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A nationwide general strike has begun across Lebanon as protests aimed at ousting the government entered its fifth day. The main labor union announced the general strike. A mass revolt is continuing in the country over the last four days.

Banks said they would remain closed on Monday. Schools and universities will also remain closed.

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets on Sunday for the fourth day of anti-government protests.

The capital Beirut, second city Tripoli in the north and the southern port of Tyre came to a standstill, with streets filled with protesters waving the national flag, chanting “revolution” or “the people demand the fall of the regime”.

“Today the country is going through difficult times and suffocating economic circumstances. We have always warned of it, and the political disparities experienced by officials has reflected negatively on the needs and social security of citizens, which resulted in a social revolution caused by the economic, financial and monetary distress that has exhausted people,” said a statement from the teachers’ union.

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

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

Over the weekend, four ministers from the Lebanese Forces party, a Lebanese Christian party and traditional Prime Minister Saad Hariri-ally, resigned from the government in protest. What has become even more apparent is that the problems of Lebanon extend far beyond the current administration. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivered an impassioned speech on October 19 in which he said all Lebanese politicians and parties shared the blame for the decades of poor governance. Nasrallah asserted that Lebanon’s politicians characteristically blamed anyone else but themselves, with the end result of evading accountability. Hezbollah’s role and influence in Lebanon’s politics and economy have played no small part in the corruption, egregious clientelism, and sectarian dysfunction that has plagued the country since its disastrous civil war of 1975 to 1990.

Demonstrations in various regions

In Beirut, Tripoli, and other Lebanese cities and towns, protesters took to the streets to light bonfires, chant, and participate in rallies against the government.

Protests continued to spark massive demonstrations up and down the country on Sunday.

The eastern route of the Jal El Dib highway was closed, as demonstrators gathered in huge crowds, raising Lebanese flags and insisting on staying in the street until the government is toppled while maintaining a peaceful movement.

Large numbers of protesters also gathered at the roundabout of Elia in Sidon, raising Lebanese flags and demanding “a change in the political system.”

Scores of protesters gathered at al-Halba and al-Abdeh Squares in Akkar, carrying Lebanese flags and some banners and chanting national slogans that called on the current rule to leave and for punishing the corrupt.

A huge popular march also set out from Deir al-Qamar and Kfarhim in the Chouf along the main road linking both towns, raising Lebanese flags and slogans defending the rightful popular demands, especially the economic demands.

Demonstrators gathered at Tal Amara roundabout and blocked the Riyak-Baalbek highway with stones and vehicles, amid the spread of Lebanese army units and security forces.

Protesters also flocked to Abdul-Hamid Karami Square in central Tripoli, where a sit-in was held for the third day to demand the toppling of the regime and the resignation of all officials.

The international road linking the Bekaa to the South at the Mimis junction was cut-off since early morning except for humanitarian cases. Protesters set-up a sit-in tent in the middle of the road, amidst the growing number of citizens joining from various villages of the Hasbaya Casa.

A sit-in also took place in the Shouf area this morning at the Baakline-Beiteddine roundabout, during which protesters raised Lebanese flags along with slogans holding the mandate responsible.

Lebanese citizens continued to fill Riad El-Solh and Martyrs’ Squares in downtown Beirut since the morning hours, raising Lebanese flags and revolution slogans, and calling for restoring the looted funds.

Road-blocking protests meanwhile continued across the country and in areas near the capital such as Dora, Jisr al-Wati, Sin el-Fil, Nahr el-Mot and Jal el-Dib.

No sectarian divide

Lebanon has a political system designed to balance power between the country’s main religious groups.

Deeply divided by sect the country’s constitution and power-sharing system reinforce tribal politics. Most protests in Lebanon are sectarian or based around one’s affiliation to a political party, which in Lebanon almost always translates to sectarianism.

But almost from the beginning, it became clear that the present protests were different, transcending sectarian, religious, ethnic, and political loyalties. These kinds of protests are rare, yet influential in what they purport to represent — genuine grassroots outrage at the establishment and status quo. The government’s inability to effectively combat recent devastating wildfires was just the latest in a long string of failures by successive governments, administrations, and power-sharing configurations.

