Lebanese government agrees to put reforms in action after protests
Updated: Oct 21, 2019, 02:09 PM(IST)
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri agreed on Sunday to introduce reforms with government partners to ease an economic crisis that has sparked protests aimed at ousting a ruling elite seen as riddled with corruption and cronyism.
The agreement was reached as hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded the streets for a fourth day in the biggest show of dissent against the establishment in decades.
A sea of people, some waving Lebanese flags, called for revolution in protests that resembled the 2011 Arab revolts that toppled four presidents.
Hariri finally takes charge
Hariri, who is leading a coalition government mired by sectarian and political rivalries, gave his feuding government partners a 72-hour deadline on Friday to agree reforms that could ward off crisis, hinting he may otherwise resign.
Hariri accused his rivals of obstructing his reform measures that could unlock $11 billion in Western donor pledges and help avert economic collapse.
Number of reforms in action
The reform decisions require a 50 per cent reduction in salaries of current and former ministers plus cuts in benefits to state institutions and officials. It also obliges the central bank and private banks to contribute $3.3 billion to achieve a "near zero deficit" for the 2020 budget.
It also includes a plan to privatise the telecommunications sector and an overhaul of the costly and crumbling electricity sector. Government sources said Hariri's cabinet would meet at midday on Monday at the presidential palace to approve the reform package.
Protests that became festivals
The anti-government protests, fuelled by crippling economic conditions and anger at perceived government corruption, have fanned out across the country since Thursday.
Cheerful, buoyant and hopeful their protests would bring change, people of all ages and religions played patriotic songs and danced in the streets, with some forming human chains and chanting for their leaders to be ousted. Festival-like scenes dominated the country from the capital Beirut to remote towns, with loudspeakers blaring music as crowds kept pouring into the streets.
End of corruption
Ending rampant corruption is a central demand of the protesters, who say the country's leaders have used their positions to enrich themselves for decades through favourable deals and kickbacks.
Many blamed the ruling elite for driving their children out of Lebanon because they failed to build a country that could provide jobs.
'Chorus of voices'
A chorus of voices, from union leaders to politicians, have joined popular calls for Hariri's government to resign. The Maronite Christian Lebanese Forces party has said its four ministers would withdraw from the government. But the approval of the reforms by Hariri's partners seem to have met his conditions and would most likely push him to stay the course.
Hard to form new cabinet
If Hariri, a Sunni Muslim who is traditionally backed by the West and Sunni Gulf Arab allies, resigns it would be harder for the various parties that make up the ruling coalition to form a new cabinet.
A new cabinet would also likely see Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies more in control, a shift that would make it nearly impossible for international donors or Gulf Arab countries at odds with Iran to offer aid or investments.
Dependent on foreign funding
Without a foreign funding boost, officials and economists predict a currency devaluation or a debt default within months.
The IMF said last week that Lebanon's crisis requires tough austerity measures such as tax hikes and levies on fuel, steps the country's politicians have publicly vowed not to take.
Lebanon's economy registered just 0.3 per cent growth last year.
WhatsApp tax? People say no!
The officials said the budget would not include additional taxes or fees after a decision last week to put a levy on WhatsApp calls triggered the unrest.
The reforms also called for establishing new regulatory and transparency bodies within a "short period" of time to oversee reform plans.