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UN Calls for New, Competent Govt. in Lebanon as Banks, Schools Remain Shut

UN Calls for New, Competent Govt. in Lebanon as Banks, Schools Remain Shut

Tuesday, 12 November, 2019 - 09:00
Police stand guard outside the Lebanese Association of Banks after protesters locked the main entrance during ongoing protests against the banks and the government, in Beirut, Lebanon, Nov. 1, 2019. (AP)

Lebanon’s banks and schools were shut on Tuesday in a new wave of disruption amid urgent political efforts to form a new government to steer the country out of its worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.

UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Jan Kubis, called on Tuesday for the urgent formation of a new government made up of people known for their competence, which he said would be in a better position to appeal for international support.

“The financial and economic situation is critical, and the government and other authorities cannot wait any longer to start addressing it,” he said in a statement after meeting President Michel Aoun.

Kubis urged authorities to prioritize maintaining monetary and financial stability, including measures to give people confidence and protect their savings.

Bank branches, which were closed for nearly half of October, shut again on fears for the safety of staff who have felt intimidated by customers demanding access to their money and protesters who have gathered at banks, a union leader said.

The demonstrations have been fueled by anger at Lebanon’s ruling elite, widely perceived to have overseen rampant state corruption for decades.

Banks have been seeking to prevent capital flight by imposing restrictions on dollar withdrawals and transfers abroad.

“We aim to meet with the Association of Banks in Lebanon today and decide how we’re going to work together to solve this issue so that bank employees are not harassed,” President of the Federation of Syndicates of Bank Employees George al-Hajj said.

ATM machines will be stocked so that depositors do not feel “punished” by the strike action, Hajj said.

Lebanon’s central bank said on Monday that bank deposits were secure and it had the ability to preserve the stability of the pegged Lebanese pound.

In a televised news conference, central bank governor Riad Salameh said capital controls were not on the table and there would be no haircut - or value-reduction - on deposits.

Schools were also closed on Tuesday, a decision the education minister announced on Monday because of calls for a wider strike and out of respect for “students’ right to express their views”.

Students, who have emerged as key players in the uprising, were expected to hold further demonstrations later in the day ahead of a presidential address in the evening.

Dozens of protesters gathered near the Palace of Justice in central Beirut on Tuesday morning, demanding an independent judiciary as they tried to prevent judges and lawyers from going to work, an AFP correspondent said.

In the town of Aley east of Beirut, in the southern city of Tyre, and the eastern town of Baalbek, demonstrators held sit-ins outside or inside the offices of the state telecommunications provider, local media reported.

Lebanon was pitched into deep turmoil on October 17, when a wave of protests against the ruling elite began that led Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign on October 29.

The leaderless protest movement first erupted after a proposed tax on calls via free phone applications, but it has since morphed into an unprecedented cross-sectarian outcry against everything from state corruption to rampant electricity cuts.

People in the street say they are fed up with the same political families dominating government institutions since the end of the civil war.

Protesters are demanding a fresh cabinet include independent experts not affiliated to traditional political parties, but no date has yet been set for required parliamentary consultations, drawing criticism.

Government formation typically takes months in Lebanon, with protracted debate on how to best maintain a fragile balance between religious communities.

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