WED 13 - 11 - 2019
 
Date: Oct 21, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Critical fifth day of anti-govt protests begins
Govt set to back PM’s radical economic reform blueprint
Emily Lewis & Mohammed Zaatari| The Daily Star
BEIRUT/SIDON: An army of volunteers deployed to clean up the streets of Beirut early Monday morning, as protesters began a critical fifth day of demonstrations against the ruling elite.

Already by 9 a.m., protesters began to trickle into Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square, the epicenter of the last four days’ protest, holding up anti-government banners and waving the Lebanese flag.

With a Cabinet session scheduled for 10:30 a.m. in Baabda and the expiration of Prime Minister Saad Hariri's self-imposed 72-hour deadline around 7 p.m., the day promised major developments as protesters aim to end the careers of potentially all of Lebanon's politicians – the 128 MPs, the 26 remaining ministers and perhaps even the president himself.

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets across the country in what was a celebratory day of protests, with DJ stands being set up, demonstrators dancing the traditional dabke dance and setting off fireworks.

Many of these protesters remained in position Monday morning, having camped overnight. They were joined by an ever-growing stream of new faces as the morning went on.

Roads were blocked by burning tires, garbage cans and material from construction sites in Beirut’s Downtown, Zouk Mosbeh and Nabatieh, among other locations.

In Sidon, units from the Lebanese Army deployed in an attempt to reopen the southern port town’s main thoroughfares to traffic; however, main roads remained blocked, forcing drivers to divert their routes.

Banks, schools and universities remained closed Monday, and many other businesses used their social media platforms to announce their participation in a “general strike” to encourage their customers to take to the streets in protest.

Protesters stare down political parties, violence

Timour Azhari| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: In the days since momentous demonstrations began in Lebanon, protesters have been faced with attempts by traditional parties to join the movement or violently force it off the streets. And across the country, women and men have been resisting these attempts. “The big test was in the past two days [Friday and Saturday], with unprecedented violence by security forces and militias tied to parties. Despite all of that, even more people are on the street,” said Jean Kassir, a political activist.

“Their strategy isn’t working.”

Parties’ attempts to join the movement began within 24 hours of the first protesters setting foot on the ground. Progressive Socialist Party supporters, flags in hand, wearing partisan shirts, attempted Friday to join a protest in Baakline in the Chouf.

“They tried to enter and stand between us. We chanted, “All of them means all of them,” 24-year-old Nassim Nassif, who was on the ground at the time, told The Daily Star. He was referring to a slogan that became popular in 2015 protests against the government’s mismanagement of the solid waste sector.

“When their numbers increased, we decided to march somewhere else in order to maintain our independence,” he said.

“There is no place in the national movement for people holding the flags of their parties,” he added.

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, who at midnight Saturday announced the resignation of his ministers, had earlier called on his supporters to head to the streets without flags or party symbols.

Many responded to the call, especially in Kesrouan and Jbeil, where the party has popular support, making it more difficult to tell them apart from the usual crowd.

Similarly, Free Patriotic Movement MP Salim Aoun said, “Your goals are achieved by supporting the president and by standing with him, not by targeting and insulting him.”

But if chants in Lebanon’s squares are anything to gauge by, people are not convinced. Even in a country where insulting the president is illegal and can land you in prison, many have chanted slogans, some laced with profanity, accusing President Michel Aoun of thievery. They have also viciously attacked FPM leader Gebran Bassil, the president’s son-in-law.

“I think state propaganda is becoming more predictable and it’s harder to scare people with rumors or even violence,” Kassir said.

Some attempts to infiltrate protests can seem relatively tame when compared to the violence that has occurred at others.

Former MP Misbah al-Ahdab Friday attempted to join protesters in Tripoli’s Al-Nour Square. Demonstrators responded by throwing water bottles and other projectiles toward his vehicle. Ahdab’s bodyguards then fired shots directly at protesters, wounding up to seven, according to reports.

