Beirut (AFP) – Lebanon’s prime minister on Tuesday announced he was submitting the resignation of his government, bowing to nearly two weeks of unprecedented nationwide protests.
Saad Hariri’s express and sombre televised address was met by cheers from crowds of protesters who have remained mobilised since October 17, crippling the country to press their demands.
“It has become necessary for us to make a great shock to fix the crisis. I am going to the Baabda Palace to give my resignation,” said Hariri, who had already resigned twice in the past from that same job.
He said his decision comes “in response to the will of many Lebanese who took to the streets to demand change” in protests he called “historic”.
Hariri’s move came after days of apparently unfruitful efforts to reshuffle posts among his uneasy coalition partners and also as tension mounted on the ground between protesters and security forces bent on re-opening the country for business.
A nationwide cross-sectarian protest movement has gripped Lebanon for almost two weeks, calling for an overhaul of a political class viewed as incompetent and corrupt.
Banks and schools have remained closed and the normally congested main arteries in Beirut blocked by protesters, despite the government’s adoption of an emergency economic rescue plan last week.
The unprecedented protest movement had been relatively incident-free, despite tensions with the armed forces and attempts by party loyalists to stage counter-demonstrations.
But on Tuesday, dozens of rioters descended on a rally site near the government headquarters, where they attacked protesters, torched tents, and tore down banners calling for “revolution”, said an AFP correspondent in the area.
– ‘Political orders’ –
They dismantled podiums and broke speakers as streams of people flooded out in panic.
An hour earlier, the same counter-demonstrators had gathered on a nearby road where they attacked peaceful protesters who were blocking the key artery, another AFP reporter said.
The counter-protesters chanted slogans hailing the leaders of two Shiite movements — Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and Amal head Nabih Berri — as they pushed roadblocks aside and provoked protesters.
Police intervened to contain the violence, sparking a series of scattered scuffles.
Demonstrators caught in the attack tried to jump over the rails of the highway while others ducked behind concrete blocks.
For nearly two weeks — the main protest square had been home to impromptu concerts in the evenings, with hundreds dancing deep into the night to music blasting from speakers.
After Tuesday’s attack, streets were strewn with litter, as people tried to salvage what they could from the torched remains of their tents.
“There are political orders to attack. This was not spontaneous,” said one demonstrator alluding to Amal and Hezbollah, neither of which were spared by protesters, including from their own base.
– Shell-shocked politicians –
Lebanon’s political leaders have appeared shell-shocked, trying simultaneously to express sympathy for the largely peaceful protest movement while warning of turmoil in the case of a power vacuum.
Nasrallah had warned of chaos if the government resigned but had also urged his supporters to refrain from staging counter-demonstrations.
The Iran-backed Hezbollah is the only movement not to have disarmed after Lebanon’s 15-year civil war.
Protesters have insisted on a complete overhaul of the country’s sectarian-based governance and celebrated the emergence of a national civic identity.
Tens of thousands of people joined hands across the country on Sunday, from Tripoli in the north, to Tyre in the south, to symbolise a newfound national unity.
Hariri last week announced a package of economic reforms which aims to revive an economy that has been on the brink of collapse for months.
While his coalition partners have supported the move, protesters have accused the political elite of desperately attempting to save their jobs and have stuck to their demands for deep, systemic change.