Lebanon mass protests ‘shook’ leadership, says PM as reform deal agreed

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Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks to the press following a cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the capital Beirut on Oct. 21, 2019. (Reuters)
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Anti-government protesters shout slogans against the Lebanese government during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. (AP)
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The protests have grown steadily since public anger first spilled onto the streets on Thursday. (Reuters)
Updated 22 October 2019

Lebanon mass protests ‘shook’ leadership, says PM as reform deal agreed

  • Ministerial salaries to be slashed by 50 percent; Hariri agrees on early parliamentary elections

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s government on Monday passed crucial economic reforms under pressure from mass demonstrations, with the prime minister saying the protests had shaken the political leadership and broken the “blind barrier of sectarian loyalty.”

Prime Minister Saad Hariri had set a Monday evening deadline for his coalition partners to agree on measures to appease angry citizens, who have been protesting since last Thursday about the country’s dire economic situation. 

There will be no new personal taxes or austerity measures in next year’s budget. Hariri also said there would be early parliament elections to meet demands for political reform.

Other major concessions include salary cuts for top politicians, axing a ministry and slashing the budget of a government body.

“I took a first step, but what you did shook all the political parties and leaders, and broke the blind barrier of sectarian loyalty,” he said. “This is certainly a national demand and I hope it will be the beginning of the sectarian system’s end in Lebanon.”

HIGHLIGHTS

• Prime Minister Saad Hariri had set a Monday evening deadline for his coalition partners to agree on measures to appease angry citizens, who have been protesting since last Thursday about the country’s dire economic situation. 

• Cabinet would make efforts to recover looted public funds. A national anti-corruption body would be established and there would be tougher scanning at border crossings to fight smuggling, says PM.

He made the remarks after a five-hour Cabinet meeting. He said young people in particular were “desperate, bursting, and took to the streets to express their anger and claim, in their own way, diverse and rightful demands as well as the basic demand for dignity and respect for their opinions.”

He listed some of the Cabinet session’s achievements such as a 50 percent reduction in the salaries of former and current ministers and deputies, a 70 percent budget cut for the Council for Development and Reconstruction.

There will be an additional LBP20 billion ($13.27 million) to support the poorest households’ program, with a $100 million loan from the World Bank and $160 million in housing loans.

Hariri added that the Cabinet would make efforts to recover looted public funds. A national anti-corruption body would be established and there would be tougher scanning at border crossings to fight smuggling.

The Cabinet also decided to abolish the Ministry of Information, appoint regulatory bodies for electricity, communications and civil aviation and accelerate the commissioning of electricity production plants within four months. A financial adviser would be consulted about privatizing the telecommunications sector.

“There will not be any investment spending from the budget, thus closing the door on waste and corruption. Our dependence on foreign direct investment ensures growth. These decisions may not fulfill your demands, but will fulfill what I have been demanding for two years. These decisions are not a barter to stop the protests, this is your decision to make. I do not allow anyone to threaten you and it is the state’s duty to protect you. You are the compass and your protests have led these decisions. You are out on the streets demanding your national and individual dignity, and the respect of your opinions and you must know that your voices are heard.”

The Cabinet meeting was attended by 26 ministers, except the four representatives from the Lebanese Forces Party who had resigned from the government. 

The initial reaction of some protesters was that the Hariri deal was inadequate.  

“We reject the suggested reforms,” activists in Riad El-Solh Square told Arab News. “How can we believe that these reforms will be executed after years of promises of reforms and none of them have been implemented?”

Protesters have flocked to sit-ins across the country, with banks and public institutions shuttered during the unrest, their anger filling the airwaves and news cycles.

Roadblocks of burning tires and sandbags have increased the sense of frustration and restiveness, with concerns about access to flour, fuel, vegetables and fruits.

The official national news agency reported that mills had supplied flour to bakeries on Sunday at midnight. “Some of the trucks were able to reach their destinations while others were unable to do so due to roadblocks,” it said.

Sami Brax, who heads the Syndicate of Gas Station Owners, appealed to protesters: “The fuel available in the stations is sufficient until Tuesday morning. There is a need to open the roads and let fuel tanks pass because gasoline and diesel are essential materials, not only for homes and cars, but also for hospitals, bakeries, electric generators, food establishments’ trucks, ambulances, and firefighters.”


Iraqi protesters shut roads to ports, oil fields

Updated 43 min 32 sec ago

Iraqi protesters shut roads to ports, oil fields

  • Basra saw protesters block access routes to the ports of Khor Al-Zubair and Umm Qasr, as well as Rumailah oil field

BAGHDAD: Anti-government demonstrators in southern Iraq shut roads to two major ports and a key oil field Wednesday, port officials and AFP correspondents said, leading to a brief operational halt.
Correspondent in oil-rich Basra province saw protesters block access routes to the ports of Khor Al-Zubair and Umm Qasr, as well as Rumailah oil field.
Trucks waiting to load up goods from the ports could be seen waiting empty behind crowds of demonstrators.
Khor Al-Zubair is used for some heavy crude exports but also to import fuel products like benzene, while Umm Qasr is the main entry point for food and medicine into Iraq.
“Export and import activities have stopped because trucks cannot enter Khor Al-Zubair or Umm Qasr ports,” one official at Basra’s port authority said.
A second official later said the route to Khor Al-Zubair had been reopened but Umm Qasr remained shut.
Sit-ins have become a go-to tactic for Iraqis demonstrating against their government since early October.
Protesters have shut the road to Umm Qasr several times, causing a delay in offloading operations that on one occasion forced around a dozen ships to unload their cargo in another country.
Road closures have also impacted heavy crude from the Qayyarah field in northern Iraq from reaching Khor Al-Zubair since earlier this month.
The prime minister’s office has warned security forces “will not allow” protesters near key infrastructure, and riot police have forced roads open in deadly crackdowns.
More than 330 people have been killed since rallies erupted on October 1 in Baghdad and across the south.
In the capital’s main protest camp of Tahrir (Liberation) Square, thousands gathered Wednesday to express their ongoing frustration.
Top leaders and political parties have focused their efforts on hiring drives, more welfare and a new electoral law as immediate measures.
Parliament met late Tuesday to discuss a draft voting law that proposes downsizing the house from 329 seats to 251, shrinking districts and distributing votes according to a complex hybrid system.
But the United Nations mission in Iraq (UNAMI) said the draft law needed more work.
“The draft electoral legislation — currently under review by the Council of Representatives — requires improvements to meet public demands,” it said in an emailed statement on Wednesday.
UNAMI chief Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert urged lawmakers to pass legislation that “will reflect the public appetite for a new and different way of conducting politics.”
Protesters have so far been unimpressed by the government’s proposals and large crowds — most of them students — turned out on Wednesday.
“Last night’s session serves their own interests, not those of the people,” said Younes, a 28-year-old protester.
Crowds have spilled over from Tahrir onto three main bridges that lead to the western bank of the Tigris, where key government buildings and embassies are based.
On Tuesday night, they tried to cross two of the bridges to reach the so-called Green Zone but security forces deployed on the bridges fired tear gas to keep them back, a security source told AFP.