After lull, Lebanese ramp up protests

Protesters return to the streets after a short period of relative calm, blocking key highways and targeting banks to press demands for sweeping political change.

BEIRUT - Lebanese protesters resumed blocking major highways on Tuesday in what they said would be a "week of wrath" demanding an end to a nearly three-month political vacuum.

Although protests had declined in size in recent weeks, demonstrations have been ongoing since October, increasingly targeting banks and state institutions blamed for driving the country towards collapse.

The protesters returned to the streets after that short period of relative calm, following the designation of Hassan Diab as prime minister in mid-December.

The lull was also partly due to the holidays followed by soaring regional tensions between the US and Iran that eclipsed protests in Lebanon and Iraq, where citizens are demanding sweeping political change.

The movement in Lebanon has been fuelled by a crippling economic crisis, the worst since the country's 1975-1990 civil war.

The unprecedented cross-sectarian protests led to the government stepping down in late October, but no new one has yet been formed as political parties argue over its composition.

As a liquidity crisis grows and the cost of living rises, protesters have returned to the streets to urge politicians to speed up the process.

On Tuesday morning, dozens of protesters blocked three main highways - leading to Beirut from the south, east and north - with overturned rubbish bins and burning tyres, bringing traffic to a standstill.

School and university students took part in some of the protests and hundreds marched down main highways, raising Lebanese flags and blasting rallying songs through loudspeakers.

Laila Youssef, 47, said she was taking part to call on politicians to wake up.

"We've gone back to closing down roads because we can't stand it anymore," the mother of three told AFP news agency.

"What we earn today is not enough to buy the basics for home," she said.

Lebanon is facing its worst economic crisis in decades, with the local currency plummeting before the dollar, losing over 60% of its value over the last weeks while sources of foreign currency have dried up.

Meanwhile, banks have imposed informal capital controls limiting withdrawal of dollars and foreign transfers in the country, which relies heavily on imports of basic goods.

Many Lebanese have lost their jobs or seen their salaries reduced by half in recent months.

There were demonstrations on Tuesday in the provinces too, including second city Tripoli and the southeastern town of Hasbayya, Lebanese television channels showed.

A protester in Tripoli said the situation had become "unbearable".

"Prices are exorbitant, yet still they're taking their sweet time" to form a new government, he told LBC television.

In December, new premier Diab was tasked with forming a government but the country's rival political parties have failed to agree on names put forward for the various ministries.

The protesters are demanding a new government made up solely of independent technocrats, but many fear this may be a tall order for a country ruled by a sectarian power-sharing system since the end of the civil war.

Speaking to foreign diplomats, President Michel Aoun said Tuesday that forming a government in these critical times requires “people who can earn the trust of the people and the parliament.”

Lately, protesters have focused their ire on banks, rallying at the premises or outside banks and demanding access to their deposits as institutions have introduced a cap on withdrawals.

In downtown Beirut, dozens rallied outside the Central Bank on Tuesday, chanting against the governor Riad Salameh - one of the protest movement's main villains - and his financial policies. Security forces separated the protesters from the bank's entrance.

Dozens of protesters have also taunted politicians who showed up in shopping malls or restaurants, sometimes chasing them out of public places and decrying their failure to address the economic crisis.