LE­BANESE ARMY MOVES IN TO CLEAR DEMON­STRA­TORS

▶ A tech­no­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tion could re­place gov­ern­ment and as­sume of­fice by the week­end, sources say

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - JAMES HAINES-YOUNG

Le­banon’s protests seemed poised to en­ter a new phase yes­ter­day as the army moved to forcibly re­move demon­stra­tors and counter-pro­test­ers took to the streets in some ar­eas.

A game of cat and mouse be­tween pro­test­ers block­ing ma­jor roads and the army clear­ing them took up much of the morn­ing. De­spite the ef­forts of sol­diers, many mo­tor­ways in the coun­try were blocked.

Mass demon­stra­tions have brought the coun­try to a stand­still for nearly a week as pro­test­ers de­mand the res­ig­na­tion of the gov­ern­ment and an end to decades of in­ef­fec­tive leadership.

De­spite a pack­age of re­forms pushed by Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri, anger on the streets re­mains. Sources told lo­cal me­dia that the fail­ure to ease anger has led closed­door po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sions on to form­ing a new tech­no­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The sev­enth con­sec­u­tive day of the protests was one of con­tra­dic­tions.

While in the morn­ing the army forcibly pushed peo­ple from mo­tor­ways north of Beirut, in the af­ter­noon videos of Le­banese sol­diers cry­ing as they stood in front of crowds singing the na­tional an­them went vi­ral.

The mil­i­tary leadership is­sued a state­ment say­ing it stood by the pro­test­ers in their “right­ful de­mands” but called on them not to block roads.

Mr Hariri met se­cu­rity chiefs to dis­cuss the sit­u­a­tion. His of­fice said he “stressed the need to main­tain se­cu­rity and sta­bil­ity and to open roads and se­cure the move­ment of cit­i­zens”. But the protest move­ment has come to see its abil­ity to keep the coun­try paral­ysed as the main weapon against a state that wants to re­turn to nor­mal.

In south Le­banon’s Na­batiyeh, 15 peo­ple were in­jured in scuf­fles be­tween a demon­stra­tion and a counter-protest back­ing Par­lia­ment Speaker and Amal Move­ment head

Nabih Berri. The army had tried to keep the two groups apart. Mr Berri said yes­ter­day that the coun­try could no longer bear the paral­y­sis of the week of demon­stra­tions, ac­cord­ing to Amal Move­ment MP Ali Bazzi.

Banks are likely to re­main closed to­day, mak­ing it a week since fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions were last open. The As­so­ci­a­tion of Banks main­tained that

ATMs were still func­tion­ing and that debit and credit cards would work as nor­mal. How­ever, re­ports of empty ATMs were grow­ing and many peo­ple ex­pressed con­cerns about what would hap­pen when ma­chines ran out of money.

Univer­si­ties and schools re­main closed.

Stand­ing un­der a ripped poster of Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri, Omar Ah­lab sold cof­fee to pro­test­ers in Tripoli on Tues­day night.

The “cap­i­tal of the north”, Tripoli is the sec­ond-big­gest city in a coun­try where thou­sands gath­ered for a sixth con­sec­u­tive day of anti-gov­ern­ment protests.

The city has a size­able Sunni ma­jor­ity. De­spite this, all re­spect for Mr Hariri, who is also the leader of Le­banon’s Sunni com­mu­nity, has gone.

“Hariri said he would fix the coun­try, but he de­stroyed ev­ery­thing,” Mr Ah­lab said. “We want all politi­cians to go.”

Still vis­i­ble at the bot­tom of Mr Hariri’s poster was the sen­tence “we are all with you”.

This was printed on thou­sands of posters across the coun­try as a show of sup­port for Mr Hariri after his sur­prise res­ig­na­tion in Novem­ber 2017, which he later re­scinded.

When prime min­is­ter formed his Cab­i­net this year after nine months of po­lit­i­cal squab­bling, he vowed to “work, work, work”, to im­ple­ment eco­nomic re­forms.

But his gov­ern­ment’s ap­par­ent lack of re­sults has left many Le­banese dis­ap­pointed.

