Lebanese widen demands beyond rescue plan

Protesters gatherered for the sixth consecutive day Tuesday in all major cities demanding new leaders.
Tuesday 22/10/2019
Lebanese demonstrators take part in a protest against dire economic conditions in Lebanon's southern city of Sidon (Saida) on October 21. (AFP)
Lebanese demonstrators take part in a protest against dire economic conditions in Lebanon's southern city of Sidon (Saida) on October 21. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Lebanese protesters gathered for a sixth consecutive day Tuesday, keeping the country on lockdown to demand new leaders despite the government's adoption of an emergency economic rescue plan.

Demonstrations initially sparked by a proposed tax on WhatsApp and other messaging apps have grown into an unprecedented cross-sectarian street mobilisation against the political class.

Rallies have spread to all major cities and into Lebanon's vast diaspora.

The cabinet was spurred into passing wide-ranging economic reforms on Monday but the move failed to win over protesters, who now seem bent on removing the entire political elite, who they see as corrupt and arrogant.

"These mostly technical solutions may put the country on a sounder fiscal footing, but they appear inadequate to the challenge of the protests, which now demand broader, systemic change," Heiko Wimmen, an analyst with the International Crisis group, said.

Among the measures announced by Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Monday were a 2020 budget meant to bring the deficit down to 0.6 percent of GDP, no new taxes, a privatisation programme and measures to support the underprivileged.

The country's main parties, including those of President Michel Aoun and the Shiite movement Hezbollah, have warned against the impact of a government vacuum and supported the reform package.

Lebanon's economy has been sliding closer to the abyss in recent months, with public debt soaring past 150 percent of GDP and ratings agencies grading Lebanese sovereign bonds as "junk."

Fears of a default have compounded the worries of Lebanese citizens exasperated by the poor quality of public services.

Residents typically suffer daily electricity shortages and unclean water.

"This protest movement is the only chance the people have," said Mounir Malaaeb, an elderly man from the southern city of Tyre who came to the capital to join the rallies.

"If we give the government another chance we would be crazy. We have been giving them chances since the 1990s."

Roads blocked 

On Tuesday morning the Lebanese army was trying to reopen a number of major roads that have been blocked by angry demonstrators for days, the National News Agency said.

In Beirut, volunteers donned gloves and cleaned up streets after euphoric crowds partied deep into the night Monday, dancing to impromptu concerts.

It remained unclear how long protests will last and whether they will maintain their current size, which ranged from thousands to tens of thousands across the country, according to estimates.

Given the size of the gatherings, the six-day-old mobilisation has been remarkably incident-free, with armies of volunteers providing water to protesters and organising first aid tents.

After the sun sets, focused protests evolve into an open-air party with loudspeakers blasting songs as demonstrators cook food on grills, play cards or smoke from a hookah pipe.

Hariri seemed aware that the measures he announced would not quench the people's thirst for change, saying on Monday that the aim of the economic reform plan was not to stop people from taking to the streets.

Lebanon fought a devastating 15-year civil war until 1990 and many of the country's politicians were warlords fighting along sectarian lines.

Outside of Lebanon, expats in Europe, the US and Africa staged sit-ins and demonstrations in solidarity.

They gathered in Paris, Switzerland, Cyprus, and in several parts of the United States, where they waved Lebanese flags and chortled anti-government slogans.

(Agence France-Presse)