Lebanon government in 11-hour reform drive as protests swell

Beirut (AFP) –


Lebanon's teetering government was expected Monday to approve a belated economic rescue plan as the nation prepared for a fifth day of mass protests against the ruling elite.

A proposed tax on mobile messaging applications last week sparked a spontaneous, cross-sectarian mobilisation that has brought Lebanon to a standstill and put the entire political class in the dock.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in central Beirut and other cities Sunday to demand better living conditions and the ouster of a cast of politicians who have monopolised power and influence for decades.

Euphoric crowds partied deep into the night, leaving all political and sectarian paraphernalia at home to gather under the national cedar flag, dancing to impromptu concerts and chanting often hilarious anti-establishment slogans.

Lebanon's economy has been on the brink of collapse for some time and the initial grievances of the protesters were over proposed tax hikes.

But the demonstrations have evolved into a massive push to unseat ruling dynasties widely seen as corrupt beyond redemption, and Hariri's 11th-hour rescue plan was met with disdain on the street.

The cabinet was due to meet on Monday morning and expected to approve a raft of measures, including the scrapping of new taxes and a sweeping privatisation programme, among others.

"This was not a paper suggested to get people off the street," a senior cabinet official insisted.

- 'Day of destiny' -

Protesters gathered in front of the government houses said the move smacked of a desperate attempt by the political class to save their jobs.

"It is a day of destiny for us. All our hard work and efforts in previous days and years were to get us to this moment," Roni al-Asaad, a 32-year-old activist in central Beirut, said.

"If they could have implemented these reforms before, why haven't they? And why should we believe them today?"

What was initially dubbed the "WhatsApp revolution" morphed into a mass non-partisan push for a total overhaul of a sectarian power system still run mostly by civil war-era warlords, three decades after the end of the country's conflict.

Demonstrators, old and young, spoke of their joy of experiencing a rare feeling of national unity as they converged towards protest sites at the weekend.

Given the size of the gatherings, the five-day-old mobilisation has been remarkably incident free, with armies of volunteers forming to clean up the streets, provide water to protesters and organise first aid tents.

Lebanon's debt-burdened economy has been sliding towards collapse in recent months, adding to the economic woes of a population exasperated by rampant corruption, the lack of job opportunities and poor services.

Forest fires also devastated parts of the country last week, with politicians accused of inaction as the country burned.

Among the protesters' main grievances is the poor supply of electricity from the state, which citizens have to complement with costly generators.

Usually prone to blame anti-government mobilisation on another party or a foreign conspiracy, Lebanon's top political figures have appeared to acknowledge that none of them were spared by public anger.

The powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, which has the country's most powerful militia and also dominates political life, agreed to Hariri's reform package, a senior cabinet official said.

- 'Volcano' -

The embattled premier went live on television Friday, on the second of protests, to give his uneasy coalition partners 72 hours to back his rescue plan.

"What happened in the street is a volcano that can't be contained with timely solutions," Imad Salamey, a political science professor at the Lebanese American University, said.

"It is difficult for the demonstrators to regain trust in the state in 72 hours and with solutions only presented on paper," he said.

The deadline expires at 7:00 pm Monday (1600 GMT) and Hariri's wording suggested he could resign if his move failed.

Lebanon's embattled political leaders have warned that the government's resignation at this time would only deepen the country's crisis.

Al-Akhbar newspaper, which is close to Hezbollah, published a picture of protesters carrying a giant flag on its front page with a commentary on "Test Day: Power or People?".

The French-language newspaper L'Orient Le Jour said "The hour of truth has arrived."

Several hundred thousand people demonstrated in central Beirut alone on Sunday, with massive gatherings spreading across all regions of the small Mediterranean country.

Schools, banks, universities and many private businesses closed their doors Monday, both for security reasons and in an apparent bid to encourage people to join the demonstrations.