Security forces fired teargas and chased down protesters in Beirut on Friday after tens of thousands of people across Lebanon marched to demand the demise of a political elite they accuse of looting the economy to the point of collapse.
Riot police in vehicles and on foot rounded up protesters, according to Reuters. They fired rubber bullets and teargas canisters, dispersing demonstrators in Beirut’s commercial district. Dozens of people were wounded and detained.
Prime minister Saad Hariri blamed his partners in government for obstructing reforms that could ward off economic crisis. He gave them a 72-hour deadline to stop blocking him, hinting he may otherwise resign.
Hariri, addressing protesters, said Lebanon was going through an “unprecedented, difficult time”. The country’s biggest protests in a decade recall the 2011 Arab revolts which toppled four presidents. Lebanese people from all sects and walks of life have come out on to the streets to wave banners and chant slogans urging Hariri’s government to go.
The rallies follow warnings by economists and investors that Lebanon’s economy and corruption-riddled financial system were closer to the brink than at any time since the wartorn 1980s.
“There are those who have placed obstacles in front of me … and in the face of all the efforts that I have proposed for reform,” Hariri said.
“Whatever the solution, we no longer have time and I am personally giving myself only a little time. Either our partners in government and in the nation give a frank response to the solution, or I will have another say. The deadline left is very short. It’s 72 hours.”
Protesters poured through villages and towns as well as the capital, Beirut, for a second day. No political leader, Muslim or Christian, was spared their wrath. They called for leaders including Hariri, president Michel Aoun and parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, to step down.
The mood was a mixture of rage, defiance and hope. As night fell, crowds waving Lebanese flags marched through the streets as patriotic music blared from loudspeakers. They shouted: “Our demands are one, our objective is one: the people want the downfall of the regime.”
Some protesters fainted as security forces fired teargas. The Red Cross said its teams had treated 160 people wounded in protests since Thursday evening. “You should be protecting us. Shame on you,” a young man yelled as he covered his face against the choking fumes.
Lebanon’s internal security apparatus said 52 police were injured on Friday and 70 people were arrested.
Some protesters, including men in black hoods, blocked roads, set tyres on fire and used iron bars to smash storefronts in Beirut’s affluent downtown district.
Some streets in the capital looked like a battlefield, strewn with rubber bullets, smashed cars, broken glass and torn billboards. Firefighters struggled late into the night to douse fires.
With demonstrators crowding around Aoun’s palace in Baabda, the United Nations urged all sides to refrain from actions that could lead to more tensions and violence. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates warned their citizens against travelling to Lebanon. Bahrain told its nationals to leave at once.
Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, who is Aoun’s son-in-law, also blamed other parties for blocking reforms, saying the government must work to stop corruption and avoid imposing new taxes.
The latest unrest erupted out of anger over the rising cost of living and new tax plans, including a fee on WhatsApp calls.
“We came to the streets because we can no longer bear this situation. This regime is totally corrupt,” said Fadi Issa, 51, who marched with his son. “They are all thieves, they come into the government to fill their pockets, not to serve the country.”
In an unprecedented move, Shia protesters also attacked the offices of their deputies from the influential Hezbollah and Amal movements in southern Lebanon.
To boost revenues, a government minister on Thursday unveiled a new fee for WhatsApp calls that fuelled outrage. But as the protests spread hours later, the telecoms minister, Mohamed Choucair, revoked the planned levy.