“We do not want Hariri, [Pres­i­dent Michel] Aoun, or [Hezbol­lah leader Has­san] Nas­ral­lah,” said Ah­mad Al Amouri, 50, a car­pen­ter and fa­ther of six who at­tended the protests with his fam­ily.

“Be­fore, in the north, peo­ple liked Hariri, but now no­body wants him any more, what­ever he does.”

Mr Al Amouri said he strug­gles to pay his monthly rent of $400 (Dh1,469).

“There is no work and no money in Tripoli. Politi­cians buy votes with $50. This is an in­di­ca­tion of how hun­gry our peo­ple are.”

Like many other pro­test­ers, Mr Al Amouri said he wanted the gov­ern­ment to re­sign and be re­placed by tech­nocrats.

“I want a new gov­ern­ment that looks after peo­ple who are dy­ing of hunger,” he said.

Lo­cal news me­dia re­ported yes­ter­day that politi­cians were dis­cussing a Cab­i­net reshuf­fle or the res­ig­na­tion of gov­ern­ment.

“You can see from their de­ci­sions that they are scared and do not know what to do. Yes­ter­day, the ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter an­nounced that univer­si­ties would open on Wed­nes­day, be­fore back­track­ing half an hour later,” a demon­stra­tor said.

Com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity ground to a halt in Le­banon on Tues­day as roads, banks, shops and univer­si­ties stayed closed.

The drive from Beirut to Tripoli, which nor­mally takes a lit­tle more than an hour, took four hours be­cause of road­blocks.

Pro­test­ers have grown tired of politi­cians’ promises and were united in their re­jec­tion of the rul­ing elite that has gov­erned the coun­try since the end of the civil war in 1990.

The fig­ure of 80,000 pro­test­ers on Tues­day night in Tripoli was widely re­layed among lo­cals, although no of­fi­cial fig­ures was re­leased.

Le­banese news me­dia pre­vi­ously re­ported that posters of sev­eral politi­cians had been taken down last week in Tripoli, in­clud­ing those of for­mer prime min­is­ter and mil­lion­aire, Na­jib Mikati.

A for­mer mem­ber of par­lia­ment was at­tacked on Fri­day when he tried to join the protests. His body­guards opened fire, wound­ing four peo­ple.

Amal El Ja­mal, 38, a teacher who was out protest­ing on Tues­day evening, said she was not sur­prised that the posters of politi­cians were shred­ded.

“We were promised many things, and noth­ing hap­pened. We do not have elec­tric­ity, wa­ter or so­cial se­cu­rity,” she said.

“You can­not blame peo­ple who hung the posters in the first place, they are poor and need [po­lit­i­cal sup­port] to put their kids in schools and hos­pi­tals. But it is our right also to not have posters of politi­cians up.”

Other pro­test­ers were more sub­tle in their crit­i­cism of Mr Hariri, but none said they would vote for him.

“His fa­ther [Rafic Hariri], may his soul rest in peace, did a lot. But in my opin­ion, Saad Hariri is not a politi­cian. He was a busi­ness­man, and they told him that be­cause he is Sunni Mus­lim he must be like his fa­ther and re­place him,” said English teacher Maya Fawad, 35.

The younger Hariri suc­ceeded his fa­ther after the for­mer prime min­is­ter was as­sas­si­nated in 2005.

Fin­gers pointed to Da­m­as­cus, which had oc­cu­pied Le­banon for 29 years, prompt­ing huge protests that pushed Syr­ian troops out of the coun­try.

Although many have com­pared the cur­rent up­ris­ing with events of 2005, pro­test­ers in Tripoli said that this time they are more sig­nif­i­cant.

“In 2005, the Le­banese protested for Rafic Hariri. Now, all the Le­banese are do­ing this for them­selves, for our pass­port, for our fu­ture, for our kids,” said pho­tog­ra­pher Omar El Imady, 25.

AFP

Women and Le­banese sol­diers face off in Zouk Mos­beh yes­ter­day, the sev­enth day of protests against taxes and cor­rup­tion

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