 15, 2019
  • Last Update : 08:15 am

Protests sweep Lebanon as fury at ruling elite grows

  • Published at 02:45 am October 19th, 2019
Lebanon-Protests
Riot police fire tear gas to disperse demonstrators during a protest targeting the government over an economic crisis, near the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon October 18, 2019 Reuters

Addressing protesters, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri blamed his rivals in government for obstructing reforms that could have resolved the economic crisis and gave them a 72-hour deadline to stop blocking him, otherwise hinting he may resign

Tens of thousands of angry Lebanese took to the streets yesterday, blocking roads and burning tyres in a second day of nationwide protest to demand the removal of a political elite they accuse of looting the economy to the point of collapse.

Addressing protesters, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri blamed his rivals in government for obstructing reforms that could have resolved the economic crisis and gave them a 72-hour deadline to stop blocking him, otherwise hinting he may resign.

He said Lebanon was going through an "unprecedented, difficult time."

Lebanon's biggest protests in a decade recall the 2011 Arab revolts that toppled four presidents. Lebanese from all sects and walks of life have come out on to the streets, waving banners and chanting slogans urging Hariri's government to go.

"There are those who placed obstacles in front of me since the government was formed, and in the face of all the efforts that I have proposed for reform," Hariri said, without naming names.

"Whatever the solution, we no longer have time and I am personally giving myself only a little time. Either our partners in government and in the nation give a frank response to the solution, or I will have another say.

"The deadline left is very short, it's 72 hours," he said.

Protesters poured through the villages and towns across Lebanon as well as the capital Beirut. No political leader, Muslim or Christian, was spared their wrath.

Their chants called for leaders including President Michel Aoun, Hariri and parliament speaker Nabih Berri to step down.

The mood was a mixture of rage, defiance and hope.

As night fell, crowds waving Lebanese flags marched and drove through the streets with patriotic music blaring from loudspeakers while shouting: "Our demands are one, our objective is one: the people want the downfall of the regime."

Security forces fired tear gas, choking many demonstrators. Some protesters, including men in black hoods, used iron bars to smash store fronts in the posh downtown district of Beirut.

Fires burned in the streets. Pavements were littered with broken glass and torn billboards. Demonstrators crowded around Aoun's palace in Baabda.

The United Nations urged all sides to refrain from activities that could lead to increased tensions and violence.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates warned their citizens to against travelling to Lebanon.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Aoun's son-in-law, also blamed other parties for blocking reforms, saying the government must work to stop corruption and avoid imposing new taxes.

The latest unrest was prompted by anger over inflation, new tax proposals including a fee on WhatsApp voice calls, and the rising cost of living.

In an unprecedented move, Shi'ite protesters also attacked the offices of their deputies from Lebanon's influential Hezbollah group and the Amal movement in southern Lebanon.

"We came to the streets because we can no longer bear this situation. This regime is totally corrupt," said Fadi Issa, 51, who marched with his son. "They are all thieves, they come to the government to fill their pockets, not to serve the country."

The demonstrations follow warnings by economists and investors that indebted Lebanon's economy and graft-riddled financial system are closer to the brink than at any time since the war-torn 1980s.

Foreign allies have pressured Hariri to enact reforms long promised but never delivered because of vested interests.