Infuriated protesters then forced Ahdab out of the square and destroyed and set alight a transport company belonging to the former lawmaker. Ahdab did not attempt to join them again.

Similarly brutal scenes played out in south Lebanon’s Tyre, this time led by armed gangs who protesters have claimed are affiliated with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

Demonstrators in Tyre and Nabatieh - both locations where Berri’s Amal Movement holds power - had chanted Friday night, “Thief, thief, Nabih Berri is a thief.”

They had also led chants against his wife, Randa, who they accused of participating in corrupt deals in the south.

The armed men fired directly into the crowd Saturday, wounding several protesters who were carried off on motorcycles. Videos circulated of Amal Movement supporters threatening violence against protesters and media. But as in Tripoli, protesters returned in greater numbers than before by Saturday night and filled squares Sunday.

“The barrier of fear has been broken,” former Minister and independent leader Charbel Nahhas said of the recent protests in a video recorded from Riad al-Solh Square in Downtown Beirut.

This doesn’t mean the coast is clear. In his speech Saturday morning, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah said the party might take to the streets if it did not succeed in putting off the adoption of new taxes that have so angered demonstrators. But the people are defiant. As Nasrallah, perhaps traditionally the most untouchable politician, took to the screen Saturday, protesters in Riad al-Solh Square chanted, “All of them means all of them, and Nasrallah is one of them.”

And that points toward an important shift since 2015, Kassir said. Back then, chanting against Berri or Nasrallah led to scuffles. Yes, protesters chanted “All of them means all of them,” but it was not universally accepted who “all of them” were.

But with Nasrallah clearly saying in his speech that he supported the survival of the government, and that everyone in power shared responsibility, he placed himself unmistakably on the side of parties in power.

“They have put themselves all in the same basket,” Kassir said. “They can’t escape from it anymore.”

Govt set to back PM’s radical economic reform blueprint

Hussein Dakroub| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Prime Minister Saad Hariri will seek Cabinet approval Monday of an economic blueprint that contains radical reforms without new taxes for the draft 2020 state budget in an attempt to satisfy some key demands of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who held nationwide protests for four days in a row.

In the first international reaction, a U.S. State Department official told Al-Hurra late Sunday that Washington hoped the protests would “spur Beirut to finally move forward with true economic reform.”

The official added: “The commitment to and implementation of meaningful reforms could open up billions of dollars of international support for Lebanon.”

Washington, according to the official, supports the protests. “The people of Lebanon are rightly frustrated with their government’s inability to prioritize reform. Decades of bad choices and corruption have led the State to the verge of economic collapse,” the official said.

Hariri’s package of reforms, reached after two days of intense negotiations with government partners, cleared the way for a Cabinet session set to be held at 11:30 a.m. at Baabda Palace to approve it, along with the 2020 budget, an official source told The Daily Star.

“Hariri’s economic blueprint does not contain any new taxes or fees on citizens. It calls for measures to fight corruption and waste of public funds and providing 24-hour electricity in 2020,” the source said.

“The plan includes radical reforms to be implemented in various government departments. Among other things, it calls for the closure of councils and funds, such as the Fund for the Displaced and the Council of the South,” the source said, referring to the fund and the council that have been affiliated with Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt and Speaker Nabih Berri respectively.

According to the source, Hariri’s blueprint also calls for a 50 percent cut in the salaries of current and former officials and $3.3 billion in contributions from banks to achieve a “near zero deficit” for the 2020 budget.It also includes a plan to privatize the telecommunications sector and overhaul the country’s dilapidated electricity sector, a key demand of international donors and investors to unlock over $11 billion in grants and soft loans pledged at last year’s CEDRE conference, the source said.

Hariri’s blueprint contains a law that calls for regaining “looted state funds,” a major demand of the protesters. The plan also calls for “reactivating” rather than eliminating the state-run Council for Development and Reconstruction, which oversees the implementation of government projects, the source said.

