Hariri agrees to economic reforms after fourth day of Lebanon protests

People stage another night of protests the day after four ministers quit Cabinet

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Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri agreed on Sunday to a package of reforms to ease an economic crisis that has sparked protests against corruption.

Mr Hariri, who is leading a coalition government mired by sectarian and political rivalries, on Friday gave his feuding partners 72 hours to agree to the reforms, hinting he might otherwise resign.

He accused his rivals of obstructing budget measures that could unlock $11 billion (Dh40.4bn) in western donor pledges and help to avert economic collapse.

Reports suggest politicians were concerned that Mr Hariri planned to announce his resignation, leading to a collapse in government that would push the country into the unknown.

There are few other viable Sunni politicians who could feasibly take up the position if Mr Hariri stood down.

Central Beirut on Sunday was for a fourth day flooded with protesters gathering to keep the pressure on the Lebanese government.

Tens of thousands took to the streets in central Beirut and in cities from Tripoli in the north to Tyre in the south.

Protesters unfurled a huge Lebanese flag in central Beirut’s Riad Al Solh Square.

It followed a night of revelry at festive rallies across the country. A DJ played to the crowd in Tripoli while demonstrators in Beirut danced dabke, a mixture of circle and line dancing.

Voice of Lebanon radio reported disputes in south Lebanon between protesters and supporters of the Shiite majority Amal party, who the demonstrators accused of threatening rallies with weapons.

Protests there continued on Sunday but without mentions of political leaders, reportedly on the direction of Amal officials.

Clashes rivals other than authorities have been relatively rare elsewhere in the country.

At the weekend, police used water cannon and batons to clear protests in Beirut.

Schools and universities announced they would remain closed on Monday, after a similar announcement by the Lebanese Association of Banks, which said branches would remain shut.

The American University of Beirut on Sunday said that no exams would be held for at least a week after classes resume.

They closed on Friday after the first night of mass rallies in Beirut and across the country sparked by a Cabinet session on new taxes for the 2020 budget, which included a charge on WhatsApp and other internet calling services.

People from across the political spectrum have joined a rare nationwide demand for the resignation of the government and action to address the economic crisis and lack of services.

"I didn't expect people from the country's north, south and Beirut to join hands and like each other," said Sahar Younis, 32, a worker with a non-government organisation.

"The protests have brought together everyone and this has never happened before.

A woman sits atop of a building overlooking Nejmeh square as its entrance was blocked by the army during an anti-government protest in downtown Beirut, Lebanon October 20, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho
A woman sits on top of a building overlooking Nejmeh square as its entrance is blocked by the army during an anti-government protest in downtown Beirut. Reuters

The leader of the Christian-majority Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea, announced on Saturday evening that his four ministers were standing down.

Mr Geagea said that the government lacked any intention of carrying out reforms.

He  suggested that the Cabinet members from Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's Progressive Socialist Party would follow suit, but this was denied by Industry Minister Wael Abou Faour.

Mr Abou Faour said on Sunday that  he and the PSP's Education Minister, Akram Chehayeb would not leave the government.

The prime minister is urging coalition partners to back his economic plan, but it is unclear if proposals to fix the country’s financial crisis could ease the anger on the streets.

On top of years of stagnant growth, high unemployment, poor public service provision, an internet speed that ranks among the world's slowest and crumbling infrastructure, Lebanon is in an acute financial crisis and a shortage of US dollars.

Officials and economists also predict a currency devaluation or a debt default within months if it fails to shore up its finances.

A demonstrator wears a Guy Fawkes mask during an anti-government protest in the southern city of Nabatiyeh, Lebanon October 20, 2019. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
A demonstrator wears a Guy Fawkes mask during an anti-government protest in the southern city of Nabatiyeh, Lebanon. Reuters

Banks have stopped ATMs issuing the American currency and limited the amount that can be withdrawn in branches.

This is of particular concern in a country where the Lebanese pound can be used interchangeably with the greenback and services from bakers to petrol stations warn of shortages.

The International Monetary Fund said last week that Lebanon's crisis required tough austerity measures such as tax rises and levies on fuel, which politicians have publicly vowed not to take.

Lebanon's economy registered 0.3 per cent growth last year. The IMF said the reforms were needed to stem a growing deficit and public debt it forecasts to reach 155 per cent of GDP by the end of the year. It is already one of the world's highest.

But protesters say the government is looking at new taxes without addressing wasteful spending or tax avoidance by big business and banks.

Ending rampant corruption is a central demand of the protesters, who say the country's leaders have enriched themselves for decades through favourable deals and kickbacks.

"All of the leaders should be put under house arrest and be held accountable to return the money they stole from the state so Lebanon can get back on its feet," said Antoine Zahli, 43, a pharmacist who was among the protesters in downtown Beirut.

Student Charbel Antoun, 17, said: "We want to stay in Lebanon to build our future but if these corrupt politicians stay here what future will be left for us?"

The embassy of Saudi Arabia confirmed on Sunday that it had moved 300 tourists from Lebanon after calling on all of its nationals to leave because of the protests.

The embassy said the 300 were escorted to Beirut’s international airport by security services to ensure their safety.

The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation warned UAE citizens not to travel to the country until further notice.

Khalid Belhoul, undersecretary at the ministry, advised Emiratis in Lebanon to contact the UAE embassy in Beirut to arrange for their safe return home.