Lebanese banks, schools shut as protesters push on

Protesters gather outside the central bank of Lebanon to rally against the financial measures adopted by the Banque du Liban. (AFP)
Updated 12 November 2019

Lebanese banks, schools shut as protesters push on

  • Top UN official calls for ‘urgent formation’ of a new government made up of people known for their competence
  • Banks in Lebanon have been imposing restrictions on dollar withdrawals and transfers abroad

BEIRUT: School and university students joined street protests in Beirut and other Lebanese cities as widespread civil disruption in support of a “national salvation government” entered its 27th day.
Protesters blocked the entrance to the Palace of Justice in the capital on Tuesday, waving banners and chanting demands for “a fair judiciary that prosecutes corrupt people.” Clashes between lawyers and protesters erupted after access to the building was halted.
A group of women carrying posters calling for “old-age security” and “fighting poverty and the rule of the bank” staged a silent rally under the Musharrafieh bridge in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
With a date yet to be set for parliamentary consultations to appoint a new prime minister, consultations between President Michel Aoun and caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri have failed to find a formula to establish the next government.
Earlier, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) announced through its parliamentary bloc that it approved a “government of technocrats.” But on Monday the FPM, Hezbollah and Amal appeared to be unanimous in agreeing to include state ministers in the government. Meanwhile, Hariri has insisted on an independent technocratic government that does not include politicians or parties.
Aoun briefed foreign and Arab envoys in two meetings on “the ongoing contacts to form a new government that achieves the reform paper adopted by the outgoing government.” Later the Lebanese president called on Arab countries to “help boost Lebanon’s economy.”
The presidential media office said that “the ambassadors expressed the support of their countries to Lebanon in these circumstances, stressing the importance of forming a new government to cope with the developments.”
A top UN official in Lebanon on Tuesday called for the urgent formation of a new government made up of people known for their competence, according to Reuters.
However, Walid Fakhreddin, a public affairs expert and activist, told Arab News that “what the authority is discussing is far from the demands of the movement in the street.”
“Pressure in the street resulted in the disruption of a parliamentary legislative session that would have passed a general amnesty law preventing the prosecution of corrupt individuals,” he said.
“What government officials are doing now with their debates is a waste of time. No one expects this authority to seriously deal with our demands.”
Fakhreddin said that “Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah told us yesterday that reforms can be carried out without a government. This means that things are going in the direction of more complexity. There is no acceptable approach to the demands of the street.
“The bodies involved in the civil movement have agreed on a single agenda, which is the demand for an independent transitional government to hold parliamentary elections,” he said.
The movement had refused to meet with French envoy Christophe Farno, who arrived in Beirut and is scheduled to meet Lebanese officials on Wednesday. “These forces will not participate in a meeting with the authority or with any external envoy,” Fakhreddin said.
Meanwhile, bank employees went on strike on Tuesday to protest against abuse directed at them by depositors and dealers because of banks’ refusal to hand over large amounts of money to depositors or to issue cash in dollars.

Tehran mayor sees ‘threat’ in Iranians’ dissatisfaction

Updated 24 min 7 sec ago

Tehran mayor sees ‘threat’ in Iranians’ dissatisfaction

  • The International Monetary Fund predicts Iran’s economy will shrink by 6 percent this year

TEHRAN: Iran’s low voter turnout reflects a wider malaise in a country long buckling under sanctions and more recently also hit hard by the coronavirus, spelling “a threat for everyone,” Tehran’s mayor Pirouz Hanachi told AFP.

“The turnout at the ballot box is a sign of people’s satisfaction level,” said Hanachi, mayor of Iran’s political and business center and largest city, with more than 8 million people.

“When there is dissatisfaction with the government or the state, it then reaches everyone and that includes the municipality too,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.

Iran has suffered the double blow of a sharp economic downturn caused by US economic sanctions over its contested nuclear program, and the region’s most deadly COVID-19 outbreak.

Reformists allied with moderate President Hassan Rouhani lost their parliamentary majority in a landslide conservative victory in February, in a major setback ahead of presidential elections next year.

Voter turnout hit a historic low of less than 43 percent in the February polls after thousands of reformist candidates were barred from running by the Islamic republic’s powerful Guardian Council.

Such voter fatigue “can be a threat for everyone, not just reformists or conservatives,” warned the mayor, a veteran public servant with a background in urban development who is tied to the reformist camp.

The conservative resurgence reflects dissatisfaction with the Rouhani camp that had sought reengagement with the West and the reward of economic benefits — hopes that were dashed when US President Donald Trump in 2018 pulled out of a landmark nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions.

The International Monetary Fund predicts Iran’s economy will shrink by 6 percent this year.

“We’re doing our best, but our situation is not a normal one,” Hanachi said. “We are under sanctions and in a tough economic situation.”

As he spoke in his town hall office, the shouts of angry garbage truck drivers echoed from the street outside, complaining they had not received pay or pensions for months.

The mayor downplayed the small rally as the kind of event that could happen in “a municipality in any other country,” adding that the men were employed not by the city itself but by contractors.

Iran’s fragile economy, increasingly cut off from international trade and deprived of crucial oil revenues, took another major blow when the novel coronavirus pandemic hit in late February.

Since then the outbreak has killed more than 12,000 people and infected over 248,000, with daily fatalities reaching a record of 200 early this week, according to official figures.

A temporary shutdown of the economy in recent months and closed borders sharply reduced non-oil exports, Iran’s increasingly important lifeline.

This accelerated the plunge of the Iranian rial against the US dollar, threatening to further stoke an already high inflation rate.

In just one impact, said Hanachi, the Teheran municipality lost 2 trillion rial ($9 million) because of sharply reduced demand for public transport in recent months.

As many Tehran residents got back into their cars to avoid tightly packed subways and buses, this has done nothing to help solve Tehran’s long-standing air pollution issue.

Tehran has had only 15 “clean” air quality days since the March 20 Persian New Year, according to the municipality.

One of Hanachi’s tasks is to fight both the virus and air pollution — a tough juggling act as car travel is safer for individuals but also worsens the smog that often cloaks the capital.

The mayor said he worried that, after restrictions on car travel were reimposed in May to reduce air pollution, subways are once again packed during peak hours, as is the bustling city center.

Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, which is now crowded with shoppers, warned Hanachi, “can become a focal point for the epidemic.”