Tens of thousands gather across Lebanon for third day of protests

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Riot police stand guard as anti-government protesters try to remove a barbed-wire barrier to advance towards the government buildings during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. (AP)
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Lebanese protesters wave national flags as they take part in a third day of protests against tax increases and official corruption in the southern city of Sidon, on October 19, 2019, after security forces made dozens of arrests. (AFP)
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Lebanese army soldiers pass by protesters on the highway linking Beirut to north Lebanon, in Zouk Mikael on October 19, 2019, one day after demonstrations swept through the eastern Mediterranean country in protest against dire economic conditions. (AFP)
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Black smoke rise from burning tires that were set fire to block a road during a protest against government's plans to impose new taxes in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. (AP)
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People walk through damage a day after protests targeting the government over an economic crisis in Beirut, Lebanon October 19, 2019. (Reuters)
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Lebanese demonstrators block the way for cars on the highway linking Beirut to north Lebanon, in Zouk Mikael on October 19, 2019, one day after demonstrators swept through the eastern Mediterranean country to protest against dire economic conditions. (AFP)
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Protesters wave the national flag in downtown beirut as hundreds continued to gather on October 19, 2019 for a third day of protests against tax increases and alleged official corruption after the security forces made dozens of arrests. (AFP)
Updated 03 November 2019

Tens of thousands gather across Lebanon for third day of protests

  • Parts of central Beirut looked like a war zone, littered with broken glass, overturned litter bins and the remains of burning tires. Banks and many restaurants and shops remained closed
  • The current unity government has the backing of most Lebanese political parties, including Hezbollah

BEIRUT: Tens of thousands of Lebanese people took to the streets Saturday for a third day of protests against tax increases and alleged official corruption despite several arrests by security forces.
They streamed into the streets around the country's parliament in Beirut, as well as elsewhere across the country, AFP journalists said, despite calls for calm from politicians and dozens of arrests on Friday.
The number of protesters grew steadily throughout the day, with major demonstrations in second city Tripoli, in the north, and other locations.
Many waved billowing Lebanese flags and insisted the protests should remain peaceful and non-sectarian.
The demonstrators are demanding a sweeping overhaul of Lebanon's political system, citing grievances ranging from austerity measures to poor infrastructure.
They have crippled main roads and threatened to topple the country's fragile coalition government.
Most Lebanese politicians have uncharacteristically admitted the demonstrations are spontaneous, rather than blaming outside influence.
In Tripoli demonstrator Hoda Sayyur was unimpressed by the contrition some leaders displayed on television and echoed a widely-held hope that the entire political class be replaced.
"They took all our fundamental rights... We are dying at hospital gates," the woman in her fifties said.
"I will stay in the street... Since I was born, we've been spectators to their quarrels and corruption," she said.
The army on Saturday called on protesters to "express themselves peacefully without harming public and private property".

Saturday evening thousands were again packed into the Riyadh al-Solh Square in central Beirut, despite security forces using tear gas and water cannons to disperse similar crowds a day before.
The Internal Security Forces said 70 arrests were made Friday on accusations of theft and arson.
But all of those held at the main police barracks were released Saturday, the National News Agency (NNA) said.
It said that the father of one man detained tried to set himself on fire in front of a police station.
The demonstrations first erupted on Thursday, sparked by a proposed 20 cent tax on calls via messaging apps such as WhatsApp.
Such calls are the main method of communication for many Lebanese and, despite the government's swift abandonment of the tax, the demonstrations quickly swelled into the largest in years.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri has given his deeply divided coalition until Monday evening to give their backing to a reform package aimed at shoring up the government's finances and securing the disbursement of desperately needed economic assistance from donors.
He held a series of meetings Saturday regarding the situation, NNA said.
Hariri's political rival, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, gave his first response on Saturday, telling protesters their "message was heard loudly" and calling for political action.
In a thinly veiled criticism of Hariri, Nasrallah condemned those who had renounced their "responsibilities and were blaming others."
But he warned against demanding resignation of the government, saying it could take a long time to form a new one and solve the crisis.
The current unity government has the backing of most Lebanese political parties, including Hezbollah.
Karim el-Mufti, a Lebanese political scientist, said Hezbollah, which is fighting in neighbouring Syria alongside the government of Bashar al-Assad, wanted to avoid potential chaos at home.

