Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 November 2019

Lebanese Christian party quits government after third day of protests

The rallies were sparked by anger over a new levy on WhatsApp calls and growing fury at the country's political elite

A Lebanese Christian party announced on Saturday it was quitting the government as anger fuelled by an economic crisis erupted across the country for a third day and descended into riots on the streets of Beirut.

"We are now convinced that the government is unable to take the necessary steps to save the situation," said Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces party.

Small groups of demonstrators gathered in central Beirut early in the day, with storefronts of banks and upmarket retailers in the capital's commercial district smashed in and fires still smouldering from the night before, before their numbers swelled in the evening.

The protesters have taken to the streets since Thursday, calling for the government to step down and condemning its choice to impose new taxes on a populace already battered by a weak economy.

Lebanon's finance minister Ali Hasan Khalil said in a tweet on Saturday that following a meeting with Prime Minister Saad Hariri they had agreed on a final budget that did not include any additional taxes or fees. The Cabinet was planning to meet on Sunday after cancelling a meeting on Friday because of the protests, according to government sources.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Shiite militia Hezbollah, said earlier on Saturday that new taxes proposed to solve the country's economic crisis would lead to a "popular uprising".

He said the group was not demanding the government's resignation amid widespread national protests.

In a televised speech, Nasrallah said that he supported the government, but called for a new agenda and "new spirit". He said that the ongoing protests showed the way forward was not new taxes.

Any tax imposed on the poor would push him to call supporters to go take to the streets, he said.

On Friday, security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets as they chased down protesters in Beirut after tens of thousands of people across Lebanon marched to demand the ousting of a political elite they accuse of looting the economy to the point of collapse.

The Lebanese Red Cross said 208 people had been injured on Saturday evening.

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.

Dozens of people were wounded, with riot police arresting several others.

Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri blamed his partners in government for obstructing reforms that could ward off an economic crisis. He gave them a 72-hour deadline to stop blocking him and hinted that he could resign.

But the protests have continued to swell. By Saturday afternoon, a couple of thousands gathered chanting against all politicians.

"The people want to bring down the regime," was the uniting refrain, as protesters carrying the Lebanese flag marched toward a security barricade with piles of barbed wire outside the government offices in central Beirut.

"Thieves, thieves," they also chanted and named almost every senior Lebanese politician, cursing them or demanding they step down. After Nasrallah's speech, they chanted: "All of them and Nasrallah is one of them."

During the protest in central Beirut on Friday night some demonstrators went on a rampage, smashing window shops, bank exteriors in Beirut's glitzy downtown. Some also threw water bottles and fire crackers at the security forces, which eventually responded by firing tear gas and water cannons. Dozens were arrested.

On Saturday, Lebanese Al-Jadeed TV said protests in the southern city of Tyre turned violent when supporters of longtime Parliament speaker attacked other protesters who had named him among those corrupt officials who should step down. The TV channel said it had to withdraw its team from the city because of the violence.

Nasrallah told the protesters their message was heard and was successful because it was a spontaneous expression of social anger. He said he too was against increasing taxes that directly impact the poor. But the Hezbollah leader warned the protesters against being pulled into political rivalries, saying that would derail their message.

He said politicians can't shirk their responsibilities by quitting the Cabinet while the economy crumbles. Those who do so should be brought to trial, he said, a jab at his political rivals in the government.

The protests, with thousands rallying across the country, are the largest Lebanon has seen since 2015. They could further destabilise a country whose economy is already on the verge of collapse.

The small Arab country on the Mediterranean has the third-highest debt level in the world, currently standing at about $86 billion, or 150 per cent of its gross domestic product.

International donors demand that Lebanon implement economic changes in order to get loans and grants pledged at the CEDRE economic conference in Paris in April 2018. International donors pledged $11 billion for Lebanon but they sought to ensure the money is well spent in the corruption-plagued country.

Several Arab states called on their citizens to avoid travelling to Lebanon after mass protests against the government and economic conditions in the country.

The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation warned UAE citizens not to travel to the country until further notice due to recent security developments.

Khalid Belhoul, under secretary in the ministry, advised Emiratis currently in Lebanon to contact the UAE Embassy in Beirut to arrange for their safe return home.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry told its citizens on Friday not to travel to Lebanon, according to state news agency. It also advised Saudis in Lebanon to be extremely cautious and to call the kingdom's embassy in Beirut if they need assistance when needed.

Updated: October 20, 2019 05:01 PM

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