Lebanese PM sets deadline for economic reforms as protests rage

Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri speaks during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon October 18, 2019.
Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri speaks during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon October 18, 2019. Mohamed Azakir / REUTERS

Prime Pinister Saad Hariri gave his political adversaries in Lebanon's national unity government a 72-hour ultimatum to agree on "convincing" reforms amid escalating nationwide protests over the country's worsening economic crisis.


"I'm setting a very short deadline. Either our partners in the coalition government give a clear, decisive and final response to convince me, the Lebanese people and the international community... that everyone has decided on reforms, or I will have something else to say," Hariri said in an address to the nation.

The Lebanese premier blamed political partners in his national unity government, which includes the Iran-backed Hezbollah group and rival political parties, for blocking his reform efforts at every turn.

Hariri’s ultimatum came as tens of thousands of protesters marched across Lebanon for a second day, demanding the removal of a political elite they accuse of looting the economy to the point of breakdown. Clashes erupted in Beirut on Friday night, with police firing tear gas as young men attacked some banks and street signs in an area between parliament and government headquarters.

Lebanon’s biggest protests in a decade are reminiscent of the 2011 Arab revolts that toppled four presidents. They have brought people from all sects and walks of life on to the streets in villages and towns of Lebanon's south, north and east as well as the capital Beirut.

No political leader, Muslim or Christian, has been spared their wrath, with protesters chanting for top leaders, including President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to step down.

The mood was a mixture of rage, defiance and hope. The Saudi foreign ministry warned its citizens on Friday not to travel to Lebanon due to the deteriorating situation.

WhatsApp tax proposal

The latest unrest is prompted by anger over inflation, new tax proposals, and the rising cost of living.

Seeking ways to boost revenues, a government minister on Thursday announced plans for a new fee for WhatsApp calls, fuelling outrage. But as the protests spread, Telecoms Minister Mohamed Choucair revoked the proposed levy.

Shattered by war between 1975 and 1990, Lebanon has one of the world’s highest debt burdens as a share of its economy.  Economic growth has been hit by regional conflict and unemployment among the under-35s runs at 37%.

The steps needed to fix the national finances have long proven elusive. Sectarian politicians, many of them civil war militia leaders, have long used state resources for their own political benefit and are reluctant to cede prerogatives.

The crisis has been compounded by a slowdown in capital flows to Lebanon, which has depended on remittances from its diaspora to meet financing needs.


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