Lebanon protests turn violent as ‘one-sided’ government preps cabinet

The protesters have escalated their action in the streets to express their rejection of a partisan government, which they say is veiled by technocrats.
Sunday 19/01/2020
Lebanese anti-government protesters head towards the house of Lebanon’s prime minister-designate during a demonstration in Beirut, January 14. (AFP)
Making voices heard. Lebanese anti-government protesters head towards the house of Lebanon’s prime minister-designate during a demonstration in Beirut, January 14. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Protesters returned to the streets of Lebanon in large numbers in what they dubbed the “week of wrath” to vent anger and frustration at the country’s economic downward spiral amid delays in the formation of an emergency government capable of stemming the financial crisis.

Protesters blocked roads around Beirut and clashed with anti-riot police near Banque du Liban, the central bank, smashing windows of banks and foreign exchange bureaus along adjacent Hamra Street, a commercial and banking hub.

The most violent clashes since the anti-government uprising, which erupted October 17, occurred as protests, which flared after a weeks-long lull during end-of-year holidays, followed by soaring regional tensions between the United States and Iran, regained intensity despite the reported imminent formation of a government.

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Hassan Diab, who was nominated by Hezbollah and its allies, the Shia Amal Movement and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun, reportedly reached a government lineup after month-long thorny discussions.

“It is a one-sided government made up of Hezbollah and its allies. The so-called technocrats are just a facade or masks behind which the politicians are hiding,” said political analyst Rached Fayed. “The people are against such government because they want a fully independent administration. There is a total divorce between the Lebanese public and the political class.”

Protesters have demanded a government of technocrats excluding the well-known names that have symbolised Lebanon’s sectarian-based politics for generations.

Nabil Bou Moncef, deputy editor-in-chief and leading columnist of An Nahar newspaper, said a government of technocrats linked to specific politicians who represent one camp (Hezbollah and allies) has little chance to succeed.

“The international community, namely the West, will tell you this is Hezbollah’s government,” Bou Moncef said.

“Any government today can only succeed in one of two cases: If it stops the economic collapse by its own means, which no government can do, or if it gains international support and financial aid… An administration representing Hezbollah and company cannot get such assistance. It might only buy some time,” he said.

The protesters have escalated their action in the streets to express their rejection of a partisan government, which they say is veiled by technocrats.

“They cannot fool the people by bringing in their own consultants. That is not an independent government. They are ignoring the people’s demand amid the increasingly angry protests and free-falling economy,” Bou Moncef said.

“In addition to the Lebanese, they are alienating the international community, which just cannot believe that there could be such careless and corrupt politicians amid deepening economic crisis.”

UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis reflected the growing frustration of the international community in a series of strongly worded tweets.

“Another day of confusion around the formation of a government, amid the increasingly angry protests and free-falling economy. Politicians, don’t blame the people, blame yourselves for this dangerous chaos,” Kubis posted on Twitter.

International donors have been demanding that Lebanon institute major economic changes and anti-corruption measures and appoint a new government to unlock $11 billion in pledges made in 2018.

Violent demonstrators have mostly targeted central bank Governor Riad Salame and banks, which have imposed capital controls on foreign currency accounts in the highly dollarised economy. The local currency has lost more than 60% of its value in just a few weeks and sources of foreign currency have dried up.

“The public at large has been harmed by the banks’ restrictive policies and these constitute the majority of the people protesting against banks and the central bank governor,” Bou Moncef said.

“I believe that political parties linked to the Syrian regime are manipulating the issue. Syria is even more harmed than Lebanon by the banking restrictions because Salame’s measures curbed drastically the smuggling of dollar banknotes to Syria. Among those arrested in the protests and vandalism against the banks, there are several Syrian nationals.”

Police have been accused of excessive use of force against protesters, including attacks on journalists and the detention of more than 100 people.

However, people who fear their bank deposits are in danger are not budging.

“We are worried about losing our savings… Lebanon is not an easy country to save in,” a protester who was among those demonstrating outside the central bank told the Associated Press. “We don’t trust the banks here anymore.”

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