Lebanon braced for massive anti-government protests

Lebanon braced for massive anti-government protests

Massive protests swelled across Lebanon on Sunday in an unprecedented show of dissent against its ruling elite as hundreds of thousands converged to demand the overthrow of a system they see as riddled with corruption and cronyism.

Mass protests erupted on Thursday, when the proposed tax on WhatsApp calls was announced.

Euphoric crowds partied deep into the night, leaving all political and sectarian paraphernalia at home to gather under the national cedar flag, dancing to impromptu concerts and chanting often hilarious anti-establishment slogans.

The government is due to meet at the presidential palace in the Beirut suburb of Baabda on Monday.

The fresh protests, the largest in five years, took place following the resignation a day earlier of a key Christian party's four ministers and amid a threat by Prime Minister Saad Hariri to step down.

"If we get reforms, for a start it's good, to calm down the storms, people are angry. but in the long term, I don't know if it will make a change", said Rida Jammoul, a football coach.

The reform decisions required a 50 per cent reduction in salaries of current and former presidents, ministers and MPs plus cuts in benefits to state institutions and officials.

"All of the leaders should be put under house arrest and be held accountable to return the money they stole from the state so Lebanon can get back on its feet", said Antoine Zahli, 43, a pharmacist who was among the protesters in central Beirut, told the Reuters news agency.

It also obliged the central bank and private banks to contribute $3.3US billion ($4.8 billion) to achieve a "near-zero deficit" for the 2020 budget.

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The government also aims to privatise the telecommunications sector and overhaul the costly and crumbling electricity sector, one of the biggest strains on Lebanon's depleted finances.

Hariri gave his feuding coalition partners a 72-hour deadline on Friday to agree to reforms that could ward off economic crisis, hinting he may otherwise resign. The deadline expires on Monday.

A rising chorus of voices, from union leaders to politicians, have joined popular calls for Hariri's government to resign.

Ending rampant corruption is a central demand of the protestors, who say the country's leaders have used their positions to enrich themselves for decades through favourable deals and kickbacks.

The Association of Banks in Lebanon announced that all banks would be closed on Monday because of the unrest.

"It's a day of destiny for us. The protests have brought together everyone and this has never happened before", said Sahar Younis, a 32-year-old worker with a nongovernmental organization.

In 2005, Lebanon witnessed protests and a mass uprising against Syria's occupation of the country, after Damascus was blamed for the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a large auto bomb. "If they could have implemented these reforms before, why haven't they? We have no hope in them but we're hopeful that these protests will bring change", Hanan Takkouche, in her 40s and among a group of women in the capital.

Lebanon's political system was set up to balance power between the country's religious sects, including Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Druze.

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