Lebanese go back to blocking roads, demand sweeping change

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese protesters went back to blocking roads and thousands packed into public squares on Thursday, insisting their revolution was far from over despite the resignation of the prime minister earlier this week.

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Banks, schools and many businesses have been shuttered since mass protests erupted Oct. 17. The protests were ignited by a proposed tax on the WhatsApp messenger service but rapidly escalated into calls for the overthrow of the government and sweeping political change.

Some schools reopened on Thursday, and banks were set to reopen Friday, amid concerns the severe fiscal crisis that gave rise to the protests could worsen.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned Tuesday, handing the demonstrators their first victory but plunging the country into even greater uncertainty. It typically takes weeks or even months to form a government.

"They are trying to divide the street, but the street has one clear demand: We want to breathe clean air and stop the theft," said Rania, a protester in Beirut who declined to give her last name for security reasons.

President Michel Aoun, one of the main targets of the protesters' anger, gave a speech late Thursday in which he said the country was at a "dangerous crossroads." He called on the next government to "fulfill the ambitions of the Lebanese" and to "achieve what the previous government did not, by restoring the people's confidence in the state."

But he did not offer any concrete proposals or make any concessions to the protesters, who went back to chanting and playing protest songs after the speech ended.

Earlier on Thursday, France had called on Lebanon to "quickly" form a new government.

"Everything must be done to avoid provocations and violence and preserve the citizens' right to demonstrate peacefully," Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement. "It is crucial for Lebanon's future that a new government is quickly formed that is able to lead reforms the country needs."

France, Lebanon's former colonial ruler, has close ties to Hariri and other Lebanese leaders.

The protesters stood down Wednesday as the army cleared most major thoroughfares, but they packed public squares that night and returned to the streets on Thursday, blocking roads in parts of Beirut.

Walid Rihani, a university professor, said the protesters want a government of technocrats and early parliamentary elections.

"We are back on the streets to remind (them) that the formation of a new government should not take more than 48 hours," he said.

The protesters have been sitting or lying in the roads, forcing security forces to drag them away by their arms and legs. In some places, security forces have removed piles of burning tires, concrete blocks and other physical roadblocks. There have been scuffles but no reports of serious clashes or injuries.

On Tuesday, hundreds of supporters of the militant Hezbollah group and the allied Shiite Amal party rampaged through the main protest camp, smashing chairs and setting fire to tents. Security forces dispersed them with tear gas and the protesters returned a couple hours later, repairing the tents and resuming their sit-in.

The government is dominated by allies of the Iran-backed Hezbollah, which has accused unnamed foreign powers of exploiting the protests to undermine it.

A senior member of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc criticized Hariri's resignation, saying it would "contribute to wasting the time available to implement reforms," complicating efforts to resolve the crisis.

Ali Mekdad said security forces must protect people's right to express themselves as well as "their right to move freely in all areas of the country."

He said the bloc condemns "American interventions in the affairs of countries of this region" and accused the U.S. of manipulating people to undermine their national unity.

The protesters have called for the overthrow of the narrow political class that has ruled Lebanon since its 1975-1990 civil war, and which includes several former warlords and their relatives. The sectarian power-sharing arrangement that ended the war gave birth to political machines that have drained the treasury and eroded public services.

Three decades after the end of the war, Lebanon still experiences frequent power outages, the water supply is unreliable and trash often goes uncollected. The country is meanwhile $86 billion in debt, accounting for a staggering 150% of its GDP.

Rania, the protester, said the demonstrators are determined to stay in the streets as long as it takes.

"We don't want what happened in 14 days to go to the dust bin," she said. "That is why we are here, to keep the pressure on the government, and we will stay here. We won't leave until you leave."

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Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb and Bassam Hatoum in Beirut, and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.