Lebanese keep up protests despite emergency rescue plan

Hezbollah movement saw rare demonstrations criticizing the party and leader Nasrallah

October 22, 2019
Demonstrators march during an anti-government protest in the southern city of Tyre, Lebanon, Tyre, where Hezbollah holds sway, on Tuesday. — Reuters
Demonstrators march during an anti-government protest in the southern city of Tyre, Lebanon, Tyre, where Hezbollah holds sway, on Tuesday. — Reuters

BEIRUT — Lebanese protesters kept the country on lockdown Tuesday as they gathered for a sixth consecutive day demanding new leaders despite the government's adoption of an emergency economic rescue plan.

Demonstrations initially sparked by a proposed tax on WhatsApp and other messaging apps have grown into an unprecedented cross-sectarian street mobilization against the political class.

Rallies have spread to all major cities and into Lebanon's vast Diaspora. The mass anti-government protests also broke a taboo as strongholds of the Shiite Hezbollah movement saw rare demonstrations criticizing the party and its leader Hassan Nasrallah.

On live TV and in protest sites, citizens accused the party of providing political cover for a corrupt government that they say has robbed people of their livelihoods. This shattered the myth of absolute acquiescence among Hezbollah's popular base, baffling even those who hail from the movement's strongholds.

The Lebanese Cabinet was spurred into passing wide-ranging economic reforms on Monday but the move failed to win over protesters, who now seem bent on removing the entire political elite, which they see as corrupt.

In Beirut, volunteers donned gloves and cleaned up streets after euphoric crowds partied deep into the night Monday, dancing to impromptu concerts.

Among them, Hussein al-Aliya, a 35-year-old bus driver, was sweeping away rubbish after a night of protests. "If it took just three days to approve (the reforms), why haven't they done so for the past 30 years?" he asked.

"We've come down to the street from all religious sects to bring the whole of the state down," said the young man from the Shiite stronghold of southern Beirut. "The lawmakers and ministers are all thieves and the governor of the central bank is covering up for them," he said.

But "there are young women and men studying in the universities who could take on jobs in parliament and government."

Among the measures announced by Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Monday were a 2020 budget meant to bring the deficit down to 0.6 percent of GDP, no new taxes, a privatization program and measures to support the underprivileged.

It was also to slash by half the salaries of current and former lawmakers and ministers. With schools and banks closed since last week, a couple of dozen demonstrators chanted on in front of the central bank despite Monday's announcement.

"Down with the rule of the central bank. We won't pay the taxes. Let the banks pay them," they intoned.

The country's main parties, including those of President Michel Aoun and the Shiite movement Hezbollah, have warned against the impact of a government vacuum and supported the reform package.

Hariri met top ambassadors in Beirut on Tuesday, hoping to restore confidence that Lebanon can handle its ballooning debt and unlock a huge aid package.

"We believe after the announcement of the decisions of the cabinet yesterday, that we're going to get very positive reactions from them," senior government adviser Nadim Munla told reporters.

"This protest movement is the only chance the people have," said Mounir Malaaeb, an elderly man from the southern city of Tyre who came to the capital to join the rallies.

"If we give the government another chance we would be crazy. We have been giving them chances since the 1990s."

On Tuesday morning, the Lebanese army was trying to reopen a number of major roads that have been blocked by angry demonstrators for days, the National News Agency said.

It remained unclear how long protests will last and whether they will maintain their current size, which ranged from thousands to tens of thousands across the country, according to estimates.

Given the size of the gatherings, the six-day-old mobilization has been remarkably incident free, with armies of volunteers providing water to protesters and organizing first aid tents.

After the sun sets, focused protests evolve into an open-air party with loud speakers blasting songs as demonstrators cook food on grills, play cards or smoke from a hookah pipe.

Meanwhile, the protest against Hezbollah too caught people by surprise. "No one ever expected that in any of these areas in south Lebanon we would hear a single word against Nasrallah," or Amal Movement leader Nabih Berri, said Sara, a 32-year-old activist who participated in protests in the southern city of Nabatiyeh.

"It's unbelievable," the activist added, asking to use a pseudonym due to security concerns. The popular Iran-backed movement is a major political player that took 13 seats in the country's May 2018 parliamentary elections and secured three Sabinet posts.

South Lebanon — a bastion of the powerful Shiite movement since the group liberated the region from Israeli occupation in 2000 — was not spared. Protests have been reported in the cities of Nabatiyeh, Bint Jbeil, and Tyre, where Hezbollah and its political affiliate the Amal Movement hold sway.

With the exception of Tyre, they were not as big as other parts of the country. But "the novelty here is that some of these protesters are party loyalists," said Sara. "They support Hezbollah, but they are suffocating."

But anti-government protests that started in Beirut on Oct. 17 and quickly spread across the country left no politician unscathed, not even the Hezbollah leader. "All of them means all of them, Nasrallah is one of them," protesters chanted in Beirut.

Criticism of Nasrallah even aired on the Hezbollah-run Al-Manar TV, in a scene that was previously unfathomable for watchers of the movement's propaganda arm.

In a live interview from central Beirut, one protester urged Nasrallah to "look after his people in Lebanon" instead of focusing on regional enterprises like Syria, where he has deployed fighters to defend President Bashar Al-Assad's regime.

Nasrallah acknowledged the mounting criticism against him in a speech on Saturday: "Curse me, I don't mind." Hatem Gharbeel, a protester in Nabatiyeh, said Hezbollah loyalists felt let down.

"The messages being addressed to Nasrallah by his own supporters in Nabatiyeh is that the resistance is not just about fighting Israel or terrorism," he said. "It should also be about supporting people's livelihoods." — AFP

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