Lebanon Roiled by Second Day of Protests as Frustration Over Chronic Corruption Boils Over

1 month ago

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Cities across Lebanon rang with antigovernment chants and smoldered with burning roadblocks as thousands of people around the country protested against their leaders on Friday, the second day in a row that frustrations over chronic corruption and dysfunction spilled into the streets.

Protesters massed outside the government palace in downtown Beirut and marched on the presidential palace in Baabda, blocked the airport road and burned posters of politicians from Tripoli in the north to Tyre in the south — Christians, Muslims and religious minorities alike. In downtown Beirut, trucks loaded with huge speakers blasted upbeat patriotic songs and the national anthem. “Revolution! Revolution!” people chanted. “The people want the fall of the regime.”

Families came with children; the elderly protested alongside the young. “It’s the first time it’s not politicized,” said Mariella Franjieh, 28, a pharmaceutical company employee from northern Lebanon. “This time it’s all of Lebanon.”

Though some protesters smashed store windows in downtown Beirut and set tires aflame on Friday, the protests were mostly peaceful, the prevailing mood one of merry, almost gleeful release. Still, riot police officers used tear-gas to disperse protesters on Friday, as they had on Thursday night. At least one person was reportedly wounded after a politician’s bodyguards opened fire on protesters in the northern city of Tripoli, and on Thursday, two Syrian workers died after a store was set on fire in Beirut.

The Lebanese have had no shortage of things to protest in recent years, with a barren economy that forces many young people to leave the country for good jobs, with landfills and beaches overflowing with trash and with the government perpetually deadlocked over reforms. But the last month has brought more than its usual share of indignities: a faltering currency, crises over wheat and gas and, earlier this week, forest fires for which the government was so unprepared that it was forced to turn to its neighbors for firefighting help.

On Thursday evening, the government announced a tax on calls made using popular internet messaging services including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and FaceTime, a measure it said would help raise revenue amid a fiscal crisis. For many Lebanese, who already pay some of the highest mobile service rates in the region — there are only two telecom companies in the country, both state-owned — this was going too far.

“For 30 years, we’ve been living in this same corrupt system, and now there’s not even money left for them to steal anymore,” said Semaan Khawami, 45, an artist who was handing out small Lebanese flags to protesters on motorbikes in downtown Beirut on Friday morning. “So now they’re coming up with new ways to steal from us.”

By day’s end, most of the country’s political leaders had weighed in, to little effect, with some even urging their followers to demonstrate against the government. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, meanwhile, delivered a televised speech acknowledging the “suffering” of the Lebanese, insisting that he had done his best to solve the crisis, and giving all factions in the government a 72-hour deadline to enact fiscal reforms that would unlock $ 11 billion in international donor funds. (The tax on messaging services also was retracted.)

The economic crisis and the flagging value of the Lebanese pound mean that “ordinary citizens will see their pensions disappear, their standards of living plummet and the future of their children in jeopardy,” Maha Yahya, the director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, wrote on Twitter, predicting that the protesters would persist until Mr. Hariri and his national unity government resigned.

“Political leadership is avoiding serious reform that would undermine their own access to state finances and seeking to impose taxes on ordinary citizens,” she added.

The protesters’ disdain for Lebanon’s leaders seemed omni-partisan. In Sunni-dominated areas, people tore down posters of Mr. Hariri, the country’s most powerful Sunni. In largely Shiite parts of southern Lebanon, they chanted against Nabih Berri, the Shiite speaker of Parliament, whose popularity usually goes unquestioned, and in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburb of Beirut they attacked the offices of Hezbollah members of Parliament. Outside the government palace in Beirut on Friday evening, a chanting crowd alternately mocked Mr. Hariri and Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister and a leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party.

“They are the kings, and we are the slaves. Enough,” said Suzy Barakat, 40, a public relations worker who was part of a crowd that had gathered near a highway overpass in Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburb.

She said she had voted for Hezbollah in the last parliamentary elections, but was fed up with the entire sectarian system, under which the perpetual power struggle among Lebanon’s 18 officially recognized religious groups produces jobs and patronage for politicians’ followers, but little more than deadlock for the country as a whole. “We should get rid of it,” she said.

But others interviewed seemed reluctant to dispense with their own leaders just yet. Ms. Barakat’s friend said she still trusted Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader; a few neighborhoods away, a Sunni man protesting at a roundabout said he believed Mr. Hariri should remain as prime minister.

Schools, banks, many stores and most offices were closed on Friday, and major streets were unusually empty, a few cars gingerly attempting to make their way around smoldering roadblocks set up by protesters. With Beirut’s usual traffic bridled, the city seemed to belong, if only temporarily, to the crowds on foot and the herds of motorbikes and scooters that carried young protesters to Martyrs’ Square, waving flags as they went.

“I voted for Hezbollah, but I don’t care about Hezbollah or the Lebanese Forces or anyone. This is for Lebanon,” said Nasser Barakat, 42, a taxi driver from southern Lebanon who said it was his first time protesting. “In the past, we used to protest for certain parties and groups. This time, we’re here because we’re Lebanese.”

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