Lebanon paralyzed by nationwide protests over proposed taxes

Video AP

Nationwide protests have paralysed Lebanon as demonstrators blocked major roads on a second day of rallies against the government's handling of a severe economic crisis.

The economic stakes have rarely been higher for Lebanon, a tiny country that straddles the geopolitical fault-lines of the Middle East, since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990. "The failure of our government to do at least the minimum ... has given us no other choice than to take the streets", said writer and director Lucien Bourjeily.

Some protesters, including men in black hoods, blocked roads, set tyres on fire and used iron bars to smash storefronts in Beirut's posh downtown district. But the measures are proving deeply unpopular with the public, which widely blames institutional corruption, nepotism and profiteering by politicians for bankrupting the government.

The protests, triggered in part by a $6 a month tax on Whatsapp voice calls that the government quickly withdrew in the face of resistance, reflect broader disenchantment that has morphed into calls for the government to step down.

Lebanon's struggling economy is unable to deal with the country's huge debt, at a time when capital inflow is down.

Addressing protesters from the presidential palace, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, 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.

"Whatever the solution, we no longer have time and I am personally giving myself only a little time".

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Time and again, the protesters shouted "Revolution!" and "The people want to bring down the regime", echoing a refrain chanted by demonstrators during Arab Spring uprisings that swept the region in 2011.

Lebanon's internal security apparatus said 52 police were injured on Friday and its forces arrested 70 people.

In an unprecedented move, Shia protesters also attacked the offices of their deputies from the influential Hezbollah and Amal movements in southern Lebanon.

He gave them a 72-hour deadline to do so, without directly threatening to resign. "They are looters, down with them". "We are not here over the WhatsApp, we are here over everything: over fuel, food, bread, over everything", a protester named Abdullah said.

Sporadic demonstrations have erupted for months in Lebanon as the economic crisis has led to shortages of dollars and threatened the pensions of retired soldiers.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri's government of national unity is seeking to approve a 2020 budget, a step that may help it unlock billions pledged by global donors. But as the protests spread, Telecoms Minister Mohamed Choucair revoked the proposed levy. The government, which includes almost all Lebanon's main parties, has repeatedly failed to implement the reforms needed to fix the national finances.

The protests are the largest Lebanon has seen since 2015 and could further destabilise a country whose economy is already on the verge of collapse and has one of the highest debt loads in the world. Economic growth has been hit by regional conflict, and unemployment among the under-35s runs at 37%.

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