Lebanon government falls, crisis deepens

Haitham Nouri , Wednesday 30 Oct 2019

Saad Al-Hariri steps down, but many fear that Lebanon’s crisis, driven by debt, will not be resolved anytime soon

Lebanon Protest

After 13 days of protest paralysed the country and forced the prime minister to resign, Lebanese security officials asked protesters Wednesday to open blocked roads.

In a statement, the army command said the people had a right to protest, but that this applies "in public squares only," so life can return to normal.

Troops cleared one major route north of Beirut after brief clashes with protestors in the morning.

The Lebanese army move comes after Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri addressed the nation Tuesday announcing his resignation.

Lebanon's President Michel Aoun acknowledged the government's resignation following almost two weeks of unprecedented protests, but asked it to stay on until a new cabinet is formed.

Hariri’s resignation does not put an end to the turmoil in Lebanon, but pushes it deeper into uncertainty, as protesters returned to the main square, cheering their first victory and stressing "All means all,'' a common chant that implies that none of Lebanon's ruling elite are beyond reproach.

Hariri’s resignation isn’t likely to placate protesters hungry for systemic change, and it could make Lebanon’s economic crisis — which triggered the uprising — even more unpredictable, said Mohamed Edris, an expert on regional affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Strategical and Political Studies.

“It does not mean much for the Lebanese, who have lost faith in the whole system," said Edris.

Lebanon is struggling under a severe economic and financial crisis that led to a scarcity of hard currency and the local currency losing value for the first time in more than two decades. Many protesters don’t believe that Hariri’s resignation will change that.

Unprecedented protests were sparked by an announced tax on calls made through free phone applications. But that was just the latest in a long list of economic grievances that have spurred exasperated Lebanese to take to the streets.

Lebanon is facing a deep-running fiscal crisis as it staggers under one of the highest debt ratios in the world at more than 150 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

The World Bank says more than 25 percent of Lebanon lives in poverty while residents in Lebanon complain of unmaintained roads and inadequate public transport, as well as endless power cuts.

But these demonstrations are not only challenging the economic crisis and widespread corruption. They also challenge sectarianism, raising concerns for regimes supporting varied faction, including Iran, that supports the government.

Lebanese protesters have only rarely called out Iran and its main local ally, the militant Hizbullah group. They have focused much of their rage on Lebanon's president and foreign minister, who come from a Christian party closely allied with Hizbullah.

Last week, fistfights broke out at a main rally when protesters chanted against Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who announced at around the same time that he was withdrawing his supporters from the protests.

He said unspecified foreign powers were exploiting the protests to undermine his group, warning that such actions could plunge the country back into civil war.

On Tuesday, before Hariri announced his resignation, Hizbullah supporters rampaged through the main protest camp in central Beirut. Such a faceoff is feared by many in the region if a clear plan to deliver the demands of the protests is not defined soon.

Hizbullah is the most powerful armed force in Lebanon and was alone in refusing to disarm after the 1975-1990 civil war. It justifies its arsenal by saying it's needed to defend the country from Israel, which occupied southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000.

"For Lebanon, the crisis is not domestic, it is also regional," said Edris. "Iran is interfering in Lebanon using Hizbullah," Edris added. “But they are not the only ones."

On Wednesday, Iran accused the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel of stoking unrest in Lebanon and Iraq, and called for calm in both countries.

"Our advice has always been to call for peace and (stopping) interference by foreign forces in these countries," President Hassan Rouhani's chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi was quoted as saying by Iran's state media.

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