Uprising against taxes and corruption forces Lebanon’s prime minister to quit
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Tuesday announced he will resign, bowing to pressure from waves of protesters who took to the streets this month and paralyzed the country demanding the government’s ouster.
“Today it’s not hidden to you that I’ve reached a dead end,” Hariri said in a televised speech from his offices in downtown Beirut. He added he would visit President Michel Aoun to present his resignation, “in response to many of those who went [out on the streets] to demand change.”
“My call is for all Lebanese to put Lebanon’s interest first,” he said. “Positions come and go, but the dignity and peace of the country are more important.”
Hariri’s resignation comes after almost two weeks of unprecedented anti-government unrest. The protests were sparked after the government announced it would tax the WhatsApp messaging service. It was the last in a litany of complaints the Lebanese people had with their government, including decrepit infrastructure and the flagging value of their currency.
Hundreds of thousands — some say more than a quarter of the country’s population — flooded thoroughfares and squares across the country to call for the government’s downfall. Unlike other spasms of unrest, the protests included Lebanese from all regions, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds, a notable achievement in a country whose government is a result of an awkward power-sharing agreement among 18 constantly squabbling sects.
“All of them means all of them” became the protesters’ rallying cry, a resolute demand that every politician in government leave.
Demonstrators blocked roads and spent every day on the street demanding that the government resign. Hariri stalled for time and introduced a quickly approved reform package — including a 50% pay cut for all ministers — while vowing that anti-corruption measures would be taken. Yet the changes did little to mollify the public.
Hariri was appointed prime minister in January, presiding over a government that included the Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, the political party whose armed wing is generally thought to be the most powerful force in the country.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had urged protesters to begin discussions with the government, while calling on his supporters to leave the streets and go back to work. He said that, though the protests had been spontaneous, they had been usurped by “embassies,” shorthand for foreign powers, to bring about Hezbollah’s downfall. For many, even those from his Shiite base, his position was a disappointment.
Yet it had also set in motion opposition to the uprisings. On Tuesday, groups of men said to be supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal party, Shiite ally, overran Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut, where protesters had set up tents and a stage for the nightly protest parades.
The men first tried to break a barrier set up near Beirut’s ring road, a major thoroughfare. But after clashes with anti-government protesters, they turned to Martyrs’ Square. They swept through the demonstrations’ encampment, smashing tent poles, breaking plastic chairs and trying to set fire to some of the larger installations in the area. Army and police did not intervene until the protesters tried to rush them and threw bottles at them.
But less than an hour later, dozens of the protesters had streamed back to the area, gathering debris in organized heaps and re-erecting tents. Many cheered as they heard Hariri’s speech from dozens of smartphones streaming his words.
“This is the first step. We haven’t started yet. Now we stay on the streets until the rest of the demands are achieved,” said Gilbert Doumit, a civil society politician and a fixture in the daily political discussion circles near Martyrs’ Square.
Doumit called for a transitional government composed of independents to lead the country for six months before holding fresh elections, a common demand among demonstrators.
The demonstrations have all but paralyzed the country. Schools, universities and banks remained closed for a 10th day on Tuesday.
Also on Tuesday, the country’s banking association said banks would remain shuttered Wednesday. Lebanon’s central bank governor, Riad Salameh, said in an interview with Reuters news agency on Monday that a solution was needed “in a matter of days to regain confidence and avoid collapse in the future.”
Banks have warned of a run on deposits if they open amid the current heightened fears over the fate of the Lebanese pound, which is pegged to the U.S. dollar and has been flagging in value in a growing black market.
Yet Hariri’s departure augurs a new, potentially dangerous phase in the protests, which have so far remained remarkably cohesive despite being leaderless. Though Hariri succumbed to the protesters’ demands, it’s hard to envision most of the political class, comprising sectarian leaders and warlords from the country’s 15-year civil war, will cede control of state institutions that have undergirded their grip over their constituents.
In the meantime, the pressure to open roads and restore some elements of daily life is increasing.
Some saw Tuesday’s skirmishes in Beirut as a harbinger of the violence to come before the uprisings can achieve their aims. Previous bouts of anti-government protests, including a smaller but significant round of turmoil in 2015, fizzled out after the first signs of escalation.
Yet, in the aftermath of Tuesday’s violence, few seemed willing to back down. By nightfall, the carnival-like atmosphere, with protest sing-alongs, discussion areas and food vendors, had returned to Martyrs’ Square and its surrounding spaces.
“We had everything back up in 30 minutes,” said Nayla Geagea, a human rights campaigner, in an interview from the square. “We wanted to show them that we’re here and staying.”
Walking close by with a sign demanding a nonconfessional state was Hussein Qassem, a 63-year-old sandwich shop owner. He too said he was unafraid.
“I’ve lived during the civil war here. Just because a group of people acted recklessly, this won’t stop me from defending my principles.”
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