BEIRUT (AFP) – The Lebanese army moved to end a wave of protests against tax increases and alleged official corruption yesterday as the fragile governing coalition fractured over promised economic reforms.
Troops reopened some major highways that had been blocked by protesters after firing tear gas and water cannons to disperse the huge crowd that had gathered into the early hours in Riyadh al-Solh Square in the heart of the capital Beirut.
The Internal Security Forces said 70 protesters were arrested.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri has given his deeply divided coalition partners until tomorrow evening to give their backing to a reform package aimed at shoring up the government’s finances and securing the disbursement of desperately needed economic assistance from donors.
Hariri’s political rival, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, was expected to give his Shiite militant group’s response in a speech to be aired later.
Groups of young people gathered on the streets of the capital during the morning, preparing for a new day of protests despite the burgeoning crackdown.
They collected tyres and other material with which to throw up improvised roadblocks, AFP correspondents reported.
Parts of central Beirut looked like a war zone, littered with broken glass, overturned litter bins and the remains of burning tyres. Banks and many restaurants and shops remained closed.
The demonstrations first erupted on Thursday, sparked by a proposed 20 cent tax on calls via messaging apps such as WhatsApp.
Such calls are the main method of communication for many Lebanese and, despite the government’s swift abandonment of the tax, the demonstrations quickly swelled into the largest in years.
The protesters are demanding a sweeping overhaul of Lebanon’s political system, citing grievances ranging from austerity measures to alleged corruption to poor infrastructure.
Thousands of people of all ages, sects and political affiliations brought the capital to a standstill on Friday, with demonstrations reported across the country.
Minor clashes continued through the night pitting groups of young men against the army, an AFP reporter said.
One protester in Nabatieh, a Hezbollah stronghold, vowed to defy the crackdown.
“They are trying to portray us as a mob, but we are demanding our rights,” he told a local television channel.