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Thu 31 Oct 2019 08:18 AM

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Lebanon protesters keep up demands for change after PM resigns

President Michel Aoun acknowledged Saad Hariri's resignation as prime minister but asked his government to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet is formed

Lebanon protesters keep up demands for change after PM resigns

The Lebanese government's resignation under pressure from the street looked set to ease a two-week-old nationwide lockdown but protesters vowed Wednesday to keep pushing for deeper change.

President Michel Aoun acknowledged Saad Hariri's resignation as prime minister on Tuesday but asked his government to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new cabinet is formed.

But there was no clear way out of the political crisis that has drawn warnings from Lebanon's foreign partners.

On Wednesday morning, security forces reopened most roads that had remained mostly blocked by protesters since a proposed tax on calls via messaging apps sparked a wave of demonstrations on October 17.

But as the day drew to a close, demonstrators across the country blocked roads again, including a key artery in the capital Beirut, where dozens of protesters regrouped in the evening.

In north Lebanon, the army fired tear gas to disperse protesters blocking a road near the city of Akkar, the state-run National News Agency reported.

Hundreds streamed into a protest square in the nearby city of Tripoli, demanding the resignation of the rest of the political class.

In the southern city of Sidon, three people were injured in scuffles between the army and demonstrators, NNA said.

Protest life

The unprecedented mobilisation has swelled into a popular drive to remove a political elite which has remained largely unchanged since the end of the civil war three decades ago.

Euphoric protesters experiencing a rare moment of national unity have pilloried politicians of all parties, calling for better public services, an end to rampant corruption and a complete overhaul of Lebanon's sectarian-based politics.

When a sombre Hariri appeared on television to announce his resignation, crowds erupted into celebrations across the country but warned that the government's fall was only one of their demands.

Hariri's resignation came after counter-demonstrators loyal to some of his political rivals attacked the main protest site in the capital's Martyr's Square.

They destroyed tents and marquees and the rest of the temporary infrastructure that turned downtown Beirut into a huge encampment -- hosting protests and political meetings by day, concerts and parties by night.

Well-organised protesters, however, swiftly cleaned up and returned to the site, occupying the main flyover again on Wednesday evening.

Roadblock debate

Having won the government's resignation, protesters were divided over the decision to remove roadblocks, which they see as one of the few sources of leverage for their leaderless and spontaneous movement.

"The resignation is not enough to get us off the streets," said Charbel, a 26-year-old draped in a Lebanese flag, who was still protesting in central Beirut on Wednesday.

"We need to keep up the pressure, but we should not keep the roads closed because now it's bothering even the people who were supporting the movement," he said.

The education ministry called on schools and universities to resume classes on Thursday morning, and banks were set to open again the following day.

The resignation announced by Hariri came after the failure of days of consultations with his fractious cabinet to agree on a reshuffle and meet some of the protesters' demands for a technocratic government.

Early in the protests, Hariri had hinted that resigning was an option but his rivals in the government coalition, including Aoun's party and its allies from the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, had warned a political vacuum could lead to chaos.

Hariri's suggestions were rejected by Aoun, whose son-in-law Gebran Bassil is the outgoing foreign minister and one of the most reviled figures for the protesters.

What's next?

Forming a government in Lebanon can typically take months, with every sectarian and party leader seeking to protect their own communal interests.

"There is no time for any of the old games," Heiko Wimmen, Lebanon project director at the International Crisis Group think-tank, told AFP.

"The pressure of the street and, perhaps even more so, the fear of economic collapse will dictate an accelerated government formation," he said.

The 49-year-old Hariri, who had already stepped down twice as prime minister in 10 years, could yet return as the head of the next government.

"Hariri throws it all away to better negotiate his return," wrote the French-language newspaper L'Orient-Le Jour.

Hariri announced a much-delayed reform package last week in a bid to address some of the protesters' demands and the requirements for a huge foreign assistance programme to be unlocked.

Some protesters want fresh elections to be organised, a move that would further delay the implementation of those reforms.