Lebanon on edge as protests persist, caretaker PM pleads for new government

·2-min read
Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab speaks at the government palace in Beirut

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Demonstrators blocked various roadways across Lebanon for the fifth day in a row on Saturday, and a heavy army presence filled parts of the capital as anger simmered over the country's economic downturn.

Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab threatened in a speech earlier in the day to stop performing his duties to pressure politicians to form a new government.

Groups of protesters have been burning tyres daily to block roads since the Lebanese currency tumbled to a new low on Tuesday, enraging a population long horrified by the country's financial meltdown.

On Saturday a small group of protesters in front of the banking association demanded access to their deposits, then walked to the parliament building in downtown Beirut to express their frustration. Around 50 demonstrators burnt tyres in Martyrs' Square in central Beirut.

Lebanon's financial crisis, which erupted in 2019, has wiped out jobs, raised warnings of growing hunger and locked people out of their bank deposits. A new cabinet could implement reforms needed to trigger billions of dollars of international aid.

The country has been rudderless since August when Diab's cabinet resigned on the back of the Beirut port explosion that devastated swathes of the capital.

Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri was nominated in October but has failed to form a new cabinet due to the political deadlock between him and President Michel Aoun.

"If seclusion helps with cabinet formation then I am ready to resort to it, although it goes against my convictions for it disrupts the entire state and is detrimental to the Lebanese," Diab said in a televised speech.

The collapse of the Lebanese pound, to 10,000 to the dollar on Tuesday, was the last straw for many who have seen prices of consumer goods such as diapers and cereals nearly triple since the financial crisis erupted.

"Doesn't the scramble for milk constitute a sufficient incentive to transcend formalities and roughen out the edges in order to form a government?" Diab said, referring to a recent Beirut supermarket incident in which shoppers fought over powdered milk.

A video of the squabble went viral on social media, underscoring the desperate state of the economy.

"Social conditions are aggravating, financial conditions are putting a severe strain on the country, political conditions are increasingly complex," Diab added in his speech.

"The country is confronted with enormous challenges that a normal government cannot face without political consensus so how can a caretaker government face these challenges?"

(Reporting by Maha El Dahan, Laila Bassam and Beirut bureau; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Pravin Char and Richard Chang)