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Lebanese Prime Minister resigns after protests, political uncertainty remains

Prime Minister Saad Hariri has resigned with protesters in Lebanon continuing their protest on 29 October, taking it to the streets for the 12th day in a row. In a short televised press conference Hariri announced his resignation, “No one is bigger than his country,” he said while announcing his intention to quit his post. Protests began after the government of Lebanon proposed to raise VAT taxes by 2% and raise taxes on online voice calls on 17 October. Subsequently activists in Beirut took it to the streets blocking important roads. On 18 October, protests spread to other cities like Nabatiyeh and Tripoli and intensified when offices of political parties and even parliament were attacked by angry crowds. The protesters have declared a general strike, sending a clear signal they reject the measures Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government agreed upon on 17 October. But demonstrations continued after the government scrapped the proposed tax reforms, with protesters critizing the government for the high level of corruption and the dire state of the Lebanese economy. Protesters proclaimed they wouldn’t stop the so called “national strike” until the government resigns.

Unique protests
The protests are unique, since across all sectarian lines, people have come out on to the streets. And instead of waving their own sectarian flags, most protests are waving the national flag of Lebanon. “For the first time ever there is real unity in the country and not a fake one like we’ve seen before,” says Manachi, a young Christian protester. “People are realising that a Christian living in extreme poverty is no different from a Sunni or Shia living in extreme poverty.”

Government reaction
The proposed tax was scrapped just hours after the protests started, but demonstrations continued.
On 21 October the cabinet announced that it approved a new budget with a new deficit of 0.6 percent with no new taxes. On top of that salaries of top officials, including legislators and members of parliament, will be cut in half as part of the economic reform package and the central bank and the banking sector will help in reducing the deficit. Meanwhile the government is desperate to reopen the blocked roads and open up the country’s infrastructure which has been paralyzed by the demonstrations. Attempts to clear the roads from protesters have resulted in clashes between the army and peaceful protesters, leaving several people wounded after army officials fired live rounds. Clashes have been more frequent after a high-level meeting at Lebanese Army’s Headquarters was held to agree on a plan to reopen the country’s roads.

Political vacuum
Though the protesters have achieved their goal with PM Hariri resigning, the country isn’t unified in their critique on the government. In recent days Hezbollah and Amal movement supporters attacked the anti-government protests, with the police interfering to bring back the peace. The resignation of Hariri defies the powerful Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah, whose leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has twice said he was against such a step, citing the risk of a dangerous void. Early elections are now expected to be held, though this doesn’t mean the unrest in Lebanon will stop. As recent clashes have shown, the country is still divided with a part of the Lebanese people demanding a technocratic or proportionality based political system. But with the current sectarian system proving beneficial for the powerful Hezbollah movement, new clashes over the political future of the country are likely to erupt. With the new protests movement demanding radical change, while a part of the population will try to retain its sectarian representation in the Lebanese political landscape. Meanwhile the National Bank president in Lebanon said that the state is on the verge of a financial collapse within the next few days, if no political solution would be found. Renewed clashes could send the country in an economic crisis apart from the political one it already finds itself in. The political elite of Lebanon is now tasked with regaining control of the streets to prevent an economic lockdown, while it has to keep protesters and conservative Shia groups at ease. The power-sharing agreement is cracking but the sectarian leaders are not expected to give up their power without a fight.


Source: Aljazeera Aljazeera1 Time Reuters