191113 Lebanon
Protesters use objects to make noise at a demonstration following a broadcasted interview by Lebanese President Michel Aoun, during ongoing anti-government protests in Beirut, Lebanon November 12, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

Beirut: Banks and schools in Lebanon stayed closed on Tuesday as protesters tried to prevent employees from clocking in at state institutions, nearly a month into an anti-graft street movement.

Unprecedented protests erupted across Lebanon on October 17, demanding the departure of a generation of politicians seen by demonstrators as inefficient and corrupt.

President Michel Aoun, in a televised interview late Tuesday, defended the role in Lebanon’s government of his allies, the Shiite movement Hezbollah, prompting more street protests.

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The government stepped down on October 29 but stayed on in a caretaker capacity and no overt efforts have so far been made to form a new one.

Dozens of protesters gathered near the law courts in central Beirut on Tuesday morning, demanding an independent judiciary.

They tried to prevent judges and lawyers from going to work, as a demonstrator in a panda suit made an unusual addition to the protest.

In the town of Aley east of Beirut, in the southern city of Tyre, and the eastern town of Baalbek, demonstrators held sit-ins outside — or inside — the offices of the state telecommunications provider, local media reported.

Employees at the two main mobile operators, Alfa and Touch, started a nationwide strike.

Many schools and universities were closed, as were banks after their employees called for a general strike over alleged mistreatment by customers last week.

The union of banks said they were striving to ensure safe working conditions so employees could return to work as soon as possible.

Banks have restricted access to dollars since the start of the protests, sparking fears of a devaluation of the local currency and discontent among account holders.

The central bank, however, insisted Monday that the Lebanese pound would remain pegged to the dollar and said it had asked banks to lift restrictions on withdrawals.

Economic situation ‘critical’

Students, who have emerged as key players in the uprising, held fresh demonstrations.

The interview with Aoun was broadcast in the evening, after he met foreign ambassadors and the UN’s special coordinator for the country, Jan Kubis.

The UN envoy urged Lebanon to accelerate the formation of a new government that would be able “to appeal for support from Lebanon’s international partners”.

“The financial and economic situation is critical, and the government and other authorities cannot wait any longer to start addressing it,” he said.

The leaderless protest movement first erupted after a proposed tax on calls via free phone apps, but it has since morphed into an unprecedented cross-sectarian outcry against everything from perceived state corruption to rampant electricity cuts.

Demonstrators say they are fed up with the same families dominating government institutions since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

Protesters are demanding that a fresh cabinet include independent experts not affiliated to traditional political parties, but no date has yet been set for the required parliamentary consultations.

Aoun proposed a government that includes both technocrats and politicians.

“A technocratic government can’t set the policies of the country” and would not “represent the people”, he said in the interview on Lebanese television.

Asked if he was facing pressure from outside Lebanon not to include the Iran-backed Hezbollah in a new government, he did not deny it.

But, he said, “they can’t force me to get rid of a party that represents at least a third of Lebanese”, referring to the weight of the Shiite community.

The latest crisis in Lebanon comes at a time of high tensions between Iran and the United States, which has sanctioned Hezbollah members in Lebanon.

Immediately after Aoun’s speech, protesters responded by cutting off several major roads in Beirut, the northern city of Tripoli and the eastern region of Bekaa.

Forming a government typically takes months in Lebanon, with protracted debate on how best to maintain a fragile balance between religious communities.

The World Bank says around a third of Lebanese live in poverty, and has warned the country’s struggling economy could further deteriorate if a new cabinet is not formed rapidly.

In July, parliament passed an austerity budget as part of conditions to unlock $11 billion in aid pledged at a conference in Paris last year.

But with no real progress on reforms since, that financial aid has been held up.