Protesters in Lebanon taste first victory with resignation of four ministers
‘I am here for the future of my children. We must not be scared. There must be no fighting, no shooting. We need to live in peace’
Protesters wave Lebanese flags and shout anti-government slogans in front of the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon. Photograph: EPA/Nabil Mounzer
Lebanese protests tasted their first victory on Sunday with the resignation of four ministers from the Lebanese Forces party. Protesters sitting on the steps of the mosque dedicated to the assassinated father of prime minister Saad Hariri held up a sign demanding “All go down!”
The withdrawal of the Lebanese Forces, the largest party in his parliamentary bloc, is a bitter blow. The party’s head Samir Geagea has called for the formation of a “neutral technocrat government” to carry out major reforms demanded by tens of thousands of people flocking to streets and squares across the country for a fourth day.
People are determined to carry on until they celebrate total triumph. In downtown Beirut cheerful revolutionaries of all ages and sects are funnelled by army razor wire and barricades into Riad al-Solh and Martyrs squares. They chant the slogan of the 2011 Egyptian uprising that the people demand the fall of the regime. This is Lebanon’s Tahrir Square moment.
A light rain falls but few take cover in empty shop fronts where windows were smashed when protests against new taxes erupted. The tax triggering the demonstrations was on the WhatsApp messaging service used by the majority of Lebanese, both rich and poor, prompting them to dub the uprising the “WhatsApp Revolution”.
The squares and streets are a sea of waving red and white Lebanese flags with the cedar tree, the symbol of the country, at the centre. An unknown woman hands my flagless friend Ramla a banner and disappears into the throng. The mood is festive. Popular songs alternate with political chants. The deep beat of a drum resonates in the bones of people nearby.
Television cameras and microphones capture the opinions of protesters. Little children riding on their fathers’ shoulders have a panoramic view of the historic scene.
Armed soldiers behind a barricade display white, long-stemmed roses handed to them by protesters.
School principal Faten Haru says: “I am here for the future of my children”, two boys aged five and 10. “We must not be scared. There must be no fighting, no shooting. We need to live in peace.”
Another woman says: “I am a graduate, employed in a bank. My bosses told me not to come out. I could lose my job, but I am here.
“We [young people] have no future in this country. Many are leaving because they cannot find jobs. They won’t return. Because I work in a bank I know what is in politicians’ accounts.”
The normally authoritative daily An-Nahar has reported that politicians have stashed $350 billion (€314bn) in Swiss banks, more than four times Lebanon’s annual GNP and more than twice its national debt.
Many protesters call for the overthrow of the sectarian system bequeathed by colonial France granting Maronite Catholics the presidency, Sunnis the premiership and Shias the parliamentary speakership.
This power-sharing deal in place since independence in 1943 has fostered mismanagement and corruption. Lebanese face high prices for food and fuel, pollution of land, sea and air, electricity and water shortages and increasing economic inequality.
Mr Hariri has given his rump cabinet until Monday evening to accept a reform package designed to improve government finances and secure $11 billion in assistance from international donors.
He has received support from an unlikely quarter as Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has told protesters that their demands have been “heard loudly”. However, he warned against bringing down the government as it could take months to form a new cabinet.