Beirut: Lebanese army troops scuffled with demonstrators on Wednesday as they struggled to unblock main roads, after economic reforms proposed by the government failed to stem a historic wave protests against the political elite.
Hundreds of thousands of people have flooded the streets for nearly a week, furious at a political class they accuse of pushing the economy to the point of collapse.
Banks were closed for a fifth working day. Schools remained shut. Many highways were impassable.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government announced an emergency reform package on Monday, to try to defuse the anger of protesters demanding the government resigns and also to steer the heavily indebted state away from a looming financial crisis.
A Reuters witness said scores of young men and women in Sidon, 45 km south of Beirut, had blocked the highway at an entrance of the city by sitting on the ground from the early hours.
After failing to persuade protesters to open the road, which leads to and from the capital, soldiers beat some of them and the Red Cross took the injured to hospital, the witness said.
That section of the highway reopened.
A security source said the army’s decision was still to refrain from using any force.
The army would try to convince protesters peacefully to open some roads, and most remained blocked across the country on Wednesday, the source said.
The demonstrations have been largely peaceful since Friday night when security forces clashed with some protesters in central Beirut.
People have been blocking highways as part of the protests which have united Lebanese from across the sectarian spectrum.
North of Beirut, local channels broadcast live from other parts of the highway, the main artery to the capital, showing protesters trying to resist the army’s efforts to clear a path.
Lebanon’s al-Jadeed TV, live from the Nahr al-Kalb region, some 35 km from Beirut, said army troops tried to force the road open. “Shame on you,” protesters shouted at them as they tried to pick up people off the ground.
In the capital Beirut, volunteers cleaned up the streets since the early morning, after a big protest the night before.
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai said on Wednesday that reform measures enacted to calm nationwide protests were a good “first step” but that a new cabinet was required to implement them.
In a televised speech Rai said he supported the protests and urged them to remain peaceful.
“The list of reforms is a positive first step but it requires amending the ministers and renewing the administrative team,” Lebanese broadcaster LBC quoted Rai as saying.