Lebanon's Hariri vows reforms in speech that falls flat among protesters
After five days of protests across Lebanon, Prime Minister Saad Hariri's promised reforms fell flat on Monday, with crowds massed in Beirut rejecting his much-anticipated speech.
Exasperated by ineffectual and corrupt politicians and suffering under an economic crisis, Lebanese have protested in their hundreds of thousands, calling on all of Lebanon's leaders to resign.
'These decisions are not designed as a trade-off. They are not to ask you to stop expressing your anger'
- Saad Hariri
Following a crunch cabinet meeting in the Beirut suburb of Baabda, which Hariri and other ministers reportedly arrived to in a Red Cross vehicle, the prime minister addressed the country, insisting the new economic measures were not an attempt to send protesters home.
"These decisions are not designed as a trade-off. They are not to ask you to stop expressing your anger. That is your decision to make," he said.
"Your movement is what led to these decisions that you see today."
In central Beirut his speech was played through protesters' speakers and met with loud boos, as people raised their middle fingers in rejection.
Why are the Lebanese protesting?+ Show - Hide
Corruption and clientelism
Lebanon suffers under a complicated, sectarian-based power-sharing political system that has entrenched politicians and their parties in power.
Many of Lebanon's leaders are drawn from families that have dominated the political scene since its independence from France in 1943.
Parties largely claim to represent Lebanese belonging to specific confessions; parliamentary seats and top offices are divided between the 18 officially recognised sects.
However, they have largely become vehicles for corruption and clientelism and struggle to cross Lebanon's fractured political divide to reach consensus for the good of the country.
Lebanese on the streets are now calling for the removal of the entire political class.
Lebanon's economy has been hit by repeated political deadlocks in recent years. Government finances are strained by a bloated public sector, debt-servicing costs and subsidising the state power producer.
Fitch ratings agency recently downgraded the country's sovereign debt, which stands at $86bn - more than 150 percent of gross domestic product - deep into junk territory.
On 2 September, Lebanon declared a state of economic emergency, vowing to speed up public finance reforms in an acknowledgement of the financial situation afflicting the country.
But the government's recent proposal of austerity measures and tax increase has angered citizens who accuse politicians of corruption, theft and leaving them behind with rising unemployment.
The crisis has caused the unofficial exchange rate to rise to 1,600 Lebanese lira to one US dollar, almost 100 lira over the officially pegged exchange rate of LL 1,507.5.
As the Lebanese government looked to increase revenues in its 2020 budget, it decided on Wednesday to charge citizens $0.20 per day for making voice calls using online applications such as WhatsApp and Viber.
The move would have charged users $6 per month on top of already hefty telecoms bills. Lebanon has some of the highest mobile network prices in the world.
Adding to the country's list of problems - longstanding environmental crises, water and electricity shortages, crumbling infrastructure and lack of state services - is Lebanon's extremely unequal distribution of riches.
According to Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, 1 percent of the wealthiest people in the country own 58 percent of Lebanon’s wealth, while the poorest 50 percent own less than 1 percent.
In a country infamous for being a fiscal haven for the ultra-rich, imposing taxes on technology used by all parts of society is a bitter pill to swallow. The government has now backed down.
Earlier this month, more than 100 forest fires broke out across Lebanon and the government came under heavy criticism for being unprepared to deal with the situation.
Citizens questioned why three of the country's emergency helicopters had not received maintenance work since they were purchased in 2009 at a cost of $13.9m.
Instead of firefighting helicopters, Lebanese army helicopters and civil defence teams were deployed to fight the blaze, while Cyprus, Jordan and Greece sent planes to assist.
The civil defence was forced to borrow riot control vehicles mounted with water cannons to battle the fires in the Chouf area.
The move was not well received by the Lebanese public, who criticised the government for keeping these vehicles in top condition to use against citizens during protests, instead of ensuring that life-saving equipment such as firefighting helicopters stay operational.
Hariri on Friday gave his government and himself a 72-hour deadline to come up with solutions that would go some way towards placating public anger.
On Monday he said his deadline had worked, though protesters seemed to disagree.
