Lebanese protesters rally for sixth day despite PM's reform package

Lebanese protesters rally for sixth day despite PM's reform package
Demonstrators continued to block roads in central Beirut on Tuesday, after a government-approved reform plan announced by Saad Hariri was met with deep distrust from the swelling protest movement.
3 min read
22 October, 2019
Protesters blocked roads in Downtown Beirut [AFP]
Lebanese protesters gathered for a sixth consecutive day on Tuesday, keeping the country on lockdown to demand new leaders despite the government's adoption of an emergency economic rescue plan.

Protesters blocked roads in Downtown Beirut, while others had spent the night in tents pitched in the capital city's Riad al-Solh and Martyrs' squares.

"We just want to say that Beirut's Downtown remains closed," one protester told Lebanon's English-language daily The Daily Star.

A proposed tax on mobile messaging applications last week sparked a spontaneous, cross-sectarian mobilisation that has brought Lebanon to a standstill and united the people against its hereditary, ruling elite.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri seemed aware that the measures he announced on Monday, which include a deal on the 2020 budget and significant reforms that seemed unlikely only a week ago, would not quench the people's thirst for change.

"These decisions are not designed as a trade-off. They are not to ask you to stop expressing your anger. That is your decision to make," Hariri, himself an ex-prime minister's son, said in a televised press conference. 

Euphoric crowds partied deep into the night on Sunday, leaving political and sectarian paraphernalia at home to gather under the cedar-stamped national flag, dance to impromptu concerts and chant often hilarious anti-establishment slogans.

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They were back in front of the houses of government and on the main Martyrs' Square on Monday to listen to Hariri's announcement, which was broadcast on loudspeakers.

The crowd erupted into shouts of "revolution, revolution" when Hariri finished his address. 

"We want the fall of the regime," they went on.

'Day of destiny'

Hariri detailed some of the measures taken by his fractious cabinet, including a programme of privatisations, a decision to scrap new tax hikes and halving the generous salaries of ministers and lawmakers.

He also said his government would in three weeks approve the first batch of infrastructure projects funded by an $11-billion aid package pledged to Lebanon by international donors last year.

The premier said the economic rescue plan would "satisfy" international donors who took part in the CEDRE conference in Paris in 2018.

Lebanese economist Ghazi Wazni said it would also likely be well received by rating agencies and the International Monetary Fund.

Lebanon's embattled political leaders have warned that the government's resignation at this time would only deepen the crisis gripping the small Mediterranean country.

Hariri also said he supported the idea of early elections, a key demand among the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have taken to Lebanon's streets since last Thursday.

President Michel Aoun, who had been conspicuously silent since the start of the demonstrations, suggested at the start of the cabinet meeting that banking secrecy should be lifted for high-ranking officials.

Lebanon has strict rules over bank account privacy that critics say makes the country susceptible to money laundering.

Dozens of demonstrators on Monday night gathered in front of the central bank in Beirut, accusing its chief Riad Salameh of worsening the country's debt through faulty monetary policies.

Aoun's son-in-law and ally, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, has also been a particular figure of anger among protesters. 

To many demonstrators, the reforms Hariri announced smacked of a desperate attempt by a corrupt elite to cling to their jobs, and there was little sign Monday that the mobilisation was weakening.

"It is a day of destiny for us. All our hard work and efforts in previous days and years were to get us to this moment," said Roni al-Asaad, a 32-year-old activist in central Beirut. 

"If they could have implemented these reforms before, why haven't they? And why should we believe them today?"

The protests have morphed into a mass non-partisan push for a total overhaul of a sectarian power system still run mostly by civil war-era warlords, three decades after the end of Lebanon's conflict.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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