Wednesday 13 November 2019
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The News - 22 days ago

Lebanese keep up protests

BEIRUT: Lebanese protesters kept the country on lockdown Tuesday as they gathered for a sixth consecutive day demanding new leaders despite the government s adoption of an emergency economic rescue plan.Demonstrations initially sparked by a proposed tax on WhatsApp and other messaging apps have grown into an unprecedented cross-sectarian street mobilisation against the political class.Rallies have spread to all major cities and into Lebanon s vast diaspora.The cabinet was spurred into passing wide-ranging economic reforms on Monday but the move failed to win over protesters, who now seem bent on removing the entire political elite, which they see as corrupt.In Beirut, volunteers donned gloves and cleaned up streets after euphoric crowds partied deep into the night Monday, dancing to impromptu concerts. Among them, Hussein al-Aliya, a 35-year-old bus driver, was sweeping away rubbish after a night of protests. If it took just three days to approve (the reforms), why haven t they done so for the past 30 years? he asked. We ve come down to the street from all religious sects to bring the whole of the state down, said the young man from the Shiite stronghold of southern Beirut. The lawmakers and ministers are all thieves and the governor of the central bank is covering up for them, he said.But there are young women and men studying in the universities who could take on jobs in parliament and government. Among the measures announced by Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Monday were a 2020 budget meant to bring the deficit down to 0.6 percent of GDP, no new taxes, a privatisation programme and measures to support the underprivileged.It was also to slash by half the salaries of current and former lawmakers and ministers.With schools and banks closed since last week, a couple of dozen demonstrators chanted on in front of the central bank despite Monday s announcement. Down with the rule of the central bank. We won t pay the taxes. Let the banks pay them, they intoned.Heiko Wimmen, analyst with the International Crisis group, said it appeared Monday s measures were not enough. These mostly technical solutions may put the country on a sounder fiscal footing, but they appear inadequate to the challenge of the protests, which now demand broader, systemic change, he said. The country s main parties, including those of President Michel Aoun and the Shiite movement Hezbollah, have warned against the impact of a government vacuum and supported the reform package.Hariri met top ambassadors in Beirut on Tuesday, hoping to restore confidence that Lebanon can handle its ballooning debt and unlock a huge aid package. We believe after the announcement of the decisions of the cabinet yesterday, that we re going to get very positive reactions from them, senior government adviser Nadim Munla told reporters.Lebanon s economy has been sliding closer to the abyss in recent months, with public debt soaring past 150 percent of GDP and ratings agencies grading Lebanese sovereign bonds as junk .Fears of a default have compounded the worries of Lebanese citizens exasperated by the poor quality of public services.

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