Lebanon’s prime minister has given his political adversaries a 72-hour ultimatum to agree on “convincing” reforms amid escalating nationwide protests over the country’s worsening economic crisis.
In an address to the nation and with hundreds of rowdy protesters camped outside his office, Saad Hariri blamed political partners in his national unity government, which includes the Iran-backed Hezbollah group and rival political parties, for blocking reform efforts at every turn.
Thousands of protesters have been rallying across the country since Thursday, raging against the country’s political leaders who they blame for decades of corruption and mismanagement that have led to the crisis.
The protests are the largest Lebanon has seen since 2015 and could further destabilise a country whose economy is already on the verge of collapse and has one of the highest debt loads in the world.
The protests, which drew people from all religious and political backgrounds, were largely peaceful, although violence erupted in several areas.
Many said they would remain on the streets until his government resigned.
Mr Hariri said he understood the anger at his government’s performance and added: “We are running out of time.”
He said he was giving himself a short time to come up with solutions and called on his rivals to make “clear, decisive and final” decisions regarding his proposed structural reforms to fix the ailing economy.
Mr Hariri appeared to suggest he would resign if that did not happen but stopped short of saying it.
Protesters outside the government house in central Beirut remained in place, chanting for the downfall of the government. Reports suggested some planned to march on the presidential palace.
Time and again, the protesters shouted “Revolution!” and “The people want to bring down the regime”, echoing a refrain chanted by demonstrators during Arab Spring uprisings that swept the region in 2011.
They took aim at every political leader in the country, including President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, foreign minister Gebran Bassil, and the parliament speaker, blaming them for systemic corruption they say has pillaged the country’s resources for decades.
Schools, banks and businesses shut down as the protests escalated and widened in scope to reach almost every city and province.
Hundreds of people burned tyres on highways and intersections in suburbs of the capital and in northern and southern cities, sending up clouds of black smoke in scattered protests.
The road to Beirut’s international airport was blocked by protesters, stranding passengers who in some cases were seen dragging suitcases on foot to reach the airport.
Major routes including the Salim Salam tunnel that connects central Beirut with the airport were blocked with sand dunes.
In the northern city of Tripoli, bodyguards for a former member of parliament opened fire at protesters who closed the road for his convoy, wounding three of them, witnesses said.
The tension has been building for months, as the government searched for new ways to levy taxes to manage the country’s economic crisis and soaring debt.
The trigger was the news on Thursday that the government was planning, among other measures, to impose a tax on WhatsApp calls — a decision it later withdrew as people began taking to the streets.
In some cases the demonstrations evolved into riots, with protesters setting fire to buildings and smashing shop windows.
Two Syrian workers died when they were trapped in a shop that was set on fire by rioters. Dozens of people were injured.
Some protesters threw stones, shoes and water bottles at security forces and scuffled with police. Security forces said at least 60 officers were injured in the clashes. Protesters were also injured.