In the southern port city of Tyre, supporters of Shia politician and speaker of parliament Nabih Berri attacked protesters Saturday, a witness said, a day after demonstrators had accused him of corruption.
His Amal political party condemned the attack and called for an investigation.
More than a quarter of the Lebanese population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
Many of the country's senior politicians came to prominence during the country's 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.
A protester in the southern city of Nabatiyeh, a Hezbollah stronghold, said protesters are demanding their "rights". protesting.
"They are trying to portray us as a mob, but we are demanding our rights," he told a local television channel. "We are used to repression."
Lebanon has one of the highest public debt burdens in the world and the government is trying to reach agreement on a package of belt-tightening measures to cap the deficit in next year's budget.
The promised austerity moves are essential if Lebanon is to unlock $11 billion in economic assistance pledged by international donors last year.
Growth has plummeted in recent years, with political deadlock compounded by the impact of eight years of war in neighbouring Syria.
Lebanon's public debt stands at around $86 billion -- more than 150 percent of gross domestic product -- according to the finance ministry.

Lebanon agrees final budget with no taxes 

Lebanon's finance minister said on Saturday following a meeting with Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri that they had agreed on a final budget that did not include any additional taxes or fees in a bid to appease nationwide protests.
Lebanon President Michel Aoun said in a tweet that there would be a "reassuring solution" to the economic crisis.

(With Reuters)


Iraq officials must ‘step up’ to enact reforms: UN envoy

Updated 26 min 10 sec ago

Iraq officials must ‘step up’ to enact reforms: UN envoy

  • UN has put forward a phased roadmap calling for an immediate end to violence and electoral reform within 2 weeks
  • Protesters have escalated their demands to deep-rooted regime change

BAGHDAD: Iraqi officials must ramp up their response to mass demonstrations demanding an overhaul of the political system, the UN representative in Baghdad told AFP in an exclusive interview Wednesday.
Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, who heads the UN’s Iraq mission (UNAMI), said the country’s authorities must “step up to the plate and make things happen.”
“They are elected by the people, they are accountable to them,” she said.
Protests broke out in Baghdad and the country’s Shiite-majority south in early October over rampant corruption, lack of jobs and notoriously poor services.
One in five people lives below the poverty line, despite the vast oil wealth of OPEC’s second biggest producer.
The United Nations has proposed a phased roadmap that, in a crucial step, was endorsed by Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani after meeting Hennis-Plasschaert.
It calls for an immediate end to violence, electoral reform and anti-graft measures within two weeks followed by constitutional amendments and infrastructure legislation within three months.
Hennis-Plasschaert discussed the plan with lawmakers on the sidelines of a parliamentary session on Wednesday, telling them: “Now is the time to act, otherwise any momentum will be lost — lost at a time when many, many Iraqis demand concrete results.”
Protesters have escalated their demands to deep-rooted regime change, unimpressed by government promises of reform.
“There is lots at stake here. Public trust is at an all-time low,” Hennis-Plasschaert told AFP.
“Nothing is more detrimental to public trust than saying ‘A’ and doing ‘B.’ Nothing is more harmful than overpromising and under-delivering,” she added.
Hennis-Plasschaert, 46, was named UNAMI chief last year after having served as the Netherlands defense minister from 2012 until 2017.
She is one of the very few diplomatic figures who meets with Sistani, the revered 89-year-old cleric who never appears in public.
Following their meeting on Monday, she said Sistani, known as the marjaiyah, feared political forces were “not serious enough” to enact reforms.
“If the three authorities — executive, judiciary and legislative — are not able or willing to conduct these reforms decisively, there must be a way to think of a different approach,” she warned at the time.
Pressed by AFP on what the “different approach” could be, Hennis-Plasschaert declined to elaborate, citing “the confidentiality we have with him.”
“The conversation with Grand Ayatollah Sistani is always straightforward, open, and frank, but I cannot go into further detail,” the top diplomat said.
Demonstrators gathering in the main protest camp of Baghdad’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square on Wednesday said her meeting with Sistani helped bolster their crowds.
Hennis-Plasschaert met with protesters in Tahrir last month, even riding in the tuk-tuk rickshaw that has become an icon of the uprising for ferrying wounded protesters to medics.
“They are losing brothers and friends in the streets,” she said of the young protesters she had met.
More than 300 people have died and 15,000 people have been wounded since demonstrations erupted on October 1.
“We are witnessing rising numbers of deaths and injured every day. It’s horrific,” Hennis-Plasschaert said.
The protests initially fractured the political class but it has rallied in recent days to prop up the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.
Politicians closed ranks following a series of meetings with top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, an extremely influential figure who often brokers deals among Iraq’s fractured political class.
Hennis-Plasschaert told AFP she did not seek to be a counter-weight to Iranian influence but said she feared that “spoilers” could prevent progress.
“This country unfortunately knows many actors, external, internal, that could act as spoilers (and) undermine the legitimate demands of the people,” she said.