Lebanese protesters unbowed as army vows to open roads

Beirut (AFP) –


A week of unprecedented Lebanese street protests against the political class showed no signs of abating Wednesday, despite the army moving to reopen key roads.

Demonstrations sparked on October 17 by a proposed tax on WhatsApp and other messaging apps have morphed into an unprecedented cross-sectarian street mobilisation against the political class.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri has presented a series of reforms including cutting ministerial salaries, but the rallies have continued -- crippling the capital Beirut and other major cities.

On Wednesday morning protesters set up fresh blockades to close down key highways into Beirut, AFP correspondents said.

There was a noticeable increase in the number of security forces near these blockades and a senior military official said a decision had been made to push back.

"There is a clear decision to reopen main roads and facilitate the movement of the citizens," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

A demonstration was forcibly removed by security forces from a main road north of Beirut.

Three people were injured during scuffles and several arrested and later released, the Lebanese official news agency said.

Banks, schools and universities remain closed.

Also on Wednesday, prosecutors in the Mount Lebanon area announced they would press charges against former Prime Minister Najib Mikati and his brother over "illicit enrichment."

- 'The fear is gone' -

Hassan, 27, was brandishing a Lebanese flag as protesters blocked a main street into Beirut Wednesday.

The army removed barriers but the demonstrators remained, keeping the road closed.

"That's it, the fear has gone," said the 27-year-old.

Michel Khairallah, a young waiter, said people would "block the country until victory."

For him that means a new government "without corrupt ministers," made up of "young and competent people" able to finally move the country forward.

"They exist, they are just waiting for their turn," he said.

Fresh demonsratitions were scheduled Wednesday from north to south of the country for the seventh consecutive day.

- Too little, too late? -

Tens of thousands again gathered in Beirut, Tripoli and other cities Tuesday, with protests continuing in a generally relaxed and joyful atmosphere.

More than a quarter of Lebanon's population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank.

The country endured a devastating civil war that ended in 1990 and many of the political leaders are those that fought, often brutally, along religious lines.

The government is set up to balance power between multiple sects, which include different Christian groups, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as well as the Druze.

But in reality it often entrenches power and influence along sectarian lines.

Embattled Hariri presented a vast economic reform plan Monday, including the salary cuts, but it did little to assuage the demonstrators.

"Too little, too late?" the French-language newspaper L'Orient Le Jour wondered in a front page editorial Wednesday.

Lebanese media discussed a range of options for further measures including a government reshuffle and early elections.

The protests, which Lebanese politicians have accepted were spontaneous, do not have a specific leader or organiser.

A coordination committee of the revolution announced its formation during a speech in Beirut Tuesday, but it remains unclear how much influence it has.

A group of economists have offered their services to seek solutions.

Lebanon's economy has been sliding closer to the abyss in recent months, with public debt soaring past 150 percent of GDP and ratings agencies grading Lebanese sovereign bonds as "junk."

Fears of a default have compounded the worries of Lebanese citizens exasperated by the poor quality of public services.

Residents suffer daily electricity shortages and unclean water.