BEIRUT: Lebanon’s influential Hezbollah leader said Saturday he is against the government’s resignation as nationwide protests gained momentum on their third day, calling for the removal of the country’s political elite.
Hassan Nasrallah said the current unity government should instead bring “a new spirit” to tackling the economic crisis fueling the demonstrations. His televised speech did nothing to soothe protesters in the streets, who included Nasrallah in their chants listing senior figures they blame for corruption and mismanagement.
The spontaneous protests are Lebanon’s largest in five years, spreading beyond Beirut. They are building on long-simmering anger at a ruling class that has divvied up power among themselves and amassed wealth for decades but has done little to fix a crumbling economy and dilapidated infrastructure.
By Saturday afternoon, thousands gathered in central Beirut chanting against all politicians for hours past nightfall. There were smaller protests in other towns and cities.
“Thieves, thieves,” they chanted and named almost every senior Lebanese politician, cursing them or demanding they step down. “All of them, and Nasrallah is one of them,” they shouted.
Iranian-backed Hezbollah dominates the current Cabinet through its party and its allies. Both Nasrallah and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who spoke on TV the night before, presented an image that they each support the protesters’ aims but that others in government are blocking a reform agenda
Hassan Nasrallah said it would be “a waste of time” for the current national unity government to resign since the same political factions would have to haggle over forming a new one.
“If this government resigns, we won’t have a new one for a year or two,” he said in a televised speech, pointing to perpetual political divisions that delayed forming the current Cabinet for nine months. Nasrallah said the deeply-indebted economy doesn’t have the luxury of time.
“Let this government continue but with a new spirit and new way of working and let it learn its lessons from the last two days of popular outburst.”
Spontaneous nationwide protests erupted after the government proposed new taxes that were criticized for hitting low income groups the hardest. The taxes included a flat $6 monthly fee for using the free voice and call services of Whatsapp. The new provisions touched off anger that has built for months after an austerity budget passed over the summer hiking multiple taxes and curbing government pensions and employment benefits.
The nation came to a standstill amid the largescale protests, which have brought people from across the sectarian and religious lines that define the country.
On Saturday, protesters carrying Lebanese flags massed at a security barricade piled with barbed wire outside the government’s offices. “The people want to bring down the regime,” was the uniting refrain.
Mia Oueini, a 15-year-old in the crowd, said politicians should bear the responsibility of the protests.
“This is not our fault. They are the thieves,” she said, pulling at a gas mask she had over her mouth in case of police tear gas. “My message (to them) is ...Please stop lying, stop stealing and just give us what we need.”
In his speech Friday night, Hariri gave his partners in the government a 72-hour ultimatum to come up with convincing solutions to the economic crisis. On Saturday, Hariri said he was meeting Cabinet ministers to “reach what serves the Lebanese.”
Friday night, some demonstrators went on a rampage, smashing window shops and bank exteriors in Beirut’s glitzy downtown. Security forces eventually responded by firing tear gas and water cannons. Dozens were arrested.
Amnesty International called on police to stop use of “excessive force,” pointing to the large amount of tear gas as well as beatings and harassment at gunpoint of protesters.
On Saturday, Lebanese Al-Jadeed TV said protests in the southern city of Tyre turned violent when supporters of longtime Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri attacked protesters who named him among those corrupt officials who should step down. His party said it is investigating the violence.
Nasrallah told the protesters their message was heard and that he too was against increasing taxes that directly impact the poor. But he warned the protesters against being pulled into political rivalries, saying that would derail their message.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain called on their citizens to leave Lebanon amid the unrest, underscoring the risk of the unrest to an economy already on the verge of collapse.
The small Arab country on the Mediterranean has the third-highest debt level in the world, currently standing at about $86 billion, or 150% of its gross domestic product.
International donors demand that Lebanon implement economic changes in order to get loans and grants pledged at the CEDRE economic conference in Paris in April 2018. International donors pledged $11 billion for Lebanon but they sought to ensure the money is well spent in the corruption-plagued country.
“The people want to bring down the regime,” was the uniting refrain, as protesters carrying the Lebanese flag marched toward a security barricade with piles of barbed wire outside the government offices in central Beirut.
“Thieves, thieves,” they also chanted and named almost every senior Lebanese politician, cursing them or demanding they step down. After Nasrallah’s speech, they chanted: “All of them and Nasrallah is one of them.”
He said politicians can’t shirk their responsibilities by quitting the Cabinet while the economy crumbles. Those who do so should be brought to trial, he said, a jab at his political rivals in the government.
Nasrallah's words came a day after the United States Treasury Department held the first meeting of the Counter-Hezballah International Partnership (CHIP) to build multilateral cooperation for targeting Hizballah’s financial networks. The Western Hemisphere, Middle East, Europe, Asia, and Africa participated in this event which was held in parallel to the World Bank/ International Monetary Fund meetings.
Sigal Mandelker, Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, drew attention to the role of the international community in confronting Hezballah moving forward.
“Hizballah leverages a network of financiers and supporters around the world to fund its violent agenda. The CHIP unites the international community in an aggressive campaign to confront Hizballah’s evolving schemes to better protect the international financial system from exploitation,” Mandelker stated in his speech.
The Under Secretary went on to stress the importance of information sharing and capacity building in limiting Hizballah’s funding.
“The CHIP is an important initiative to share information and build capacity among our partners to more effectively leverage all available financial tools against Hezballah,” Mandelker stated.
The United States condemned Hezballah’s utilization of the International financial system and identified impact-oriented steps countries should take to stem this abuse. These steps were including, but not limited to, financial intelligence units, strengthening terrorism finance risk assessments, developing targeted financial sanctions regimes, and prosecuting terrorists and their financial facilitators.
Countries participating in the meeting stressed the importance of raising their concerns to build momentum and ensure coordination of efforts. The future agenda of the partnership will be to send technical experts to the Law Enforcement Coordination Group (LECG), which will next convene December 16-17 in The Hague, Netherlands.
-- With AP
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