Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has given his political adversaries 72 hours to agree on solutions to the country’s economic crisis, amid growing calls for the government to resign.
“The pain of the Lebanese is real,” said Hariri during his televised address that followed two days of nationwide demonstrations. “The Lebanese were waiting for the government to give them solutions and we couldn’t give it to them.
The embattled prime minister has led two national unity governments since 2016, which have included his domestic rivals, Hezbollah and its allies.
In his speech, he blamed his political adversaries in government for standing in the way of a solution for the country. Lebanon’s government is currently trying to pass a 2020 budget that could unlock billions of dollars in pledged donations from the international community.
“What we have seen since yesterday is a true pain which I feel and acknowledge,” said Hariri.
But less than an hour after the speech, clashes erupted in downtown Beirut. Riot police fired dozens of rounds of tear gas at demonstrators, dispersing large crowds that were gathered outside government headquarters on Friday night. Scores of protesters returned to the scene setting parts of the area on fire.
Police arrested several protesters. Clouds of smoke from the tear gas and fumes from the fires covered the area.
Plumes of smoke have billowed over the Lebanese capital Beirut for more than 24 hours as protesters burned barricades on the country’s main roads.
Many protesters called for the resignation of the government and demanded the “downfall” of a political class that has ruled the country since the start of its 15-year civil war in 1975. Demonstrators also took aim at the political alliance between President Michel Aoun and Shia armed group Hezbollah.
Many of the main routes in the Lebanese capital were closed by blazing barricades, with the sidewalks strewn with trash as protesters filled the streets. Roads leading to the airport were closed for a second time on Friday.
The unrest began on Thursday night, hours after the government announced new austerity measures, including a tax on WhatsApp calls that was later rescinded.
‘We tried to be well behaved. None of it worked’
“The country needs to be paralyzed,” said protester Hady Omar who lit up one of the barricades that closed a road leading to central Beirut from the south. “We tried to protest peacefully. We tried to be well behaved. None of it worked.
“Either we all live peacefully, or no one does,” said Omar.
Protester Msheimish Msheimish was carrying his six-month-old daughter outside government headquarters on Friday when he leaned over an army barrier to speak to a soldier. “I told him we need the military to take over,” Msheimish, 37, told CNN.
“I’m tired. I can’t make ends meet,” he said. “And I brought my daughter here so she can witness this and hopefully we can tell her about it someday.”
Several other protesters called for a military takeover to remove a political ruling class that many view as incompetent and corrupt. Others have called for a technocratic government to be installed.
“We’ve come down to the streets to say enough. We’re disgusted. We’re tired of this. We need something new,” said Haneen Murad, 30, who was part of the demonstrations in downtown Beirut.
“We have no electricity, no water. We’re even less than a third-world country,” protester Ali Saraeb said. “It’s time for everyone to go down to the streets.”
Largest protests since 2015
Two foreign workers died from smoke inhalation from the protest fires, the state-run National News Agency reported.
More than 80 members of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) were wounded in the protests, according to the ISF. The ISF called on protesters to refrain from “chaos and violence,” publishing images of protesters vandalizing property.
The demonstrations are the largest the country has seen since a 2015 trash crisis sparked large-scale protests in Beirut. The country has grappled with growing inflation, stagnant economic growth and ballooning debt. Lebanon’s decaying infrastructure, which includes long and frequent power outages, has meant that living standards have dropped for many Lebanese.
Around a third of Lebanon’s population lives under the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
Lebanon’s lira, which is pegged to the US dollar, has also come under increasing pressure.
Hariri heads a national unity government that includes members of Hezbollah and its Christian allies, the Free Patriotic Movement.
Ali Damoush, Vice President of the Executive Council of Hezbollah, said during Friday prayers that the protests reflected the experiences of many people.
“We have always warned that the wrong economic policies and the imposition of more taxes and burdens on citizens will lead to a popular explosion,” Damoush said. “People have reached a difficult stage and no longer have the ability to withstand further deterioration in the living situation.”
Iraq and Egypt have also been gripped by protests over alleged government mismanagement in recent weeks.