|Date: Jan 21, 2019|
|Source: The Daily Star|
|Lebanon: Demonstrators decry worsening living conditions|
|Timour Azhari| The Daily Star|
BEIRUT: Thousands of demonstrators marched to the Finance Ministry in Beirut Sunday in the latest in a string of protests against the state’s economic policies and worsening living conditions in Lebanon.
Led by the Lebanese Communist Party, the Popular Nasserite Organization, workers unions and a number of independent groups, the demonstrators set off from the Barbir area and continued to the ministry, in Beshara Khoury, blocking the roadway for hundreds of meters.
Meanwhile, scores of Army soldiers and police in riot gear obstructed protesters’ access to Downtown Beirut, which already had a large security presence because of the 2019 Arab Economic and Social Development Summit being held in the Waterfront District.
Sabaa Party MP Paula Yacoubian said during the demonstration that the march had “no relation to the summit” but that she hoped “all Arab regimes know that people have a right to demonstrate, and that we’ll see demonstrations in all Arab capitals.”
Yacoubian, the only MP from an independent list elected in last May’s elections, had Saturday called on Sabaa supporters to join the protest.
Indeed, more and more groups from across the political spectrum are uniting around the issue of the worsening economic situation.
In addition to the LCP and the PNO, both established political parties formerly aligned with the now-defunct March 8 movement, Sunday’s protest included Beirut Madinati and Sabaa, which both emerged following the 2015 garbage protests.
MP Osama Saad, who heads the PNO, told The Daily Star at the protest that the demonstration went beyond the economic situation. He said the organizers were attempting to establish a national movement against sectarian politicians and their harmful policies.
“Sectarianism has gripped all aspects of our social, economic and administrative life,” he said. “We are saying there is a movement with large popular support among all sects of the Lebanese public that is against this reality.”
He said the economic situation was becoming the rallying cry for this effort. “Today’s action is a response to the deplorable situation.
“We are saying we want national solutions to the problems in this country, not compromises and settlements, be they on the economy, the health [sector] or all those things that are basic rights.”
He added, “It’s also people’s right to have political stability. It shouldn’t be that every time they disagree on something it shakes the country and reflects on the social and economic situation.”
In recent months, Lebanese officials have warned that the economy may collapse if the state does not take steps to implement serious fiscal and public sector reforms.
But since the May elections, politicians have wrangled over shares in the next Cabinet while conditions continued to deteriorate.
Among the sources of ire for the organizers of Sunday’s protest were rumors that the government, when it is formed, plans to increase the value added tax from 11 to 15 percent, as well as reduce subsidies on gasoline.
“We refuse to bear the consequences of their bad economic policies of the last 30 years,” one demonstrator, Ahmad al-Qadi, told The Daily Star.
Lebanon’s public debt is the third-highest in the world, at about 150 percent of GDP.
Some observers have called for the debt to be restructured, warning that it is suffocating Lebanon and that the country is unlikely to be able to pay it all back.
But when caretaker Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil earlier this month made comments that appeared to support such a move, the idea received immediate backlash, and soon after he announced that Lebanon is “absolutely not” considering doing so.
“Today the country is on the edge of collapse. We have a proud history thanks to the sacrifices of our martyrs, so we can’t remain silent now when we are losing our rights,” said Tarek Khishn, a protester and supporter of the communist party.
“It’s about time these politicians appetites are satisfied. Their banks are flush with cash while the people are hungry,” he said. “We have a right to live in dignity. All of Lebanon must come to the streets.”