Saad Hariri responds to protests, gives 72 hours to political parties to find a solution

Demonstrations over proposed new taxes have brought the country to a standstill

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Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri gave politicians 72 hours to find a solution to put an end to the violent demonstrations that erupted across the country on Thursday evening in protest against the deteriorating economy.

“Time is short,” said Mr Hariri, speaking early Friday evening in a much-anticipated speech that was broadcast live across Lebanon.

“Or our partners within the government give answers that convince those that are demonstrating in the street and the international community, or I will act in a different way,” he said, without specifying what that would be.

Mr Hariri was forced to cancel a cabinet meeting scheduled for Friday afternoon and address the country after violent mass protests erupted on Thursday evening and continued on Friday, causing chaos across the country.

An increasing number of political parties are backing protestors’ calls for the government’s resignation.

“The government must resign,” said Mohammed, a 25-year-old restaurant worker who stopped his motorbike in Beirut’s iconic Martyr’s Square to join hundreds of protesters chanting “the people want the fall of the regime”, a slogan that became famous during the Arab uprisings in 2011.

Wearing a Superman T-shirt, Mohammed vowed to continue protesting until “a new political leadership that respects the poor” was set up.

Businesses, banks and schools remained closed as protesters attacked the offices of politicians from across the political spectrum.

In downtown Beirut, protesters threw Molotov cocktails at anti-riot police and smashed glass facades, the state-run National News Agency reported.

Protesters blocked roads with burning tyres, bringing traffic to a halt across the country. Videos shared on social media showed the Lebanese army bringing travellers to the airport in military trucks because Beirut's international airport road was closed.

In Tripoli, bodyguards of an ex-MP shot at a crowd that had gathered outside his office, injuring three people, with one of them in a critical condition, according to the NNA.

Two Syrians died on Thursday evening in a fire caused by demonstrators in downtown Beirut.

In his speech, Mr Hariri blasted unnamed individuals who he said wanted to make him a “scapegoat” for Lebanon’s economic woes, criticising the country’s out of date laws that often date back to the 1960s.

Recognising the “real pain” expressed by protesters, he reiterated that the only solution for the country was to implement reforms to unlock $11 million in pledges that Lebanon received at a conference last year in Paris dubbed “Cèdre”.

The NNA reported that after his speech, protesters were gathering outside the presidential palace, from where Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil gave a speech shortly before Mr Hariri.

Mr Bassil similarly deflected blame to unnamed “insiders” for “waging an economic war against Lebanon and calling for the (presidential) pact”.

The demonstrations were triggered by the government’s announcement of plans for new taxes, including one on the popular internet messaging application WhatsApp.

The telecoms minister quickly backtracked on the plan to tax calls on the app, but the damage was already done.

People took to the streets, complaining about the state of the country’s economy and demanding better living conditions.

Anger at the government, which approved an “austerity” budget this summer, has been simmering for months with smaller, weekly protests taking place all over the country.

“In Lebanon, you pay taxes, but you don’t get electricity or water and our children die at the door of hospitals. The water is polluted and contaminates the food we eat. Cancer rates are going up. It’s too much. It’s over,” said Dana Ajami, a bakery owner who was among the demonstrators waving Lebanese flags and singing the national anthem in front of parliament early Friday afternoon.

She said she had participated in the 2015 protests but felt that this time, they were different.

“At the time, sectarian divisions appeared. Christians were on one side, Muslims on the other. Now everybody is participating. There’s a lot of poor people and poverty starts a revolution.”

Fiscal law expert Karim Daher told The National that progressive income tax does not exist in Lebanon, which relies disproportionately on indirect taxes such as VAT.

“The Lebanese fiscal system is unfair and favours those who work little and have important capital,” he said, highlighting that it has not much changed since 1959.

Power is shared proportionally among the country’s 18 sects, a system which frequently causes political deadlock and infighting.

Walid Jumblatt, head of the majority-Druze Progressive Socialist Party, tweeted to his followers that they should join protests “peacefully”.