Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah said the government should not resign as protests entered a third day, but work together to resolve an economic crisis that has brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah warned that the group’s ministers and lawmakers would not allow poorer Lebanese to bear the brunt of an economic overhaul through higher taxes that would cause a social explosion.
As Nasrallah’s comments were being broadcast on Lebanese television channels, protesters streamed back onto the streets, waving flags and demanding the removal of a political elite whose cronyism they blame for the country’s economic hardships. Demonstrators converged once again on Beirut’s central business district, home to bank and government headquarters, where rioters clashed with police late into the night Friday. Dozens were arrested as masked youths broke windows and set fires.
Protests erupted Thursday night after the government said it might impose a fee on Whatsapp calls as part of broader efforts to shore up government revenues. Also under discussion are plans to increase Value-Added Tax and fees on gasoline. Highlighting the depth of anger with political elites, the demonstrations have cut across the sectarian and party lines that normally dominate political action in Lebanon. Unrest has spread to strongholds of political figures including parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri and his Hezbollah allies in the south.
The economic stakes are high for Lebanon, a tiny country that straddles the geopolitical fault-lines of the Middle East and has struggled to emerge from the shadow of a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. One of the most indebted countries in the world, it needs to find fresh sources of funding as the foreign inflows on which it has traditionally relied have dried up. With the economy slowing and living standards falling, anger has grown at politicians who protesters say have lined their pockets at the public’s expense.