Protests force Lebanese parliament to postpone session, banks reopen

Anti-government protesters hit a police officer as they try to remove barbed wire that blocks a road leading to the parliament building in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. (AP)
Updated 19 November 2019

Protests force Lebanese parliament to postpone session, banks reopen

  • Protesters have sought to prevent members of parliament from attending the session

BEIRUT: Protesters prevented Lebanon's parliament from holding its first session in two months on Tuesday, escalating a wave of demonstrations against rulers blamed for steering the country towards economic collapse.

Banks reopened after a one-week closure, with police stationed at branches and banks applying restrictions on hard currency withdrawals and transfers abroad.

The protests erupted last month, fuelled by corruption among the sectarian politicians who have governed Lebanon for decades. Protesters want to see the entire ruling class gone from power.

Lebanon's economic troubles have increased since then. Despite the depth of the economic crisis, the worst since the 1975-90 civil war, politicians have been unable to form a new government since Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri quit on Oct. 29.

Near parliament on Tuesday, gunfire was heard as several dozen protesters forced two SUVs with official plates and tinted windows to turn back as they approached the building, Lebanese television showed.

The vehicles sped away after they were struck by demonstrators chanting "Out, out, out!"

Parliament postponed the session indefinitely.

"This is a new victory for the revolution and we are continuing until we achieve our goals," said protester Abdelrazek Hamoud.

The session's agenda had included reelecting members of parliamentary committees and discussion of an amnesty law that would lead to the release of hundreds of prisoners. Protesters were angry the MPs were not tackling their demands for reform.

Security forces had fanned out before dawn, shutting down roads around parliament with barbed wire. Police scuffled with protesters who tried to remove a barbed wire barricade.

Ahmad Mekdash, a civil engineer, said: "They should be meeting right now to form a new cabinet and not to pass laws, especially laws that aren't urgent."

The economic crisis, rooted in years of government waste and corruption, has now filtered into the financial system which faces dollar shortages and a weakening of the pegged pound. Banks had mostly been closed since the protests started.

Though the banking association on Sunday had agreed a weekly cap of $1,000 on cash withdrawals from U.S. dollar accounts, some depositors found they could only withdraw a lesser amount.

Six customers at Bank Audi were told they could only take out a maximum of $300. Several customers at BankMed were told the cap was $400.

A banking source said the $1,000 figure had been set as a ceiling and for some customers it was less depending on the amount in their account.

"I have an account with $8,000 dollars and they won't let me withdraw above 300. They told me you can take $1,000 out only if your account has above $100,000 in it," said Bank Audi customer Charif Baalbaki, 43, a copywriter.

Bank of Beirut customer Khalid Maarouf, 40, who works in textiles, said he didn't know how he was going to come up with dollar payments he needed to make this month.

"I need $20,000 before the end of the month to make payments to people and I can only get $1,000 each week," he said.

Caretaker finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil said Lebanon was in "a critical condition" requiring a new government. But in the last few days he said there had been "no real new effort" towards forming one.

Hariri, who is aligned with Western and Gulf Arab states, wants to return as prime minister of specialist ministers devoid of any other politicians, while the Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies say the government should include politicians.

Capital Economics said in a research note: "Pressure is growing on Lebanon's dollar peg and, in the event of a devaluation, the pound could fall by as much as 50% against the dollar."

The central bank has vowed to maintain its currency peg of 1507.5 to the dollar, in place since 1997. The dollar buying price on a parallel market was 1820-1830 pounds on Tuesday according to five currency dealers, about 20% higher than the official rate. 

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Jordan mulls self-isolation for COVID-19 patients ‘if caseload continues’

Updated 39 min 55 sec ago

Jordan mulls self-isolation for COVID-19 patients ‘if caseload continues’

  • The new plan will not include high-risk coronavirus patients such as the elderly and those who need medical attention
  • The minister also said the government will set up epidemiological investigation centers in different governorates

DUBAI: Some COVID-19 patients in Jordan will have to self-isolate if the country continues to record a rise in daily infections, in a new plan announced by State Minister for Media Affairs Amjad Adaileh.

Adaileh said this new plan will not include high-risk coronavirus patients such as the elderly and those who need medical attention, as well as those who have no means to self-isolate in their homes, as reported by state news agency Petra.

The plan is still in the works, the minister said, adding it will depend on the increase of cases across the country.

Medical teams will be formed to follow the case of self-isolating patients and provide necessary assistance.

The minister also said the government will set up epidemiological investigation centers in different governorates and will offer testing for asymptomatic cases, including those who were in contact with confirmed patients.

There will also be call centers tasked with informing people of their test results.

Meanwhile, spokesperson of the National Epidemiological Committee Natheer Obeidat, dismissed the herd immunity approach and said the only ethical way to deal with the virus is through proper immunization with a vaccine.

Obeidat, who was speaking at a press conference in Amman, said the country was experiencing a “societal spread” of infections, which is a pandemic phase characterized by the inability of authorities to trace cases.

“Societal immunity, or as some call it herd immunity, develops in patients through allowing a large percentage of the citizens within a certain country to become infected, which is a percentage determined by the spread factor of any pandemic,” he explained.

The spokesperson said the country should enhance the abilities of health authorities to identify and track cases to address the continuous spread of the disease.