Lebanon’s government scrambles to respond to mass protests

Lebanon’s government scrambles to respond to mass protests

Protestors block major roads in Beirut and elsewhere in fifth day of countrywide demonstrations against leaders

A picture taken on October 21, 2019, shows smoke billowing from a roadblock set by Lebanese protesters on a road in Zouk Mosbeh, north of the capital Beirut. (JOSEPH EID / AFP)
A picture taken on October 21, 2019, shows smoke billowing from a roadblock set by Lebanese protesters on a road in Zouk Mosbeh, north of the capital Beirut. (JOSEPH EID / AFP)

BEIRUT — Protesters on Monday closed major roads around Lebanon ahead of an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss a rescue plan for the country’s crumbling economy.

Demonstrators placed barriers on major intersections in Beirut as well as other cities and towns marking the fifth day of protests triggered by proposed new taxes.

Hundreds of thousands participated in Sunday’s mass protests that were the largest since 2005.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri will put forward a reform plan during the morning government meeting at the presidential palace in Beirut’s southeastern suburb of Baabda.

Many protesters say they don’t trust any plan by the current government. They’ve called on the 30-member cabinet to resign and be replaced by a smaller one made up of technocrats instead of members of political factions.

Lebanese anti-government protesters block a road with burning tires in the southern coastal city of Sidon, on October 21, 2019 (Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)

“It’s 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?”

At the nerve center of the demonstrations near the country’s houses of government in central Beirut, volunteers were once again collecting rubbish from the streets, many wearing face masks and plastic gloves.

The protests have grown steadily since public anger first spilled onto the streets Thursday evening in response to a proposed tax on calls via WhatsApp and other messaging services.

Anti-government protesters shout slogans in Beirut, Lebanon, October 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

While the government quickly dropped that plan, the leaderless protests morphed into demands for a sweeping overhaul of the political system, with grievances ranging from austerity measures to poor infrastructure.

Hariri had given his coalition partners three days to support reforms he said were crucial to get the economy back on track.

On Sunday evening a cabinet official told AFP that the parties had agreed.

The cabinet was scheduled to hold a meeting chaired by President Michel Aoun at 10:30 a.m. (0730 GMT) to discuss the reforms.

Demonstrators said Hariri’s proposals would not be enough, with demands for the entire political class to resign.

“All of them are warlords,” said Patrick Chakar, 20. “We waited 30 years or more for them to change and they didn’t.”

More than a quarter of Lebanon’s population lives below the poverty line, the World Bank says, while the political class has remained relatively unchanged since the end of a devastating 15-year civil war in 1990.

Lebanese demonstrators clean up rubbish from the streets of the capital Beirut’s downtown district after a night of protests against tax increases and official corruption, on October 21, 2019 (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

Lebanon ranked 138 out of 180 in Transparency International’s 2018 corruption index, and residents suffer chronic electricity and water shortages.

Lebanese media hailed the demonstrations.

Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is close to Hezbollah, published a picture of protesters carrying a giant flag on its front page with a commentary on “Test Day: Power or People?”

The French-language newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour said “The hour of truth has arrived,” while the English-language The Daily Star said: “Lebanon’s only paths: reform or abyss.”

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