Clashes in crisis-hit Lebanon as lawmakers pass budget

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At one point, Monday’s rallies turned violent as protesters removed barbed wire from a road leading to parliament and were chased by riot policemen, who beat them with clubs.

Source: Associated Press

An anti-government protester holds a knife as throws stones at riot police during a scuffle near the parliament building in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. (AP Photo)

BEIRUT: Lebanese lawmakers on Monday passed a controversial state budget for 2020 that aims to tackle the country’s crippling financial crisis, as angry protesters threw stones at security forces massed outside the Parliament.

Security forces were heavily deployed during the legislative meeting and beat back anti-government protesters, detaining several as well.

Hundreds of soldiers, including special forces and riot policemen, were deployed on major roads across the capital, Beirut, and its suburbs ahead of the critical vote. They had sealed off the zone leading to Parliament to prevent protesters from barricading the lawmakers’ path. The protesters had, in turn, blocked roads farther afield in an effort to stop lawmakers from reaching the building, but security forces managed to keep a single road open.

Lebanon’s protest movement broke out on Oct. 17 over government plans to impose new taxes. It quickly snowballed into demands for the ouster of the country’s entire ruling elite. Those elites have run the country since the end of the 1975-90 civil war, and protesters blame them for widespread corruption and mismanagement. The protesters have rejected the new 20-member government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab, which was announced last week.

 

“Thirty years they’ve had a chance, they’re all liars,” said a 25-year-old protester who identified himself by his first name, Khodr. “They live dignified lives. We don’t, we live like dogs.” He added he’d traveled down from the northern city of Tripoli to join the demonstrations, despite having lost his job recently.

At one point, Monday’s rallies turned violent. Protesters removed the barbed wire from a road leading to Parliament and were chased by riot policemen, who beat them with clubs and detained about a dozen of them.

The Lebanese Red Cross said at least 27 people were injured, including eight who were taken to hospitals. Over the past two weeks, downtown Beirut witnessed riots that left more than 500 civilians and policemen injured.

The tight security measures underscored lawmakers’ determination to hold the budget session. In November, thousands of protesters closed roads leading to Parliament, forcing a postponement of a legislative session after most lawmakers weren’t able to reach the building.

Protesters, and some politicians, have described the budget session as illegitimate and unconstitutional. They say the prime minister’s new government has no right to attend and discuss the budget before it wins Parliament’s vote of confidence. Moreover, the budget being discussed was drafted by the previous government under former premier Saad Hariri, who resigned amid pressure from the street.

Shortly before noon, more than half the 128-member legislature was present, giving the needed quorum for the session to begin. Two main Christian parties boycotted the session. Others decided not to take part.

Diab attended the parliamentary session without any other member of his Cabinet. When pressed by members of Hariri’s bloc whether he will adopt the budget drafted by the former Cabinet, Diab said: “Had we not adopted the budget we wouldn’t have come today.”

“There is nothing normal in Lebanon today and the economic and financial complications make us work quickly,” Diab said.

In recent days, security forces set up concrete blast walls around Parliament and the nearby government headquarters, known as the Grand Serial, to keep protesters from reaching them.

Lebanon has one of the world’s highest public debts in the world, standing at more than 150% of gross domestic product. Growth has plummeted and the budget deficit reached 11% of GDP in 2018 as economic activities slowed and remittances from Lebanese living abroad shrank.

The national currency, which has been pegged to the dollar since 1997, lost about 60% of its value in recent weeks, raising alarms among many Lebanese who have been losing their purchasing power.

The former government had hoped to bring down the budget deficit to 7.6% of the GDP in the 2019 year and to 6.5% in 2020. With the financial crisis worsening since the protests began, it is appearing more difficult to bring down the deficit.

Legislator Salim Saadeh listed Lebanon’s financial and economic problems, ranging from the massive debt to the drop in the local currency.

“We are like someone drowning in mud but at the same time standing in front of a mirror and brushing his teeth,” Saadeh said.

 

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