“The people want to topple the regime,” tens of thousands of Lebanese protesters from different sects have been chanting against the government since Thursday night across the capital city of Beirut and other cities, calling for the government of Prime Minister (PM) Saad Al-Hariri, President Michel Aoun, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to step down.
The nationwide protests have reached its third day on Saturday amid heavy security force presence and reports of more than 300 protesters apprehended by authorities. However, according to security forces in Lebanon, about 70 people were arrested, and about 50 police officers were wounded.
Across Lebanon, police clashed with protesters and fired tear gas to disperse demonstrators on Friday. Protesters burnt tires, blocked major roads, and threw stones, shoes, and water bottles at security forces.
Videos circulated via Twitter showing thousands of protesters gathered in the capital of Beirut’s Riad Al-Solh square on Thursday. They were seen singing, dancing, and waving flags while chanting, “the people want to topple the regime,” “Revolution!” and “Thieves!”
Schools and banks have shut their doors as protests continue.
Photos and videos circulated on social media showing wounded protesters and others chained down with captions denouncing the Lebanese security forces’ acts and calling for their release. However, the photos could not be verified.
The furious protests, the largest since 2015, were sparked following a governmental decree to tax voice calls made through the Facebook-owned software WhatsApp, and erupted against the country’s economic conditions. After the backlash, the government immediately withdrew its decision.
Among the videos that went viral, was one featuring a Lebanese woman kicking an armed man on Thursday, as many users praised her courage.
Internet connection was also reported to be weak on Friday according to Twitter users. Hashtags like “It is time to settle (matters) up,” “Lebanon is rising up,” have been trending since Thursday.
On resignation calls, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Saturday that the movement does not agree with the calls of government resignation.
Earlier on Friday, PM Al-Hariri gave a televised speech on Friday and said that Lebanon is passing through difficult times which he has been trying to tackle and find real solutions for in the past three years.
Al-Hariri said that Thursday’s protests revealed the “pain of Lebanese citizens,” which he said he admits and understands very well, adding that he is backing any peaceful movement to express it. “What matters most now is how we will tackle it, and this is our responsibility,” Hariri added.
Al-Hariri said that he agreed with his political partners to implement a series of reforms to increase the national income, explaining that reforms do not mean taxes, but to the overall change, which includes the amending of laws the country inherited from the 1950s-1960s.
“The talks about foreign interference against Lebanon’s stability do not deny the authenticity of the people’s anger. Whoever believes that he has a solution for the crisis, he is welcome to take the reins of power,” said Al-Hariri.
Eventually, Al-Hariri gave himself and his political partners 72 hours to provide satisfactory solutions for both Lebanese protesters and international partners.
Earlier, Al-Hariri cancelled a government meeting scheduled on Friday to discuss the draft fiscal year 2020 budget over the nationwide protests.
Calls for Hariri to Step down
Firas Maksad, adjunct professor at George Washington’s Elliott School of International Affairs, commented on Al-Hariri’s speech saying, “he is just buying time,” predicting that the anger will grow in the upcoming days.
“Lebanon protests are unprecedented in nature, with people of all sects taking on the established political order in their community. I am repeating my earlier prediction that the Beirut government will fall,” Maksad tweeted on Friday.
Meanwhile, Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces Party urged Hariri and his government to step down over their fiasco in solving the country’s economic troubles and improve the people’s living conditions.
Geagea tweeted on Friday that the best thing Hariri can do in this critical time is to step down to give the lead for a new and different government capable of improving the economy.
President of the Progressive Socialist Party of Lebanon Walid Joumblatt urged his supporters to take part in a “peaceful movement” against the current government and President, calling for a mass government resignation.
Maksad wrote that the possible resignation would be followed by a prolonged period of political haggling and unrest amidst rapidly deteriorating living conditions as the economy and currency decline.
Earlier this month, Al-Hariri went under intensive criticism over a New York Times report that suggested that he gave a South African bikini model nearly $16m in 2013 and had a romantic relationship with her.
The report sparked a controversy on social media, as many criticized their PM and described it as a scandal. While others wrote it as a personal matter. The net worth of Al-Hariri is $1.5 bn according to Forbes.
Hariri, a leading Sunni Muslim political figure, turned Lebanon Prime Minister on November 2016, has previously served as prime minister between 2009 and 2011.
Lebanon’s sectarian political system is based on a power-sharing agreement. The president has to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the parliament speaker a Shi’ite.
Weak economic conditions
The recent wave of protests was not the first in recent years in Lebanon. In 2015, the country witnessed large demonstrations over the government’s failure to find solutions to the garbage crisis where the government allowed for trash to accumulate on the street, which resulted in the open burning of trash.
The trash crisis sparked daily protests against corruption and economic conditions.
The country of six million people who belong to various religious communities, has been suffering from a weak economy and has been in a crucial need of reforms and investment.
Lebanon is among the most indebted countries in the world, with public debt estimated to exceed $86bn as the public debt-to-GDP ratio is 150%, according to the International Monetary Fund and Trading Economics.
Meanwhile, the GDP growth in Lebanon in 2018 is estimated to have only grown by an estimated 0.2% compared to 0.6% in 2010, according to the World Bank (WB).
On May this year, the Washington-based Institute of International Finance said that Lebanon’s economy is at a critical stage. The institute projected that if the government failed in taking measures to boost revenues alongside steps to reduce spending, then the public debt-to-GDP ratio will rise further to 180% by 2023.
Following the end of the civil war in 1990, Lebanon began rapidly expanding its public debt which worsened the economic conditions and increased socioeconomic inequalities.
The growth rate of tourism, one of Lebanon’s largest sources of income and foreign exchange, fell by half in 2018. The increase in tourist arrivals was only 5.8% in 2018.
One of the key issues affecting Lebanon’s economy is the Syrian population that found refuge in the country since Syria’s uprising in March 2011. the Syrian population in Lebanon currently stands at 1.5 million, about a quarter of the Lebanese population, the WB said in a 2019 report.
“The (Syrian) crisis is expected to worsen poverty incidence among Lebanese citizens as well as widen income inequality. In particular, it is estimated that as a result of the Syrian crisis, some 200,000 additional Lebanese have been pushed into poverty, adding to the erstwhile 1 million poor,” the WB said in 2019.
“An additional 250,000 to 300,000 Lebanese citizens are estimated to have become unemployed, most of them unskilled youth,” the WB added.