Against the backdrop of snowballing anti-government street demonstrations that erupted across the country for the fourth day Sunday, with protesters demanding the Cabinet’s resignation and the toppling of President Michel Aoun’s presidency, Hariri is racing against time to endorse the 2020 budget, along with essential reforms, and send it to Parliament for final ratification by the constitutional deadline of Oct. 22. Parliament then has until the end of the year to ratify it.

A source at Baabda Palace said Aoun had agreed to Hariri’s blueprint after making some additions. Hariri’s plan has gained the approval of all major political parties represented in the government, with the exclusion of the Lebanese Forces, the source said.

Citing the lack of the government’s “intention” to carry out reforms, LF leader Samir Geagea announced Saturday that the party’s four ministers would submit their resignation from the Cabinet.

“Once Hariri is done with the economic blueprint, he will call for a Cabinet session at Baabda Palace to endorse it,” the Baabda source said.

Hariri Friday gave 72 hours for political parties to discuss ways to implement reforms to salvage the situation, in what many interpreted to be a threat that he may resign Monday. However, it remains to be seen whether Hariri’s package of reforms would help stem the ballooning wave of street demonstrations in Beirut and other cities, with protesters now insisting on the government’s resignation, the end of Aoun’s term and the recovery of what they call “looted state funds” from politicians.

Geagea sounded skeptical about Hariri’s package of reforms being able to appease the protesters. “I don’t think this blueprint will satisfy the demonstrators. The events have transcended any blueprint. We must go to a radical change,” Geagea told the Saudi satellite news channel Al Arabiya.

Responding to protesters’ calls for Cabinet to resign, Industry Minister Wael Abu Faour, one of two PSP ministers, said his party was against the idea, warning that the country faced the threat of financial collapse in the event of a government vacuum. He linked the PSP’s stay in Cabinet to implementing reform proposals presented by the party to Hariri.

“The government’s resignation might lead to a financial collapse,” Abu Faour told a news conference, with Education Minister Akram Chehayeb sitting next to him. He spoke after meeting with Hariri as part of the premier’s stepped-up consultations with parties to agree on a reform package.

Describing Hariri’s economic blueprint as “advanced,” Abu Faour said the PSP made “some radical reform additions” to the blueprint.

He said the PSP presented its own economic plan to Hariri that rejected the imposition of new taxes on citizens or cutting the salaries or benefits of public employees.

Among measures to reduce state spending, Abu Faour said the PSP’s plan called for the closure of all councils and funds, such as the Fund for the Displaced, the Council of the South and the CDR, the closure of “useless” Lebanese embassies and consulates, as well as the cancellation of all privileges granted to ministers and lawmakers.

“If these reform measures are implemented, they will constitute an incentive for us as the PSP to stay in the government. Our stay in the government is conditional on the implementation of these reforms,” Abu Faour added.

Later, Abu Faour said the idea of early parliamentary elections could provide a solution to the current impasse by giving an “opportunity for a serious change and for citizens to express themselves.”

While the demonstrators are largely united on what they oppose - with many condemning the entire political class as thieves and criminals - they so far lack a clear set of demands or leadership.

Amid the ongoing protests, banks, schools and universities across Lebanon announced Sunday that they would remain closed Monday.

The American University of Beirut said it would remain closed Monday and that “no exams will be held until at least one week following the resumption of classes,” a statement released on its official website said.

The state-run Lebanese University also released a statement announcing the closure Monday, owing to the current situation.

The Lebanese American University announced the postponement of all exams until further notice.

Schools run by the U.N. agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, will be closed Monday, as well as all Catholic schools, as per the announcement of the general secretary of Catholic schools in Lebanon.

The League of Public Employees, which has been on strike since the protests began, said it would continue with its walkout until Monday evening in order to allow public employees to participate in the “popular demonstrations that reject attempts to reduce the salaries of poor and middle-income people.”


 
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