Observers say one of the striking features of the protests is how demonstrators have shaken off the country’s sectarian divide to unite against their leaders.

In a multi-confessional country where the same families have been in power for decades, Lebanese from all religious confessions and walks of life have come together in recent days.

Lebanese flags dominated the Beirut skyline on Sunday, with the flags of political groups or militias largely absent – a rarity in earlier protests. Sheikh Fadi Saad, a Shia cleric, said: “I am a man of God. I must stand with the people. All politicians and all the sects they represent are corrupt. I have two sons, one in Lyon and one in Versaille; why should they be working there? There is no dignity left in this country.”

In Beirut, protesters on Sunday called out the names of specific politicians from across the country’s sectarian system, with the crowd responding with swear words.

The protests have been largely good-natured, with people singing or launching into traditional dabke dances on Saturday, while others played cards and smoked shisha into the early hours.

In Tripoli, Lebanon’s traditionally conservative second city, the protests at points looked like a music festival overnight Saturday, with a DJ pumping out dance music from loudspeakers.

72-hour deadline

PM Hariri, who is leading a coalition government mired by sectarian and political rivalries, gave his feuding government partners a 72-hour deadline on Friday to agree reforms that could ward off crisis, hinting he may otherwise resign.

Hariri accused his rivals of obstructing his reform measures that could unlock $11 billion in Western donor pledges and help avert economic collapse.

The coalition government has reportedly agreed to a package of economic reforms as it attempts to quell the biggest protests in years.

Government sources cited on news agencies said an agreement was reached on Sunday.

The agreement is said to include plans to privatize key utilities, reduce politicians’ salaries and measures to address Lebanon’s budget deficit.

The reform package is expected to be approved at a cabinet meeting on Monday.

Tax on messaging services

The mass protests were triggered on Thursday in part by a plan to tax calls on WhatsApp and other messaging services.

The government quickly dropped the tax, but the protests have morphed into wider demands for reform.

Austerity measures have sparked anger and deteriorating infrastructure has made power cuts and piles of uncollected rubbish part of daily life.

The government has been accused of widespread corruption and economic mismanagement.

The government has been trying to implement economic reforms to secure an $11bn aid package from international donors.

The economic crisis, and the government’s handling of it, has ignited widespread anger, with many calling for political change.

Revolution

The spontaneous protests, which have hit major cities including the capital Beirut, have seen marchers chant for “revolution”.

“I am here because I am disgusted by our politicians. Nothing works. This is not a state,” Cherine Shawa told Reuters while protesting in Beirut on Sunday.

Hanan Takkouche, also in the capital, said: “We’re here to say to our leaders ‘leave’.”

But closer to the barriers manned by security forces, the chants are louder and more determined.

“Revolution, revolution,” intone male and female protesters, a few wearing a scarf around their faces after security forces fired tear gas the previous evening.

“The people want the fall of the regime,” they cry in unison, echoing a chant popular during the uprisings that swept through the Arab world in 2011.

The protests have been largely peaceful, but dozens of people are reported to have been injured in clashes with police at demonstrations in recent days.

Largest protest in 14 years

Lebanon’s mass revolt against corruption and poverty continues. Dissent gains momentum with country’s largest protests since Cedar revolution of 2005

Demonstrators took to the streets of most urban centers on Sunday to rail against officials who they say are preventing badly needed reforms that would cut into the pockets of the ruling class, and are instead trying to recoup state revenues by taxing the poor.

Dissent erupted on Thursday sending protesters on to the streets. Anger boiled over on Friday, leading to the ransacking of high-end shops in Beirut and the death of one man in the northern city of Tripoli.

Since then, the protests have settled into large peaceful gatherings that have crossed sectarian and social lines and continued to grow in size and energy.

While demonstrations are not uncommon in Lebanon, crowds of this size taking to the streets for such a duration have not been seen since the so-called Cedar revolution of 2005.

Ali, 32, one of the thousands of unemployed Lebanese people, said: “The ‘hidden hand’ the politicians will soon start speaking of, the ‘conspiracy against our sovereignty’ is false. The hidden hand … is actually just our dignity that woke up. We’ve been silent and sedated for so long, we’ve now awakened. They are not used to us, the people, having pride. But we’ll show them.”

