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October 31, 2019

Lebanon reopens, crisis remains


October 31, 2019

BEIRUT: The Lebanese government’s resignation under pressure from the street looked set to ease a two-week-old nationwide lockdown but protesters vowed on Wednesday to keep pushing for deeper change.

President Michel Aoun acknowledged Saad Hariri’s resignation as prime minister on Tuesday but asked his government to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet is formed. But there was no clear way out of the political crisis that has drawn warnings from Lebanon’s foreign partners.

On the ground, security forces reopened most roads that had remained mostly blocked by protesters since a proposed tax on calls via messaging apps sparked a wave of demonstrations on October 17.

The unprecedented mobilisation swelled into a popular drive to remove a political elite which has remained largely unchanged since the end of the civil war three decades ago. Euphoric protesters experiencing a rare moment of national unity have pilloried politicians of all parties, calling for better public services, an end to rampant corruption and a complete overhaul of sectarian-based politics.

When a sombre Hariri appeared on television to announce his resignation, crowds erupted into celebrations across the country but warned that the government’s fall was only one of their demands.

"The resignation is not enough to get us off the streets," said Charbel, a 26-year-old draped in a Lebanese flag, who was still protesting in central Beirut on Wednesday. "We need to keep up the pressure, but we should not keep the roads closed because now it’s bothering even the people who were supporting the movement," he said.

Hariri’s resignation came after counter-demonstrators loyal to some of his political rivals attacked the main protest site in the capital’s Martyr’s Square. They destroyed tents and marquees and the rest of the temporary infrastructure that turned downtown Beirut into a huge encampment -- hosting protests and political meetings by day, concerts and parties by night.

Well-organised protesters, however, swiftly cleaned up and returned to the site, occupying the main flyover again on Tuesday evening. Food stands serving sandwiches or corn on the cob were doing brisk business.

Some protesters laid out carpets and sofas, some slept in hammocks hung between traffic signals and others brought goal posts to set up a football pitch across the four-lane highway. By Wednesday, having won the government’s resignation, protesters were divided over the decision to remove roadblocks, which they see as one of the few sources of leverage for their leaderless and spontaneous movement. As roads reopened, the education ministry called on schools and universities to resume classes on Thursday morning, and banks were set to open again the following day.

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