“It took millions of people from the most poverty-striken areas of Lebanon to protest to have the government take action,” one demonstrator yelled. “We aren’t leaving, but you are.”
As the light faded, people flooded into central Beirut. Though the celebratory atmosphere of previous days remained somewhat, there was a harder, angrier edge in some quarters that became more prominent as the evening wore on.
The past five days of demonstrations have been notable for the total absence of political parties, though on Monday night youths riding motorbikes and carrying the flags of Hezbollah and its ally Amal could be seen speeding around central Beirut.
Later, the army intervened, forcibly stopping a bike motorcade and arresting some Hezbollah and Amal supporters. In a statement, Hezbollah distanced itself from the event, saying the party had nothing to do with the youths on the bikes.
Among the reforms promised by Hariri are slashing the salaries of current and former officials by half, and taxing Lebanon's wealthy and long-shielded banks.
The government also agreed on the 2020 budget.
'If Hariri was able to do something he would have done it before'
- Aya Harb, 22
Aya Harb, a 22-year-old protester, told MEE she wasn’t convinced by the cabinet’s economic blueprint.
“If he [Hariri] was able to do something he would have done it before,” she said, hoping that protests keep going.
According to the cabinet secretary, banks are to be taxed for one year from 2020, electricity supply will be guaranteed by 2020 and transparency and combatting corruption will be improved by issuing a series of measures before the turn of the new year.
A document revealing the economic blueprint circulated across local media indicated that among the other plans are privatising the telecoms sector and revitalising the country’s electricity sector.
In addition, the plan would stop the inclusion of new regressive taxes in 2020, also mentioned by Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil.
The cabinet session that preceded Hariri's announcement was reportedly fiery, with local media reporting "intense debate and shouting" between Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and an unnamed minister from Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) "which could be heard from outside the room".
After the meeting, Industry Minister Wael Abu Faour, of the PSP, lamented some of his party's recommendation were not implemented, such as extra funding for the country's only publicly-funded university.
“What happened today [in cabinet] created a clear dividing line,”Abou Faour said. “It’s clear that there are some untouchable subjects.”
'Too little too late'
Prior to the cabinet meeting, Hariri met with President Michel Aoun.
Aoun expressed his sympathies with the protestors but said that accusations that all those in power are corrupt are "unjust".
He also called for the revealing of the spending and bank accounts of ministries "both present and in the future".
A proposed tax on mobile messaging applications last week sparked a spontaneous, cross-sectarian mobilisation that has brought Lebanon to a standstill and put the entire political class in the dock.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in central Beirut and other cities on Sunday to demand better living conditions and the ousting of a cast of politicians who have monopolised power and influence for decades.
Schools, banks, universities and many private businesses closed their doors on Monday, both for security reasons and in an apparent bid to encourage people to join the demonstrations.
Protestors continued to gather across Lebanon on Monday, including in central Beirut’s Riad al-Solh and Martyrs' Squares.
Shady, a 22-year-old protestor, told Middle East Eye that it was "too little too late" for the prime minister "or anyone else in charge" to introduce reforms of any kind at this point.
"They had their chance, and they wasted it," Shady said. "It's time to hear ideas from new minds."
Given the size of the gatherings, the five-day-old mobilisation has been remarkably incident-free, with armies of volunteers forming to clean up the streets, provide water to protesters and organise first aid tents.
The Lebanese government has been trying to reduce government spending to unlock more than $11bn of loans and grants that the international community pledged in April.
Though parliament ratified its 2019 budget, including cuts in early August following months of scrambling and negotiations, the International Monetary Fund believes that the government will not be able to reach its deficit reduction target.
The Christian Lebanese Forces party announced the resignation of their four ministers from the cabinet on Saturday, including the labour minister, social affairs minister and deputy prime minister, following a speech by its leader Samir Geagea.
Elsewhere, Jumblatt has switched positions on his party’s stance over the past few days.
The PSP leader, whose party has the ministries of education and industry in the cabinet, alluded that several ministers in the cabinet, most notably Bassil, should resign.
AFP and Reuters contributed to this report.