Protesters vow 'week of wrath' in Lebanon

Although protests had declined in size in recent weeks, demonstrations have been ongoing since October

An anti-government protester shouts slogans in front of a fire set by demonstrators to block the main highway that link east and west Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. Lebanese protesters have blocked several roads around the capital of Beirut and other cities and towns in renewed rallies against the ruling elite they say has failed to address the economy's downward spiral. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
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Lebanese protesters resumed blocking major highways on Tuesday in what they said would be a "week of wrath" demanding an end to a months-long political vacuum.

Although protests had declined in size in recent weeks, demonstrations have been ongoing since October, increasingly targeting banks and state institutions blamed for driving the country towards collapse.

The unprecedented cross-sectarian movement has been fuelled by a crippling economic crisis, the worst since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

Debt-burdened Lebanon has been without a government since Saad Hariri resigned as prime minister on October 29, as political parties fail to agree on the makeup of a new one.

As a liquidity crisis grows and the cost of living rises, protesters have returned to the streets to urge politicians to swiftly form a cabinet of experts to respond to their demands.

On Tuesday morning, dozens of protesters blocked key highways in and around Beirut with overturned rubbish bins and burning tyres.

Laila Youssef, 47, said she was taking part to call on politicians to wake up.

"We've gone back to closing down roads because we can't stand it anymore," the mother of three said.

"What we earn today is not enough to buy the basics for home," she said.

Many Lebanese have lost their jobs or seen their salaries reduced by half in recent months.

Even as banks cap withdrawals, the value of the Lebanese pound to the US dollar has fallen by almost half on the parallel exchange market.

A 75-year-old who refused to give his name said he was protesting against the "mafia gangs" in power.

"To humiliate the Lebanese people, they formed mafia gangs with the banks and took out all the dollars," he claimed.

In a televised speech on Tuesday, President Michel Aoun acknowledged the delay in agreeing a new cabinet line-up but said time was needed to find suitable candidates.

"What is needed is a government with a specific speedy programme to address the pressing economic and financial crisis," he told foreign envoys.

"The formation of this government demands choosing competent individuals who deserve the trust of the people and parliament, which takes time," he said.

There were demonstrations on Tuesday in the provinces too, including second city Tripoli and the south-east town of Hasbayya, Lebanese television channels showed.

In Tripoli, 30-year-old Alaa Khodr said he and other protesters wanted a government to be formed rapidly without any representatives of the traditional political parties.

"We want a government as soon as possible because the economic situation can no longer wait and the country is sliding towards collapse," said.

The protests had dwindled to symbolic gatherings in recent weeks after Hassan Diab, a professor and former education minister, was nominated to form a cabinet on December 19.

But Lebanese have returned to the streets since Saturday, when hundreds gathered across the country to vent their frustration.

The protesters are demanding a new government made up solely of independent technocrats, but analysts warn this may be a tall order in a country ruled by a sectarian power-sharing system since the end of the civil war.

The World Bank has warned of a recession that may see the proportion of people living in poverty climb from a third to half the population.

Even before the protests began, economic growth in Lebanon had slowed sharply in the face of repeated political deadlocks in recent years, compounded by the war in neighbouring Syria.

Public debt stands at almost $90 billion, or more than 150 per cent of GDP, according to the finance ministry.