By Ellen Francis and Alaa Kanaan
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of angry protesters blocked roads and burned tyres across Lebanon for a second day on Friday, demanding the demise of a political elite they say looted the economy to the point of breakdown.
The nationwide protests, Lebanon’s biggest in years, brought ordinary people from all sects and walks of life to the streets. They carried banners and chanting slogans calling on the government of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to resign.
In the afternoon, protesters poured en masse through the villages and towns of Lebanon’s south, north and east as well as the capital Beirut. No political leader, Muslim or Christian, was spared criticism.
Demonstrators reached the outskirts of President Michel Aoun’s palace in the suburbs of Baabda.
Addressing protesters from the presidential palace, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, said on Friday that the government must work to stop corruption, enact long-delayed reforms and avoid imposing any new taxes on people.
“Lebanon protests could be opportunity (for reform) or could lead to a big catastrophe and strife,” said Bassil, who dismissed protesters’ calls for the government to resign.
“Any alternative to the current government would be far worse,” and might plunge the country into chaos.
The latest unrest was prompted by a buildup of anger over inflation, new tax proposals including a fee on Whatsapp voice calls, and the rising cost of living.
Across the country, protesters chanted in unison for their country’s top leaders, including Aoun, Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to step down.
In an unprecedented move, Shi’ite protesters also attacked the offices of their deputies from Lebanon’s influential Hezbollah (Party of God) 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 marching with his son. “They are all thieves, they come to the government to fill their pockets, not to serve the country.”
“We don’t want just a resignation. We want them (leaders) be held accountable. They should return all the money they stole. We want change,” he added.
The demonstrations follow warnings by economists, investors and rating agencies that indebted Lebanon’s economy and graft-entrenched financial system are closer to the brink than any time since the war-torn 1980s.
Foreign allies have pressured Hariri to enact reforms long promised but never delivered because of vested interests, beginning with an overhaul with some state assets.
“DOWNFALL OF THE REGIME”
Demonstrators had gathered outside the government headquarters in central Beirut on Thursday evening, forcing the cabinet to backtrack on WhatsApp call fees. Police fired tear gas as they clashed with some demonstrators overnight.
People blocked roads in the north, the south and the capital on Friday. Schools and businesses were closed. “The people want the downfall of the regime,” protesters near the government’s Serail headquarters chanted.
The unrest prompted Hariri to cancel a cabinet meeting due on Friday to discuss the 2020 draft budget. He is set to make a speech instead.
“Our demand is to stop the salaries of all parliamentarians, prime minister and ministers,” one banner read. “They are looters, down with them.”
Fires in the street of central Beirut were smoldering on Friday. Pavements were scattered with the glass of several smashed shop-fronts and billboards had been torn down.
Fatima, a dentist, said: “We are protesting against the politicians to force them to give back the money they stole and put it back at the service of the people. If it wasn’t for their corruption there would be no economic crisis.”
In a country fractured along sectarian lines, the unusually wide geographic reach of these protests highlights the deepening anger of the Lebanese. The government, which includes nearly all of Lebanon’s main parties, has long failed to implement reforms that are vital to resolve the crisis.
“We’ve lived for 30 years with their lies. They’re sitting in their castles at the expense of the people,” said Ali Kassem, a protester in the suburb of Ouzai.
SLOWING CAPITAL FLOWS
Christian politician Samir Geagea and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose parties both have some ministers in the coalition cabinet, have called on the government to resign.
Seeking ways to boost revenues, a government minister on Thursday announced plans to raise a new fee of 20 cents per day for calls via voice over internet protocol (VoIP), used by applications including Facebook-owned WhatsApp.
But as the protests spread, Telecoms Minister Mohamed Choucair revoked the proposed levy.
Shattered by war between 1975 and 1990, Lebanon has one of the world’s highest debt burdens as a share of its economy. Economic growth has been hit by regional conflict and instability. Unemployment among those aged under 35 runs at 37%.
The kind of steps needed to fix the national finances have long proven elusive. Sectarian politicians, many of them civil war militia leaders, have long used state resources for their own political benefit and are reluctant to cede prerogatives.
The crisis has been compounded by a slowdown in capital flows to Lebanon, which has long depended on remittances from its diaspora to meet financing needs, including the state’s deficit.
The strains have emerged recently in the real economy where importers have been unable to secure dollars at the pegged exchange rate.
(Reporting by Samia Nakhoul, Ellen Francis, Imad Creidi, Yara Abi Nader, Tom Perry, Suleiman al-Khalidi; Writing by Samia Nakhoul, William Maclean)
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