Lebanon's protesters reject government's economic reforms with chants of 'thieves, thieves!'

Josie Ensor
Demonstrators during an anti-government protest in downtown Beirut, Lebanon - REUTERS

Protesters in Lebanon rejected sweeping economic reforms announced by the government on Monday, saying they would not go home until the entire cabinet resigned.

Large crowds gathered outside the Lebanese parliament building in the capital Beirut, as they have been for days, venting their anger at what they see as a corrupt political class pushing the economy to the brink of collapse.

Under pressure, Saad al-Hariri, the prime minister, drew up a package of reforms which included the halving of salaries of MPs, the overhaul of the dysfunctional electricity sector and a draft law that would see the return of money plundered from the state.

Mr Hariri tried to placate the protesters in a speech delivered on Monday afternoon, saying: “I’m not asking you to stop protesting or to express your anger. That is a decision that you take, and no one can give you a deadline. 

“You are the ones who moved the cabinet, and your movement, to be honest, is what led to the decision that you see today.”

Protesters responded with chants of “thieves, thieves!” and “we’re not leaving the streets”, and called the reforms “proof” that the country’s leaders had for decades been “robbing them blind”.

Tens of thousands of Lebanese continued rallying, demanding a sweeping overhaul of Lebanon's political system, citing grievances ranging from austerity measures to poor infrastructure. Credit: AFP

Farah, 27, a government employee who did not wish to give her surname, pleaded for protesters to stay on the streets until all 30 members of the cabinet stepped down. “I wasn’t excited before his (Hariri's) speech,” she told the Telegraph, “but now I am and I am staying.”

The demonstrations were sparked by the government’s announcement last week that it was to impose new taxes, including a $6 per month levy on the messaging application WhatsApp, in an attempt to reduce its deficit.

Lebanon’s debt is, proportionally, the third-highest in the world after Hong Kong and Luxembourg. Meanwhile unemployment has been rising in the country, which also has the third-highest cost of living in the Arab world.

The demonstrations, which have sprung up in Beirut and other major cities around the country, are the largest since the 2005 Cedar Revolution protests against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. 

Some estimates put the number as high as one million, which would amount to nearly a quarter of the tiny Meditteranean country’s population.

The protests have largely been calm, with a party atmosphere in some places. Men, women and children have turned out waving the flag of Lebanon, rejecting the sectarian and party flags usually waved at demonstrations.

Chants of “thawra!”, or revolution, have been common, though protesters have rejected comparisons to the Arab Spring demonstrations that spread across their neighbours in the Middle East and North Africa.

On Monday a general strike paralysed much of the country, with schools, banks and shops closed. Burning tyres formed roadblocks across the main highways in Beirut.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks after a cabinet meeting at the presidential palac, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon Credit: Lebanese Official Government Photographer

“They (politicians) have been stealing from the people for 30 years. They stole and stole and stole and they still don’t have enough,” said Claire Abu Rached, protesting with her two sons north of Beirut.

Public services have been stagnant for years. There are no clean water supplies and most have to rely on generators for electricity for much of the day because central power stations remain dilapidated — partly, many say, because politicians profit selling fuel for generators. 

The protesters are calling for the cabinet to resign and be replaced by a smaller one made up of technocrats instead of political factions.

Lebanon is deeply divided along sectarian lines, with Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims each representing roughly a third of the 4.5 million population.

Most vote according to their sect, which has seen second- and third-generation leaders entrench a system of patronage. 

One of the most popular targets of the protesters has been Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament, who has accumulated vast wealth since he assumed his post 27 years ago.

Many have accused him of being a thief, while one banner even mocked his long tenure, reading: "Who came first? Nabih Berri or Adam and Eve."