Amid protests, Hezbollah chief says he opposes Lebanese government’s resignation

As protesters gather for fresh demonstrations in Beirut, Hassan Nasrallah calls demands for government to step down a ‘waste of time’

A speech by Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Hezbollah terror group, is transmitted on a large screen in the Lebanese capital Beirut's southern suburbs on September 2, 2019. (AFP)
A speech by Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Hezbollah terror group, is transmitted on a large screen in the Lebanese capital Beirut's southern suburbs on September 2, 2019. (AFP)

The influential leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group said he doesn’t support the government’s resignation amid nationwide protests calling for politicians to step down over a deepening economic crisis.

Hassan Nasrallah said Saturday that calls for the current national unity government to resign are “a waste of time” since the same political groups will haggle over forming a new one.

“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.

Largescale protests that have targeted the country’s entire political class have brought Lebanon to a standstill since Thursday.

Nasrallah warned the protesters against being pulled into political rivalries, saying that would derail their message. He said politicians who shirk responsibility, by quitting the Cabinet while the economy crumbles, should be brought to trial.

An anti-government protester makes victory sign, as he holds a Lebanese national flag and walks by burning tires blocking a road during a protest against government’s plans to impose new taxes in Beirut, Lebanon, October 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

His comments came as hundreds gathered for a third day of protests against tax increases and alleged official corruption after the security forces made dozens of arrests.

Crowds began gathering in front of the seat of government in the capital Beirut around lunchtime, with many waving billowing Lebanese flags.

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.

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

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

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.

Lebanese army soldiers pass by protesters on the highway linking Beirut to north Lebanon, in Zouk Mikael on October 19, 2019, one day after demonstrations swept through the eastern Mediterranean country in protest against dire economic conditions. (Joseph Eid/AFP)

Parts of central Beirut looked like a war zone, littered with broken glass, overturned litter bins and the remains of burning tires. 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.

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.”

Debris fill a street after violent confrontations between demonstrators and security forces in the centre of the capital Beirut on October 19, 2019, following a protest against dire economic conditions. (Anwar Amro/AFP)

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.

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