A woman in downtown Beirut, who did not want to be identified, said: “Someone should a page out of [the Saudi crown prince] Mohammed bin Salman’s book and imprison all our thieves, as he did with his men at the Ritz in Saudi. Our politicians have no mercy. They steal our salaries and livelihood. I have a son. I can barely afford to send him to school. Why can’t I send him to school? Why don’t I have insurance? Why don’t I have electricity? Why is the garbage on my street? Our youth is drugged out due to unemployment, our parents are dying because we cannot afford decent healthcare. I hope we can all flee and leave this land of ash to them.”

They are stealing

Nearby, Hussein el Hek, 21, also unemployed, said: “Tasty food has become a luxury. I haven’t seen a single politician sacrifice a salary. They’re not only stealing, they’re stealing shamelessly. It’s got to a point where they’re literally the cause of cancer in people. All politicians are staying much longer than they deserve, and when they leave we have to deal with their children.

“I can’t afford my daily life, I can’t afford to be in love, I can’t afford to marry, I can’t afford to take care of my own. This is why we’re protesting. I can’t give loyalty to those who can’t feed me anymore.”

Nothing but debts

Surrounded by chanting protesters, Lebanese mother-of-two Nada Saad cries her despair over the political leadership’s mismanagement of her country.

“They’re laughing at us,” she shouts at a protest in central Beirut.

“Wherever we work, there’s no social security. Our children graduate and can’t find a job,” says Saad, a 51-year-old who says she ekes out a living as a manicurist.

“We want a metro, we want buses, we want a train,” she rails, in a country with little public transport.

Saad is among tens of thousands who protested all over the country on Saturday, in a third such day of unrest.

All around her, men, women and even children have come to protest near the seat of the government — many for the first time, and several to demand a better future for their children.

Families mill around the edges of the crowd, waving national flags – the country’s green symbol of a cedar tree on a background of red and white stripes.

While the protests are fueled by popular anger, so far their goals are somewhat undefined.

No specific demands have been published and most people simply want to vent their anger at what they feel is a broken system.

“We have nothing,” Saad tells AFP, wearing a black shirt with white spots and aviator sunglasses.

“Nothing but debts,” says the mother of two boys, the oldest 25 years old and unemployed.

Not far off, Amal Mokdad says she is fed up with paying thousands of dollars a year on her two sons’ private education.

“If I don’t put them in those schools, they won’t find a job,” she says of her boys aged seven and 11.

“And even then when they find one, they’ll get a salary of $600,” she says, in a country where the minimum wage is just $450.

Beside her, Lamya Berro, 38, is taking part in her first ever protest surrounded by her three daughters, after being moved by the plight of young demonstrators in her neighborhood.

“We’ve seen how much people are suffering,” she says.

  • ‘We can’t go on like this’ –

“We don’t care what the politicians have responded” to the protests, she says, a day after PM Hariri gave cabinet members three days to rally around key reforms.

“We’ve tried them all – even the previous generations – and we’ve decided we can’t go on like this,” she says.

“The people now want to decide the country’s future.”

As the protests swell in the evening, red flyers appear among the crowd.

Leave

“Leave,” they read, next to the images of Hariri, President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

Fadi Karam, a 40-year-old who says he works in construction, claims the political elite share the blame equally.

“All the leaders, all the corrupt people in the state, are responsible,” he says.

“People are tired. They have no money,” he says a day after dozens were arrested following trash fires and shattered store fronts in central Beirut.

The poor are hungry

Karem Monzer, a 23-year-old filmmaking graduate still trying to pay off his debts, says he does not agree with vandalism.

“But we can’t blame poor people who are hungry,” he says.

“And if a people are hungry, they will eat their leaders.”

“I am demonstrating here to bring down the president’s men and his corrupt government,” Sanaa Mallah, 40, said in downtown Beirut. “I have a lot of hope in this movement.”

On Sunday, Nazih Siraj, 50, said he lost his job after the government removed stalls from the roads.

“I can’t afford to rent out a place because of the high prices and unfair taxes,” he told AFP, saying he was demonstrating for the future of his four daughters.

