Lebanese resume protests demanding end to political vacuum

Lebanese demonstrators wave the national flag as they march during a demonstration in downtown Beirut in this Jan. 11, 2020 file photo. — AFP
Lebanese demonstrators wave the national flag as they march during a demonstration in downtown Beirut in this Jan. 11, 2020 file photo. — AFP

BEIRUT — Protesters resumed blocking major highways on Tuesday in what they said would be a "week of wrath" demanding an end to Lebanon's months-long political vacuum.

Although protests had declined in size in recent weeks, demonstrations have been ongoing since October, increasingly targeting banks and state institutions blamed for driving the country toward collapse.

The unprecedented cross-sectarian movement since Oct. 17 has been fueled by a crippling economic crisis, the worst since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

Debt-burdened Lebanon has been without a government since Saad Hariri resigned as prime minister on Oct. 29, as political parties fail to agree on the makeup of a new team.

"Rebel, Beirut," dozens of protesters chanted as they marched to the sound of drums towards the home of premier designate Hassan Diab, who has struggled to form a cabinet since he was named on Dec. 19.

"I want a government that can resolve the economic crisis as quickly as possible," said Nour, a 31-year-old marcher.

As a liquidity crisis grows and the cost of living rises, protesters have returned to the streets to urge politicians to swiftly form a Cabinet of experts to respond to their demands.

On Tuesday morning, dozens of protesters blocked key highways in and around Beirut with overturned rubbish bins and burning tires.

Laila Youssef, 47, said she was taking part to call on politicians to wake up.

"We've gone back to closing down roads because we can't stand it anymore," the mother of three said. "What we earn today is not enough to buy the basics for home."

Many Lebanese have lost their jobs or seen their salaries reduced by half in recent months.

Even as banks cap withdrawals, the value of the Lebanese pound to the US dollar has fallen by almost half on the parallel exchange market.

A 75-year-old who refused to give his name said he was protesting against the "mafia gangs" in power.

"To humiliate the Lebanese people, they formed mafia gangs with the banks and took out all the dollars," he charged.

In a televised speech, President Michel Aoun acknowledged the delay in agreeing a new Cabinet line-up but appealed for more time to find suitable candidates.

"What is needed is a government with a specific speedy program to address the pressing economic and financial crisis," he told foreign envoys.

"The formation of this government demands choosing competent individuals who deserve the trust of the people and parliament, which takes time," he said.

There were also demonstrations on Tuesday in the provinces, including second city Tripoli and the southeastern town of Hasbayya, Lebanese television channels showed.

In Tripoli, 30-year-old Alaa Khodr said he and other protesters wanted a government to be formed rapidly without any representatives of the traditional political parties.

"We want a government as soon as possible because the economic situation can no longer wait and the country is sliding towards collapse," he said.

The protests had dwindled to symbolic gatherings in recent weeks after Diab, a professor and former education minister, was nominated last month.

But Lebanese have returned to the streets since Saturday, when hundreds gathered across the country to vent their frustration.

The protesters are demanding a new government made up solely of independent technocrats, but analysts warn this may be a tall order in a country ruled by a sectarian power-sharing system since the end of the civil war.

The World Bank has warned of a recession that may see the proportion of people living in poverty climb from a third to half the population.

Even before the protests began, economic growth in Lebanon had slowed sharply in the face of repeated political deadlocks in recent years, compounded by the war in neighboring Syria.

Public debt stands at almost $90 billion, or more than 150 percent of GDP, according to the finance ministry. — AFP