Anti-government protests gain momentum in Lebanon, enter 4th day - GulfToday

Anti-government protests gain momentum in Lebanon, enter 4th day

Demonstrators chant and carry national flags during an anti-government protest in the southern city of Nabatiyeh, Lebanon. on Sunday. Reuters

Tens of thousands of Lebanese protesters of all ages gathered Sunday in major cities and towns nationwide, with each hour bringing hundreds more people to the streets for the largest anti-government protests yet in four days of demonstrations.

Lebanese demonstrators burn tyres during a protest against Dora near Beirut. AFP

Protesters danced and sang in the streets, some waving Lebanese flags and chanting "the people want to bring down the regime." In the morning, young men and women carried blue bags and cleaned the streets of the capital, Beirut, picking up trash left behind by the previous night's protests.

Lebanese protesters rally in downtown Beirut on the fourth day of demonstrations against tax increases and official corruption. AFP

The spontaneous mass demonstrations are Lebanon's largest in five years, spreading beyond Beirut. They are building on long-simmering anger at a ruling class that has divvied up power among themselves and amassed wealth for decades but has done little to fix a crumbling economy and dilapidated infrastructure.

Anti-government protesters hold placards during a demonstration in Beirut. AP

The unrest erupted after the government proposed new taxes, part of stringent austerity measures amid a growing economic crisis. The protests have brought people from across the sectarian and religious lines that define the country.

"People cannot take it anymore," said Nader Fares, a protester in central Beirut who said he's unemployed. "There are no good schools, no electricity and no water."

An anti-government protester takes a selfie during a protest in Beirut. AP

Politicians are now racing against time to put forward an economic rescue plan that they hope will help calm the public.

On Saturday night, a Lebanese Christian leader asked his four ministers in the Cabinet to resign. Samir Geagea, who heads the right-wing Lebanese Forces Party, said he no longer believes the current national unity government headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri can steer the country out of the deepening economic crisis.

A Lebanese girl passes out flowers to soldiers during a rally in downtown Beirute. AFP

In a speech Friday night, Hariri had given his partners in the government a 72-hour ultimatum to come up with convincing solutions to the economic crisis. A day later, Hariri said he was meeting Cabinet ministers to "reach what serves the Lebanese."

On Sunday, Hariri continued his meetings to finish suggestions to revive the country's crumbling economy, which has been suffering from high unemployment, little growth and one of the highest debts ratios in the world standing at 150% of the gross domestic products.

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After protesters marched in Beirut, Tripoli and other cities, Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces Party, said his group was resigning from the government.

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Lebanese army soldiers pass by protesters on the highway linking Beirut to north Lebanon. Joseph Eid/AFP

"We are now convinced that the government is unable to take the necessary steps to save the situation," said Geagea. "Therefore, the bloc decided to ask its ministers to resign from the government."

The protesters took to the streets despite calls for calm from politicians and dozens of arrests on Friday. Many waved billowing Lebanese flags and insisted the protests should remain peaceful and non-sectarian.

The demonstrators are demanding a sweeping overhaul of Lebanon's political system, citing grievances ranging from austerity measures to poor infrastructure.

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A Lebanese protester chants slogans on the highway linking Beirut to north Lebanon. Joseph Eid/AFP

They have blocked main roads and threatened to topple the country's fragile coalition government.

Most Lebanese politicians have uncharacteristically admitted the demonstrations are spontaneous, rather than blaming outside influences.

Demonstrators in Beirut celebrated the news of the coalition party's resignation, calling on other blocs to leave the government. In Tripoli, they let off fireworks.

"I am thinking maybe it's better all the government resign," said one protester, 24-year-old Ali. "I am thinking maybe it's better to go to another election as people already woke up."

The army on Saturday called on protesters to "express themselves peacefully without harming public and private property."

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Lebanese demonstrators wave national flags in Zouk Mosbeh. AFP

On Saturday evening, thousands were packed for a third straight night into the Riyadh Al Solh Square in central Beirut, despite security forces having used tear gas and water cannon to disperse similar crowds a day before.

'We hear you'

Amnesty International said the security forces' reaction was excessive, pointing out that the vast majority of protesters were peaceful.

"The intention was clearly to prevent protesters gathering — in a clear violation of the right to peaceful assembly," it said.

Small groups of protesters have also damaged shop fronts and blocked roads by burning tires and other obstacles.

The Internal Security Forces said 70 arrests were made on Friday on accusations of theft and arson.

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A Lebanese motorist drives past debris at Riad Al Solh Square in the centre of the capital Beirut. Anwar Amro/AFP

But all of those held at the main police barracks were released on Saturday, the National News Agency (NNA) said.

The demonstrations first erupted on Thursday, sparked by a proposed 20 US-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.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri has given his deeply divided coalition until Monday evening to give back a reform package aimed at shoring up the government's finances and securing desperately needed economic assistance from donors.

He held a series of meetings Saturday regarding the situation, NNA said.

Hariri's political rival, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, told protesters Saturday their "message was heard loudly".

But he warned against demanding the resignation of the government -- saying it could take a long time to form a new one and solve the crisis.

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Lebanese demonstrators shout anti-government slogans in Beirut. AFP

The current unity government has the backing of most Lebanese political parties, including Hezbollah.

'Demanding our rights'

In the southern port city of Tyre, supporters of Shia politician and speaker of parliament Nabih Berri attacked protesters on Saturday, a witness said, a day after demonstrators had accused him of corruption.

His Amal political party condemned the attack and called for an investigation.

More than a quarter of the Lebanese population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.

Many of the country's senior politicians came to prominence during the country's 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.

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 neighbouring Syria.

Lebanon's public debt stands at around $86 billion — more than 150 percent of gross domestic product — according to the finance ministry.

Agencies