Thousands of demonstrators fill Lebanon’s streets in third day of fiery protests
Thousands of demonstrators poured into Lebanon’s streets on Saturday for a third day of anti-government protests, directing growing rage at a political elite they blame for driving the country to the economic brink.
In central Beirut, the mood was fiery and festive with protesters of all ages waving flags and chanting for revolution outside upmarket retailers and banks that had their storefronts smashed in by some rogue rioters the night before.
From the south to the east and north of Lebanon, protesters marched, blocked roads, burned tires to keep the momentum going despite gunmen loyal to Shia Muslim Amal movement appearing with heavy guns to scare them away.
In the afternoon, patriotic songs blared from loudspeakers in Beirut and fireworks exploded over a sea of people dancing and singing, holding banners reading “unite against corrupt politicians.”
“This country is moving towards total collapse. This regime has failed to lead Lebanon and it must be toppled and replaced,” said Mohammad Awada, 32, who is unemployed.
Meanwhile, an Al Arabiya correspondent reported that Lebanese protesters issued a statement demanding the formation of a “government of salvation” and calling for early legislative elections.
The Lebanese army veterans called on its members for a sit-in in the downtown distric of Beirut on Sunday.
The latest unrest erupted out of anger over the rising cost of living and new tax plans, including a fee on WhatsApp calls, which was quickly retracted after protests - the biggest in decades - broke out.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri gave his government partners a 72-hour deadline on Friday to agree on reforms that could ward off economic crisis, hinting he may otherwise resign.
Earlier, troops reopened blocked highways after security forces used tear gas and water cannons to disperse a huge crowd of protesters who had gathered in the heart of Beirut on Friday evening.
The Internal Security Forces said 70 arrests were made.
On Saturday, Interior Minister Raya Al-Hassan said in a tweet that she had contacted the Attorney General of the Court of Cassation, who informed her that most of those detained during Friday’s demonstrations will be released with proof of residence, awaiting the completion of investigations to ascertain the availability of material evidence proving their deliberate acts of rioting, shop thefts and burning of public and private properties, according to the Lebanese National News Agency (NNA).
The protesters are demanding a sweeping overhaul of Lebanon’s political system, citing grievances ranging from austerity measures to poor infrastructure.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave his first response on Saturday.
“We don’t want the resignation of the government if the resignation means there is no government,” he said, calling for Lebanese to work together.
The current unity government has the backing of most Lebanese political parties, including Hezbollah.
Groups of young people gathered on the streets of the capital on Saturday morning collecting tires and other material to make improvised roadblocks, AFP correspondents reported.
Parts of central Beirut looked like a war zone, littered with broken glass, overturned litter bins and the remains of burning tyres.
Banks and many restaurants and shops remained closed.
A team of workers in grey jumpsuits was dispatched to clean up the debris near parliament, even as around a dozen protesters chanted “Revolution, revolution”.
The demonstrations first erupted on Thursday, sparked by a proposed 20 cent tax on calls via messaging apps such as WhatsApp.
Such calls are the main method of communication for many Lebanese and, despite the government’s swift abandonment of the tax, the demonstrations quickly swelled into the largest in years.
Thousands of people of all ages, sects and political affiliations brought the capital to a standstill on Friday, before security forces dispersed them.
Minor clashes continued after dark, pitting groups of young men against security forces, an AFP reporter said.
Protesters from across the political spectrum filled the streets and there was heavy deployment of armed forces at the entrances into the capital, Beirut.
One protester in the southern city of Nabatieh, a Hezbollah stronghold, vowed to continue protesting.
“They are trying to portray us as a mob, but we are demanding our rights,” he told a local television channel. “We are used to repression.”
Lebanon has one of the highest public debt burdens in the world and the government is trying to reach agreement on a package of belt-tightening measures to cap the deficit in next year’s budget.
The promised austerity moves are essential if Lebanon is to unlock $11 billion in economic assistance pledged by international donors last year.
Growth has plummeted in recent years, with political deadlock compounded by the impact of eight years of war in neighboring Syria.
Lebanon’s public debt stands at around $86 billion – more than 150 percent of gross domestic product – according to the finance ministry.
The International Monetary Fund projected on Thursday that growth would remain weak in the coming months.