“It’s time for a change. There is no going back from the streets after today.”

One of the demonstrators was holding signs bearing the names of lawmakers and ministers on barbed wire near parliament and the seat of government, saying they were all “thieves”.

She said she was protesting “against the hooligans who have been in power for 30 years.”

Dani Mourtada said the country was waking up to reject entrenched sectarian divisions.

“We no longer want people to beg for legitimate rights and services that the state is supposed to provide,” the 26-year-old protester said.

The protests have been marked by their diversity, drawing wide swathes of Lebanese society largely united on what they oppose – with many condemning the entire political class as thieves and criminals.

They have blocked main roads and demanded the resignation of the country’s fragile coalition government, which lost four of its ministers overnight Saturday with the resignation of the Lebanese Forces from it.

Call to form ‘Neutral Technocrat Government’

Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, a Lebanese Christian party and traditional Hariri ally, on Sunday said protesters’ ambitions exceed the reforms proposed by Hariri and called for “a new political life” and a “neutral technocrat cabinet.”

“For the past three years, we have done everything and they were accusing us of obstructing their work. We want the incumbent presidential tenure to be the best presidential tenure in Lebanon and we wanted Hariri’s government to make achievements,” Geagea said in an interview with al-Jadeed television, hours after he announced the resignation of the LF’s four ministers.

“It is no longer beneficial to take part in the government, which can no longer do anything. A new and different government must be named,” Geagea added, noting that the LF “took part in only two governments” and that even rivals acknowledge his party’s “integrity.”

“We opposed all decisions that had to do with people’s plight,” he pointed out.

He added that any technocrat cabinet should be “neutral” and independent from “the current ministerial and parliamentary majority.”

“It should harmonious, unlike the current government which has ‘100 heads,’” Geagea said.

Warning that “the coming will be worse” should there be any delay in taking initiatives, the LF leader called on Hariri to “seek a new government,” adding that he still expects the resignation of the Progressive Socialist Party’s ministers.

Asked about the unprecedented protests that have engulfed Lebanon, Geagea said: “The ongoing protests came from the people and as Lebanese Forces, we must be by their side, seeing as it’s too late to talk about zero taxes” in Hariri’s proposed reform paper.

PSP talks of conditions

The Progressive Socialist Party on Sunday announced that its continued participation in Hariri’s incumbent government is “conditional,” hours after the Lebanese Forces declared the resignation of its four ministers.

“The reformist paper presented by Prime Minister (Saad) Hariri is advanced, drastic and truly reformist,” Industry Minister Wael Abu Faour said after meeting Hariri.

“In the name of the PSP, we have added some key points to it, demanding the abolition of some funds, commissions and ministerial budgets and the prosecution of those violating seaside and riverside properties,” he added.

The party also called for “shutting down unbeneficial embassies and consulates and appointing a regulatory commission and a board of directors for Electricite du Liban during the Cabinet’s next session,” Abu Faour said.

“We demanded the abolition of all benefits going to presidents, MPs, ministers and governmental employees and officials and suggested a halt to all forms of wasting public funds and corruption in tenders, as well as the shutting down of all councils and funds, especially the fund of the internally displaced, the Council for Reconstruction and Development, the High Relief Committee and the South Council,” he added.

“Our continued presence in the government is conditional on the implementation of these reforms,” he said.

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

The economy

The World Bank says more than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.

Growth has plummeted in recent years, with political deadlock compounded by the impact of eight years of war in neighboring Syria.

According to the finance ministry, Lebanon’s public debt stands at around $86 billion – more than 150 percent of gross domestic product and one of the highest in the world.

Lebanon’s central bank reserves plunging 30% in the past year and the local currency slipping against the dollar in recent months.

A deeply entrenched patronage network in the country has seen political leaders siphon of billions of dollars of state revenues to use to pay benefactors and secure votes.

Rampant corruption and nepotism have taken hold across state institutions and the gap between a privileged elite and the rest of the country has widened.

The current protests are a manifestation of the many challenges facing Lebanon, faced by all sects and a burden primarily borne most tangibly by the poor politically marginalized.


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