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Lebanese Army Scuffles with Protesters in Bid to Open Major Roads

Lebanese Army Scuffles with Protesters in Bid to Open Major Roads

Wednesday, 23 October, 2019 - 09:45
Demonstrators sit together during a protest over deteriorating economic situation, in the city of Jounieh, north of Beirut, Lebanon October 18, 2019. (Reuters)

Lebanese troops and anti-government protesters have scuffled in the Zouk Mosbeh area north of Beirut on Wednesday as the military moved to reopen major roads blocked by the demonstrators.

The protesters have blocked the streets since the eruption of the demonstrations on Thursday.

Thousands of troops deployed in Beirut and its suburbs, and in the southern cities of Sidon and Tyre to clear the roads on Wednesday.

In Zouk Mosbeh, Beirut's northern suburb, troops managed to briefly open the main highway to the capital before it was blocked again.

Nationwide demonstrations that began last week grew larger on Monday, after Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced a package of economic reforms the government hopes would help revived the struggling economy.

The protesters have denounced Hariri's package as empty promises and are demanding the resignation of his Cabinet.

The people are furious at a political class they accuse of pushing the economy to the point of collapse.

Schools and banks were closed on Wednesday.

Speaker Nabih Berri, one of the figures the protesters have vented their anger against, said Wednesday that Lebanon cannot withstand its current state of "suspension.”

"The country cannot bear remaining suspended and we fear a vacuum and nothing else," he told his members of his parliamentary bloc at their regular Wednesday meeting.

Earlier, Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi called for a change in government to include qualified technocrats and urged President Michel Aoun to begin talks with other politicians to address the demands of protesters angered by an economic crisis.

He said reform measures announced by Hariri were a good "first step" but they required replacing ministers in the current government with technocrats.

He did not call for the resignation of Hariri's national unity government as protesters have demanded.

"The list of reforms is a positive first step but it requires amending the ministers and renewing the administrative team with national, qualified figures," he said in a televised speech.

Hariri met Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh on Wednesday following his return from Washington, where the governor was attended IMF and World Bank meetings.

The protests have been extraordinary because of their size and geographic reach in a country where political movements are normally divided on sectarian lines and struggle to draw nationwide appeal.

Lebanon has one of the world’s highest levels of government debt as a share of economic output. The government includes most major parties, run by politicians widely perceived to have mobilized state resources and influence for their own gain.

Nearly three decades after the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, Lebanon still experiences frequent cutoffs of water and electricity. With public transport networks virtually non-existent, its aging roads are clogged with traffic. Chronic problems with waste management have sparked mass protests in recent years.

The economy has been hit by political paralysis and regional conflicts, compounded by strains in the financial system that have risen as inward capital flows have slowed. Unemployment among the under 35s runs at 37%.

Lebanese have started to feel pressures in the financial system more acutely of late, with dollars becoming harder to obtain at the official exchange rate. The pound, pegged at its current rate for two decades, has been under pressure.

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